Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440
Patricia Highsmith 1921–1995
(Born Patricia Plangman; also wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan) American-born novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Highsmith's career. See also Patricia Highsmith Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 4, 14.
An American-born author who resided in Europe...
(The entire section contains 51442 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Patricia Highsmith 1921–1995
(Born Patricia Plangman; also wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan) American-born novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Highsmith's career. See also Patricia Highsmith Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 4, 14.
An American-born author who resided in Europe for most of her adult years, Highsmith is best known for her suspense novels, which challenge many of the conventional precepts of the genre. Highsmith avoided gimmicks and formulaic plots and concentrated on developing the motivations behind criminal behavior rather than apprehending the villain. The presence or absence of guilt for one's actions dominates Highsmith's fiction, and often the innocent characters suffer more than the guilty. Highsmith also frequently employed such dualistic pairings as the weak with the strong, and the sane with the insane to examine such themes as violence, morality, and self-delusion. Although Highsmith wrote numerous novels and short stories, she is most highly regarded for her novels that feature the character Tom Ripley, a charming, intelligent, and sophisticated murderer who is never brought to justice.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas. Her parents separated before she was born, and she was raised by her grandparents, who taught her to read when she was two years old. Highsmith joined her mother and stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, in Greenwich Village, New York, when she was six; she has stated that she had an unhappy childhood and youth and that she was not close to her mother. She attended Julia Richman High School, where she was the editor of the school newspaper and read books by such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. After earning a B.A. from Barnard College in 1942, Highsmith published her first short story, "The Heroine," in Harper's Bazaar in 1945. She had originally submitted the story to the Barnard College magazine, but it was rejected as "too unpleasant." In 1950, Highsmith published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was an instant success. From 1963 to her death in 1995, Highsmith lived in Europe, mainly in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland. A victim of leukemia, she died in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1995.
Strangers on a Train sets the tone for Highsmith's subsequent work. In this novel, Highsmith pairs two men, Bruno and Guy, who, although opposites in many ways, are drawn together into a web of murder and betrayal. The men agree to kill each other's most-hated person—Bruno is to murder Guy's wife, and Guy, Bruno's father—so no one will be able to link them to the murders. This focus on the relationship between two men is common in Highsmith's fiction and is a means by which she explored the nature of good and evil and created psychological tension. The Blunderer (1954) also centers on two men. The protagonist, Walter Stackhouse, attempts to copy a murder committed by Melchior Kimmel, resulting in Stackhouse's own death and the capture of Kimmel. The Two Faces of January (1964) features a young man, Rydal Kenner, who is compelled to pursue a petty criminal, Chester McFarland, because he resembles his dead father. In The Story-Teller (1965), Sidney Bartleby, a writer, is falsely accused of murdering his unfaithful wife after he records his fantasies of killing her. Bartleby's writing partner, Alex, attempts to blackmail Bartleby and eventually turns him in to the police. Highsmith also frequently paired Tom Ripley with another character in her Ripley novels. In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first work in her Ripley series, Highsmith introduces Ripley as an American living in Europe. In this book, Ripley befriends and later murders Dickie Greenleaf, an American heir to a business fortune, and assumes his identity. After forging a will that makes him the beneficiary of Greenleaf's estate, Ripley resumes his own identity and enters Europe's high society. Found in the Street (1986) centers on two men living in Greenwich Village. When Jack Sutherland, a happily married book illustrator, drops his wallet on the street, it is later found and returned by Ralph Linderman, a lonely older man who occupies his time walking his dog. After Linderman returns the wallet, both men become obsessed with Elsie Tyler, a beautiful young woman who is temporarily working as a waitress at a local coffee shop. Eventually Linderman comes to believe that Sutherland has sinister intentions toward the woman and begins harassing the younger man with threatening phone calls and letters. In her later novels, Highsmith began to address contemporary social issues. A Dog's Ransom (1972) comments on urban America and ineffectual law enforcement agencies; Edith's Diary (1977) explores the methods by which society forces women into subservient roles; and People Who Knock on the Door (1983) focuses on fundamentalist Christianity and its influence on an ordinary American family. Highsmith, who some have speculated was a lesbian, also wrote novels that focus on homosexual relationships and issues. The Price of Salt (1952), which was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and later reprinted as Carol under the name Highsmith, features two women who become involved in a lesbian affair after meeting at a department store. Highsmith's last novel. Small g (1995), is set in a nightclub in Zurich. The code "small g" is used in guidebooks to indicate "partly gay," and the work centers on the murder of an HIV-positive gay man, Rickie. Highsmith also published several short story collections, including Little Tales of Misogyny (1974), The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975), The Black House (1981), and Mermaids on the Gulf Course (1985). Some of her better known works of short fiction include "The Heroine." "The Terrapin," and "Not One of Us." "The Heroine" centers on a young woman named Lucille Smith, who is determined to be successful and content after experiencing an unhappy upbringing. After securing a job as a nursemaid in a household with two children, however, she sets the house on fire. "The Terrapin" concerns a lonely boy, Victor, whose mother dresses him in children's clothes. Alienated from his peers, he grows increasingly hysterical until he stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive. "Not One of Us" depicts a circle of friends that tries to drive a young man to suicide. Highsmith is also the author of Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), which offers an analysis of her own works as well as a description of her approach to writing novels. Many of Highsmith's novels have been adapted for film, most notably Strangers on a Train, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Although critical reaction to Highsmith's works has been generally positive in the United States, she has gained more critical and popular attention in Europe, where she has not been so readily categorized as a mystery writer. Reviewers have consistently praised her focus on psychological concerns, her rejection of contrived and predictable endings, and her ability to convey emotion, mood, and atmosphere. Most critics, however, have reserved their highest praise for Highsmith's depiction of Tom Ripley. A reviewer in Armchair Detective, for example, stated: "For the successful creation of fiction as powerfully attractive as the Ripley novels are, Patricia Highsmith deservedly has earned her place as a crime writer of exceptional achievement." Highsmith's first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, won the 1957 Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Although reaction to Highsmith's work is often laudatory, some have faulted what they consider her detached, matter-of-fact depiction of crime and her negative portrayal of women. Numerous reviewers have noted that female characters in Highsmith's works are often secondary, but some have faulted her short fiction in particular for focusing on brutalized women. The stories in Little Tales of Misogyny, for example, have been dismissed by some reviewers as blatantly antifeminist. Others have contended that the stories were intended to satirize present-day attitudes toward women. In general, Highsmith's novels have been more positively received than her short stories, with some reviewers asserting that her short fiction lacks sympathy and is overly satirical and ironic. Despite such criticisms, Highsmith's work as a whole has generated praise for its ability to create a sense of unrest in the reader and for expanding and challenging conventional notions of crime and mystery fiction. Author and critic Graham Greene, for example, observed that "[Highsmith] has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half-turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are about to experience." Another critic, Marcia Froelke Coburn, asserted that Highsmith's "work is an inversion of the hard-boiled [mystery] style, an act of turning it upside down and shaking all the hidden fears and neuroses out of it."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241
Strangers on a Train (novel) 1950
∗The Price of Salt [under pseudonym Claire Morgan] (novel) 1952
†The Blunderer (novel) 1954
The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel) 1955
Deep Water (novel) 1957
A Game for the Living (novel) 1958
Miranda the Panda is on the Veranda (juvenilia) 1958
This Sweet Sickness (novel) 1960
The Cry of the Owl (novel) 1962
The Glass Cell (novel) 1964
The Two Faces of January (novel) 1964
‡The Story-Teller (novel) 1965
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (nonfiction) 1966
Those Who Walk Away (novel) 1967
The Tremor of Forgery (novel) 1969
Ripley under Ground (novel) 1970
§The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
A Dog's Ransom (novel) 1972
Kleine geschichten für weiberfeinde [Little Tales of Misogyny] (short stories) 1974
Ripley's Game (novel) 1974
The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (short stories) 1975
Edith's Diary (novel) 1977
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (short stories) 1979
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (novel) 1980
The Black House (short stories) 1981
People Who Knock on the Door (novel) 1983
Mermaids on the Gulf Course and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
§§The Mysterious Mr. Ripley (novels) 1985
Found in the Street (novel) 1986
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (short stories) 1987
Ripley under Water (novel) 1992
Small g: A Summer Idyll (novel) 1995
∗This title was reprinted in 1984 as Carol under the name Patricia Highsmith with a new afterword by the author.
†This work was published as Lament for a Lover in 1956.
‡This title was also published as A Suspension of Mercy in 1965.
§This work was published as Eleven in 1970.
§§This work contains The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley under Ground, and Ripley's Game.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5503
SOURCE: An interview with Patricia Highsmith, in Armchair Detective, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1981, pp. 313-20.
[In the following interview, which was conducted on August 19, 1980, in Moncourt, France, Highsmith discusses such subjects as the philosophy of criminology, her portrayal of female characters, and critical response to her works.]
[Cooper-Clark:] I recently read, and you can clarify or correct me, that you are not enamoured of the human race. Is that accurate?
[Highsmith:] Not really. I often talk with a sociologist friend, and her opinion is that most people are quite ordinary, that universal education hasn't brought the happiness and beauty that people had hoped. I think human beings are very interesting, however. It is like talking about "a better life." Not everybody wants it, not everybody likes aesthetic things. Why should they? It is a matter of taste. It is one thing to make millions of people literate, to enact labor laws that provide leisure. The individual then decides how he spends that leisure time.
This particular reporter was from the Observer, and the slant of the article was that you were misanthropic.
That isn't true. But like many writers, I like solitude. I have had two rather bad interviews with Observer people who shall be nameless. In fact, I don't even remember their names. I remember distinctly that I had a nice lunch, but it was a silly interview. Lots of my friends saw it and said it really wasn't like me. I didn't even keep it in my scrapbook.
You have said: "I like to entertain and to stimulate in an emotional way." Is emotion diametrically opposed to intellect, or are they part of the same thing for you?
It could be part of the same thing, but I know that I write to tell an entertaining story, and that I am not trying to make a point. I am not trying to be an intellectual.
So you really have no particular philosophy of criminology or murder as some people do who write?
No. I think unfortunately that most criminals, in fact, the vast majority of the people who are in jail, have not got a very high IQ. Therefore, they don't interest me very much.
So you don't agree with George Bernard Shaw's idea that the artist is very close to the criminal? Colin Wilson also picks that up.
I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don't for this reason understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand.
In A Casebook of Murder, Colin Wilson wrote that he regarded murder as a response to certain problems of human freedom: not as a social problem, nor a psychological problem, nor even a moral problem, but as an existential problem. Is that what you meant before when you said that you really are writing to entertain, rather than for a didactic purpose?
Yes, I still stand by what I said. I would much rather be an entertainer than a moralizer, but to call murder not a social problem I think is ridiculous; it certainly is a social problem. The word existentialist has become fuzzy. It's existentialist if you cut a finger with a kitchen knife—because it has happened. Existentialism is self-indulgent, and they try to gloss over this by calling it a philosophy.
In Ritual in the Dark and some of his earlier novels, Wilson is exploring the idea of the criminal, the murderer who is trying to move away from the boredom of life, searching for the meaning of life, going beyond the taboos of society. I think it is in this sense that he means freedom. He finally comes to the conclusion that murder really is a perversion of freedom, but he is still sympathetic to it as an attempt for freedom.
Yes, Dostoyevski was toying with this idea too. It is extremely interesting if one writes a story about that, but I wouldn't want to imagine a world in which everybody tried this.
Would you associate Bruno in Strangers on a Train with some of these notions? He often speaks on this subject.
Yes, but he is also a psychopath. He is really mentally sick, and either doesn't realize or doesn't care about the consequences of these ideas if he carries out all these projects; he is without a conscience and without any understanding of what he is talking about. He is simply not right in the head.
Often the criminal is the hero in your novels. Is this because, for a while at least, this particular person is not bound by society?
Yes, in fact I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don't. If somebody kills somebody, they are breaking the law, or else they are in a fit of temper. While I can't recommend it, it is an awful truth to say that for a moment they are free, yes. And I wrote that in a moment of impatience, I remember distinctly. I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them and it is even sick to try. I get impatient with that, and so I made a rather hasty statement that at least for a short period of time the criminal is free.
And many people picked that up.
Yes. Julian Symons has quoted it, and he said the equivalent of what I said, which was neither the law nor nature cares about real justice. I mean frequently in court the guilty person goes free, either through mistakes or a crooked court which is quite possible. In nature it is the survival of the fittest. You cannot call that justice, you just call it a scheme of nature, a jungle.
Many contemporary novels, those of Colin Wilson, James Dickey's Deliverance, Walker Percy's Lancelot, Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, Graham Greene's A Sort of Life, to name a few, explore the idea that human beings murder and seek violence in a search for meaning, as a relief from ennui, as a challenge to society in order to find the potential in themselves. Although Bruno is a psychopath, these ideas are touched upon in Strangers on a Train. Is it ever justifiable to convert murder into a philosophical and aesthetic experience?
I simply don't agree with it. Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn't to say that it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.
I think that is important. Critics just don't pick up on that aversion to murder in your work. They seem to want to create categories of responses. Do they ever say anything that you consider accurate?
In regard to murder I can't think of anything. Just now, I am going over the past two years of reviews. I have neglected them for two or three books, and I'm interested in the negative things. The new book out, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, is an interesting case. By the way, Ripley very much resembles Bruno psychologically because Ripley has done about eight murders by now, of which the first was the most important to him. I mean, he thinks back on the first murder and he feels shame. In the later murders he is killing people who—except for one honest man who is about to spill some beans, Murchison—are evil themselves. But he is also singularly lacking in normal conscience. So naturally the critics are going to pick up the similarity or they will make the remark about Ripley that he has no conscience. That is true. But, on the other hand, this is not true in a book like The Blunderer, in which the man gets to the brink of killing his wife, when she takes the bus trip, and can't bring himself to do it, only to have the wife throw herself over the cliff. Mostly my heroes are rather like Walter in The Blunderer, I think, by which I mean that whether they kill somebody or whether they don't, murder is not a casual thing to them, it is of great importance, it is a very serious crime.
This is exactly what I find interesting, because it is so much at odds with what other people seem to glean from your books. I think that if someone reads all of your work, he or she should see what you are saying. Perhaps part of the problem with reviewing is that many of the reviewers have not read a large quantity of your work. If you read only one of your books, I think it is easy to pick out certain striking features that are quite antithetical to what you are doing on the whole.
Yes, I can hardly blame them now because I have about twenty books.
It is a large undertaking, but a fascinating one. I have read many of the reviews of your latest book, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and they do seem to stress the negativity. To go back to what you were saying about guilt, you have previously said: "I suppose the reason I write about crime is simply that it is very good for illustrating moral points of life. I am really interested in the behavior of people surrounding someone who has done something wrong, and also whether the person who has done it feels guilty about it, or just, 'so what'." Very often the people in your novels around the killer think that he is mad or close to madness, and very often he is: David in This Sweet Sickness, Syd in Suspension of Mercy (in Britain, The Story-Teller in the United States), Robert in The Cry of the Owl, Vic in Deep Water. What interests you about this particular reaction?
I suppose in the case of Vic it makes the story much more alive. One can identify with a so-called normal person who is looking at Vic and suspecting, because anybody can identify with a person who has a suspicion, you see, in fact more easily than they can identify with Vic. It is just like a "background" in writing, a necessary element or a very useful element.
Freud and Jung both felt that murder can exact its own punishment in that the murderer feels tremendous guilt and punishes himself. In Strangers on a Train, Guy says that "every man is his own law court and punishes himself enough." Guy certainly is tortured by guilt, but several of your characters do not feel guilt: Philip Carter in The Glass Cell, Victor Van Allen in Deep Water, Tom Ripley. Do you find the effect of non-guilt just as interesting as guilt in a murderer?
Yes, I do.
Ripley as I said before is a little bit sick in the head in this respect of having very little conscience. Vic is becoming deranged in the book, he is a bit schizophrenic at the end. I try to explore as much as I can the part of themselves that these murderers are keeping secret from the public and even their wives. I try to tell how they deal with what they have done.
Philip was changed in prison when he saw the riot and his best friend Max was killed. He became hardened, you might say, and detests the man he kills at the end.
In what way does amorality interest you in a character like Tom Ripley?
I suppose I find it an interesting contrast to stereotyped morality which is very frequently hypocritical and phony. I also think that to mock lip-service morality and to have a character amoral, such as Ripley, is entertaining. I think people are entertained by reading such stories. The murderers that one reads about in the newspaper half the time are mentally deficient in some way, or simply callous. There are young boys, for instance, who pretend to be delivering, or who may help an old lady carrying her groceries home, and then hit her on the head when she invites them in for tea, and rob her. These are forever stupid people, but they exist. Many murderers are like that, and they don't interest me enough to write a book about them. Somebody like Ripley however, who is reasonably intelligent and still has this amoral quality, interests me. I couldn't make an interesting story out of some morons.
It seems to be a sine qua non of crime fiction that order is restored and good triumphs over evil, but sometimes your murderers do get away with murder; again, Philip Carter and Tom Ripley.
This is the way life is, and I read somewhere years ago that only 11% of murders are solved. That is unfortunate, but lots of victims are not so important as the President of the United States. The police make a certain effort, and it may be a good effort, but frequently the case is dropped. And so I think, why shouldn't I write about a few characters who also go free?
You have often been accused of carrying your identification with your psychotic characters to the point where you actually seem to be preferring their interesting evil to the mediocre virtue of their victims. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes. I think it is more interesting to talk about something off the beaten track than it is to talk about a so-called normal person. That's one answer to your question. Another might be, that in some of my books the victims are evil or boring individuals, so the murderer is more important than they. This is a writer's remark, not a legal judge's.
Is this why you might perhaps find amorality more interesting than immorality, because it is more unusual?
Yes. I suppose it is such a subtle question because it is such a subtle difference. Amorality such as Ripley's is rarer than immorality. People in the Mafia, or pimps, people in any kind of wretched occupation, know that they and their work are strictly in the gutter, that their activities are disgusting, and they don't care as long as it puts a little money in their pockets. This is immoral, but the Ripley type is amoral.
In The Tremor of Forgery, the hero is both detective and suspect, accused and accuser. He is faced with the question of whether or not he must recognize the violence within himself. Conventional values and ethics seem lost in Tunisia and he is faced in his own life by the novel's statement: "Whether a person makes his own personality and standards from within himself, or whether he and the standards are the creations of the society around him." Which do you think come first?
I am quite sure that the standards of morality come from the society around; a child within the jungle is not going to invent his own sense of right and wrong. In Forgery, he leaves America and comes to a place where murder is taken a little more lightly.
Your exploration of the criminal mind is ever-fascinating. There have been so many conflicting insights about the criminal mind: murderers are innately evil; Lombroso believed that criminality was a trait inherited from degenerate ancestors; sociologists maintain that criminals are victims of urbanization, family disintegration, poor schooling, unemployment, mental illness; and a recent study by Yachelson and Samenow stated that there is a criminal personality. Where do you believe the ability to murder comes from?
I happen to believe more in heredity than I do in environment. There is certainly such a thing as a no-good family. Families always have a history, and I have heard of families where the grandfather was an old crook, never quite in jail. Within one household, one can find sometimes an atmosphere of flaunting the law to a greater or lesser degree.
Do you believe in the "bad seed" theory?
Yes, I think there is something in that; it doesn't mean the individual would always turn out badly, but as I said, I do believe in heredity more than environment. The phrase "poor schools" makes me laugh. I went to several. What counts is individual motivation. Ambition and drive count.
Do you think it is a mistake to try to reduce the original impulse to murder to one thing or another?
An impulse to murder is surely based on anger. Premeditated murder is different. I think of the two young Australian girls. One was eleven and one was thirteen, and they murdered the mother of one of them on a garden path I believe, for no reason. They just got together and said, "Let's do it." That comes under mental derangement, and as I am not a psychologist, I can't make any intelligent statement about that, except that any court would probably say that the girl who was the leader of the two, was mentally deranged. Where does that get you? It's just a term. But there was something wrong with her brain, even though she was only about thirteen. There is something wrong with anybody who is so inhuman as to kill the mother of a friend.
In P. D. James's novel Death of An Expert Witness, the murderer states that a murderer sets himself aside from the whole of humanity forever. It's a kind of death. Do you believe that murder is a kind of death for the murderer?
It certainly would be for me, but I don't know if many murderers take it that seriously. I had two dreams in my life in which I had committed a murder, and only in one could I identify a certain person whom I disliked years ago. But in each dream I was very disturbed by the fact that I was ostracized from society, or at least I felt that I was. In the dream, if I went to a store to buy a newspaper, I felt that people were looking at me and saying, "there goes a murderer." It was a truly dreadful feeling, but I think the world is also full of people walking around the streets in Chicago and Marseilles who have killed somebody and they sleep quite well.
In Strangers on a Train, Bruno tells Guy that "any person can murder." Do you think that is true?
No, I don't. Maybe I thought it was when I wrote it, but at any rate it comes out of Bruno's mouth. I don't believe that at all. I don't believe that everybody can be coerced into murder. In war, yes, I guess it is different. But I don't think everyone can murder, not even for money. It is all relative, because if you were to go to some primitive place, the Far East or Africa, and offered a fantastic sum to some humble person to kill somebody he doesn't know, then you or your paid agent could do it. You could find maybe the same thing in America if you looked hard, but I think I have to ask myself what kind of people am I talking about; the poor, the middle-class, or people like you and myself. I don't think you could be coerced, you couldn't be persuaded, I dare say you would not be able to kill somebody even for a considerable amount of money or whatever else.
What if we eliminate the question of punishment, jail, so that one would not weigh the consequences against the act? Many people think that it is the spectre of jail and punishment that prevents people from committing acts of violence.
Again one has to ask what intellectual level of person is one talking about. Of course, the more primitive the person is, if you eliminate the punishment, then the more likely the person can kill somebody for money. But I mostly write about middle-class people, and they would have too much awareness of what they had done, just as I had in the dream. It is the awareness of it that is the torture rather than being put into jail. Koestler spent some time campaigning against hanging in England, and with success, because he proved that capital punishment is not a deterrent, but insignificant. Yet its advocates are again trying to call it a deterrent. It's revenge they want, and that's as barbaric as the Old Testament.
I agree. Graham Greene, in his introduction to Eleven, wrote that you create a claustrophobic world which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger. Do you see danger everywhere in life as in your writing?
No. I am inclined to be naive in my personal dealings, and I am not inclined to lock the door and have padlocks everywhere. I don't know what Graham Greene means, but in my short story, "The Terrapin," about the little boy with the tortoise, the story is seen through his eyes. I don't know why it is so claustrophobic any more than any story, considering that a short story has to be intense, and is usually seen through the eyes of one person. You are within the little boy's atmosphere. I don't know why that is claustrophobic.
Just to continue with that, danger can also lurk under the rules and regulations of society. Vic, in Deep Water, feels that "people who do not behave in an orthodox manner are by definition frightening." This juxtaposition of the ordinary and the respectable with violence, creates a chilling atmosphere in your books because we are dealing with people who are middle-class, who are respectable. Do you purposely create that kind of atmosphere because you know it is all the more frightening?
No, it is because it is the atmosphere that I know, because it is my own class more-or-less, a very ordinary American. My family was neither rich nor poor, and I couldn't write about peasants. In New York once, when I was a teenager, I tried to write a short short about an Italian family because I went to school with many many Italians. I found I couldn't do it because I had never lived in their households with ten or eleven people sitting at the dining room table. I never finished the story. In other words, I have to write, any writer has to write, about the class of people that he knows. Therefore the contrast between class respectability and murderous thoughts is bound to turn up in most of my books.
You often return to the theme of a pathological conflict between two men, in Strangers on a Train, Deep Water, The Blunderer, The Glass Cell, The Cry of the Owl and others.
The ideas come to me in that way. The idea for Strangers on a Train came as an idea for an exchange of murders. For the exchange, one needs two men, two people.
You don't really explore that conflict with women though.
No, the only female protagonist I suppose in my novels is Edith in Edith's Diary. But I have a lot of short stories that have women protagonists.
Are you more interested in the conflict between men as opposed to conflict between women?
No, perhaps I find men more violent by nature than women, or more able to use physical strength, but that is obvious. In the American schools, at least in my generation, around fourteen years of age, they separated the boys from the girls in the Junior High School. It wasn't to keep the birth rate down at all, it was because the boys were difficult to handle, they were disobedient and the teacher would have to slap them in the face in those days and pull their ears. It was much more fun when I was going to school with boys before the age of fourteen, because they have a sense of humor, much better than that of the girls, I must say, and it was amusing. And suddenly from fourteen to seventeen there was a bunch of girls before university learning things by rote. Pretty boring. Young women these days are less passive, thank goodness, but they've still a long way to go.
In a time when people are interested in the portrayal of women in literature, I found your book Little Tales of Misogyny really quite unique.
That was like a book of jokes.
Yes, but I find that in a number of your novels the women seem despicable in trivial ways. They are often cheats, Melinda in Deep Water, Hazel in The Glass Cell, Alicia in Suspension of Mercy, Miriam in Strangers on a Train. And the women are totally unsympathetic in Little Tales of Misogyny.
I must say that it certainly looks like that, but actually I have quite an esteem for women's strength. I think the women portrayed in my writing have rather bad characters, but I don't think that personally. I think that women can be quite strong. I can remember my grandmother who was the head of the household in a very pleasant way when I was a kid, and my own mother's character was stronger than my stepfather's. Unfortunately in Strangers on a Train, Miriam, the wife, happened to be a silly high school girl. The early marriage of Guy and Miriam was based, you might say, on falling in love around high school age. This was a mistake for Guy, and so the girl Miriam is the type who would flirt and make another stupid liaison of some kind. And then Melinda, who was Vic's wife, was always flirting and having two or three lovers. I simply needed that for the story because it gives Vic a motivation for murder. Unfortunately, the whole picture looks as if I suspect that women have narrow characters, which is not really true. It is not my personal feeling at all.
Julian Symons has pointed out that you are drawn to the attraction exerted on the weak by the idea of violence, such as in The Two Faces of January and Those Who Walk Away.
Well, I don't plan these things. When I start to write anything, I think of the story first. I think of the events. Is it interesting or is it amusing or is it unexpected or is it almost unbelievable? That comes first, rather than thinking one character is weak and one character is strong.
Critics often discuss your obsessions and fixations, and the one they usually mention is paranoia. Clearly from what you have said, you don't believe that you particularly have obsessions and fixations in your own life.
Well, maybe there is a bit of paranoia in David in This Sweet Sickness, but I don't find it in The Tremor of Forgery. Vic, in Deep Water, is just the opposite of paranoid; he is quite sure of himself. He kills one man, then the second man, and he thinks he is completely in the clear. As for myself, I don't think I'm paranoid, but as I said before, rather trusting and optimistic about personal and business relationships.
Maurice Richardson has said that you write about men like a spider writing about flies, and another reviewer has maintained that reading one of your novels is like having tea with a dangerous witch. Both are compliments, I might add; they weren't meant to be negative. We talked before about reviewers. Do you read, now or in the beginning, material about yourself?
Oh, Definitely! I read reviews as I was beginning to write. Now I finally read the critiques, sometimes after they've been lying around the house for months. It is the last thing I look at in the Sunday paper when I know I have a review out. I am not exactly eager to read my reviews, but I have always been interested in the negative comments.
Do you notice a change in the responses to your work, from your first novel, Strangers on a Train, to your latest, The Boy Who Followed Ripley? Do you see an evolution in the response? Is it the same, is it very different?
No, I don't find it very different. I don't notice any change in them.
Do you feel that your literary reputation has suffered, as some people think, because crime is at the center of your books? Or do you really worry about your literary reputation?
I don't care about it at all. The publishers always want to categorize you, and they think it helps them to sell books. Edith's Diary was rejected by Knopf in New York and because the publishers can't categorize every book I write, this is why in New York I must have been with five publishers by now. I would rather stay with one, but they get so fixed on a certain category, that if I write something out of line, then it is a rejection and my agents have to take it to another publisher which up to now I have always been able to find. In England, Heinemann is less rigid. I won't say they will take anything, but my work has a fair amount of variation, if I consider Edith's Diary, Little Tales of Misogyny and the animal stories, but Heinemann is content to publish them all, mainly because they can sell them. So this business of categorizing bores me. I couldn't tailor my inspiration to that.
You mentioned Edith's Diary, which was a departure from the murder that is in most of your books. It was a wonderful novel. Are you interested in writing more novels in the future that don't deal with murder?
Oh, yes, definitely. In fact, I might go to the States to live for a few months in order to freshen my memory and my information, in which case I might write another American-set book with quite a different theme. I am interested in morale just now, not morals, but how one keeps up one's morale. It doesn't sound like a very exciting theme, and isn't until I attach it to a story.
I think it is crucial to anybody who is alive today.
Sometimes one has the mental habit, well, really tricks, to continue to be cheerful and to continue to imagine that one's making progress when one really isn't. I speak not of myself but of many, many people.
Why have you never written a detective novel as such?
I think it is a silly way of teasing people, "who-done-it." It doesn't interest me in the least and I don't know anything about the police procedure or the detective methods of working; that is an occupation in itself. It is like a puzzle, and puzzles do not interest me.
I am interested in the movies that were done from your novels. What did you think of them?
The Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train, is very dated now but I think it is a good film. Purple Noon is an entertaining film even though Ripley gets caught in the end. The American Friend, I thought, came off quite well. That's Wim Wenders doing Ripley's Game with Dennis Hopper. I saw that twice; I like to see any film that I'm interested in twice. The American Friend is a good film. I like it all except the ending. I thought they did the train scene very well.
I know that some writers, once they have sold the rights to their book, don't care what the filmmakers do with the movie after that. Do you like to be involved?
I do care. My agents want to put into the contract that I have the right to see the script, and if I don't like it, I can remove my name. I care quite a lot because I like to have a reputation for not only writing amusing books, but books that are capable of becoming good films. Of course, that depends on the quality of the director and script writer.
Was it an augury that you have the same birthday as Edgar Allan Poe, January 19?
I don't believe in astrology. It is also the birthday of Robert E. Lee, so I used to have a holiday down south in school. They recently stopped having holidays on his birthday though—too Confederate. (Laughs.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5503
SOURCE: "A Portrait of the Artist: The Novels of Patricia Highsmith," in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1984, pp. 115-30.
[Hubly is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she discusses how Highsmith's portrayal of artists in her novels advances such themes as identity, homosexuality, and the real versus the imagined. The critic focuses on the character Sydney Bartleby, the protagonist of A Suspension of Mercy, and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley.]
Patricia Highsmith's artists, those characters who create works of art and often themselves in the process, form, even when compared to some of her other protagonists, a unique group of characters. There is Sydney Bartleby, the writer-hero of A Suspension of Mercy, who in order to stimulate his imagination, plans the imaginary murder of his wife, an endeavor which he then proceeds to act out as though it were so. His ruse is so successful that both his friends and the authorities think he has murdered his wife, as does he himself at times. There is Howard Ingham, the writer-hero of The Tremor of Forgery, who, again, in order to excite his imagination, deliberately lives in a dangerous place, Tunisia, in order to undergo new and dark passions, committing, possibly, even a murder, so that he can write about his experiences. And there is, above all others, the character of Tom Ripley, who if he is not a writer, is an actor, a master of the art of impersonation. It is this art, when coupled with the act of murder, that enables Ripley not only to kill a wealthy young American, Dickie Greenleaf and then to pose as him, but also to provide for his own future security as well, Ripley producing, after Dickie's death, a will, forged, of course, by him, in which Dickie Greenleaf leaves all his money to his good friend, Tom Ripley. Indeed, Highsmith's artists display her ingenuity at its best, allowing her to fashion plots that dazzle the reader with their inventiveness. In addition, Highsmith's artists get the reader closer to the heart of her fictional world perhaps better than any other of her characters. For by examining her artists, we explore some of her major themes: the nature of identity; homosexuality; the real versus the imagined world; the effect of a foreign country on the Americans who live there.
Sydney Bartleby, the protagonist of Highsmith's novel, A Suspension of Mercy (1965), defines the type. An American writer living in England, Bartleby is at work, as Highsmith's novel begins, on a television series featuring the sleuth-hero Nicky Campbell, an ordinary young man who keeps running into crime and solving mysteries. Unable to sell any of the Campbell scripts, which are uninspired, Bartleby seems stymied until he hits upon the idea of murder—the imaginary murder of his wife, Alicia, to whom he is rather unhappily married. After all, he thinks, he has already killed her, in his imagination, "at least twenty times." When Alicia, aware of her husband's growing hostility toward her, leaves for a vacation at Brighton, Bartleby is free to act out his murderous plan. Plotting Alicia's murder, he enacts the imaginary crime, pushing Alicia down the stairs, causing her to break her neck as she hits the floor below. Rolling her body up in a carpet, he carries it from the house; savoring the feelings of guilt and fear that his deed has inspired, he drives to some nearby woods where he buries the carpet, Alicia's body still inside.
His imagination by now on fire, Bartleby returns home, scraps the Nicky Campbell scripts and begins a new series featuring a criminal-hero, The Whip, which prove to be far superior to anything he has yet written. Bartleby is further inspired by the fact that he must continue to play-act: as Alicia stays away from home longer and longer, having met a lover in Brighton and as the police begin to suspect Bartleby of having murdered her, he must master the art of plotting, must both protect himself from a murder charge and yet continue to be, for his own purposes, a murderer. It is a schizophrenic existence, but one which has its rewards: the Whip scripts become better and better and Bartleby finally sells them to a producer for a large sum of money. Murder, then, although here only imaginary, would seem to be a necessary part of the creative process at its most inspired.
If murder stimulates Highsmith's writers' imaginations, it can do so because of their peculiar view of reality. For Highsmith's artists, having manipulated reality for so long through the act of writing, masters at turning the real into fiction, live in a fluid world where few things are clearly defined. Sydney Bartleby, for example, often has difficulty distinguishing the real from the imagined and at times thinks that real conversations he is having with real people are imaginary ones, the words being spoken sounding "like lines in a play they were performing." His efforts at creating fiction, of acting out and experiencing the murder of Alicia, are so successful that he convinces himself that she is dead. And at the height of his difficulties with the police, when asked by Inspector Brockway if he did kill his wife, Bartleby can barely answer "no," feels as if his imagined murder of her is real, that he has "only hours more of freedom" before he is arrested for the crime of murder. The line between the real and the imagined becomes so blurred in Bartleby's mind that later, when he commits a real murder, that of Edward Tilbury, the man with whom Alicia had lived while she was at Brighton, he does so with less effort and with fewer feelings of guilt than he experienced when he committed the imaginary murder of Alicia. Indeed, it is his imagined murder that affects him most deeply.
If Highsmith's artists have difficulty distinguishing between the real and the imagined, they do not, like many of her non-artist protagonists, pay for that difficulty with their lives. For Highsmith has a predilection for her artists: all of them, although warped by their experiences, survive, even prosper. Sydney Bartleby may continue to live in the confusing world of his imagination, may have killed a man and thus risked his own life, but he will not be caught, will continue to write and sell his Whip television scripts, will continue, then, to prosper. Tom Ripley, another of Highsmith's artists, may not, like Sydney Bartleby, be able to distinguish between the real and the imagined, may thus live perpetually on the fringes of madness, may before his career is over murder eight men and thus continually risk exposure and ruin, but he is never caught, never ruined, indeed, even gains a good deal of money from his misdeeds. Able to manufacture plots, to manipulate people as if they were fictional characters, three steps ahead of everyone else because they, the authors, know the script, having written it, Highsmith's artists literally get away with murder, even prosper because of it. And it is their art, their ability to manipulate reality, which enables them to succeed.
If Sydney Bartleby is an early portrait of Highsmith's artist, Howard Ingham, the writer-protagonist of The Tremor of Forgery (1969), enables her to refine and deepen that concept, taking it into new directions. And here, with Howard Ingham, Highsmith employs one of her favorite themes: the effect of a foreign country on the Americans who live there. Highsmith's artists are always Americans and usually in confrontation with a foreign culture. Sydney Bartleby is the exception: living in England, a stable and still Puritan society, he is not threatened by the culture around him. But continental Europe and the Arab countries south of it, are another matter. For Highsmith uses foreign settings, particularly Europe, in the same way that Henry James does, as a place, steeped in centuries of corruption and evil, which offers the American, naive and as yet untested, possibilities heretofore unknown. For Europe is a place in which all inhibitions can be dropped, a place in which an American, no longer under the moral constraints of his homeland, can experience, if he so desires, new and tempting forms of evil. And Highsmith's Americans so desire.
Howard Ingham is such an American. Going to North Africa in order to work on a film with a friend, Ingham, when his friend fails to show up, stays on, fascinated by the country around him. The attraction soon becomes clear: Africa is a place in which all experiences, however evil, seem permissible. A person can murder another and no questions are asked; bodies with their throats cut lie undisturbed in alleys, people barely noticing them as they pass by. There are no restrictions placed on one's sexual activities: homosexual couples openly hold hands as they walk down the street and if a man wants an Arab street boy, he merely singles out one from the many who are willing, for the price of a cigarette, to engage in such sex. "Africa does turn things upside down," Ingham observes early in his stay there and this fact will prove both Africa's attraction and Ingham's near undoing.
Fascinated by Africa's permissive atmosphere, Ingham, a writer, decides to begin work on a novel there. Renting a beach bungalow at Hammamet, a suburb of Tunisia, he is slowly drawn into a life of dark passions. Engaged to a woman, Ina Pallant, back in the States, he, nevertheless, is attracted to a girl he sees in his hotel and begins an affair with her. Drawn to a homosexual Danish artist, Anders Jensen, who makes a pass at him, Ingham stops just short of an affair with him. He does, however, move into Jensen's dirty, run-down apartment building in order to be closer to him and to experience first hand the bohemian life. One night, feeling both sexually excited and lonely, Ingham comes close to taking a young Arab boy home to bed with him. It is an act which he does not accomplish, but which clearly indicates his sexual desires. And, in the central scene of the novel, while his apartment is being robbed, Ingham throws his typewriter at the thief's head and, in all probability, kills him. All things, then, murder, homosexuality, the pleasure of forbidden desires, have become possible for Howard Ingham in Africa.
If The Tremor of Forgery is about an American confronting a foreign culture, it is also a novel about the nature of identity. For Howard Ingham, like Highsmith's other artists, is a man without a clear identity. Coming to Africa without a fixed set of principles in which he both believes and practices, he is especially vulnerable to the temptations around him. That this is to be Highsmith's theme she makes clear early in her book, by surrounding her protagonist with a number of characters, each of whom bears a definite relationship to the question of identity. There is Francis J. Adams, a retired American businessman in Hammamet, who if he has a definite and fixed identity—he is an arch conservative who lives by a rigid code of morality—is finally less than admirable because of that rigidity. There is Anders Jensen, the young Danish artist who befriends and hopes to seduce Ingham. The opposite of the American, Adams—amoral and unstable—Jensen is also a less than admirable character for just that reason. And there is Ina Pallant, Ingham's American fiancee. The most admirable character in the book, she stands somewhere between Adams and Jensen, moral without being rigid, wise because balanced in her views and responses. And as Ingham interacts with each of these characters in turn, he is slowly defined.
Fluid, unable to commit himself to any consistent course of action or to any one person, moving in his affections from Anders Jensen to Ina Pallant and then finally back to his former wife, Charlotte, who by the end of the book wants to see him again, doomed to repeat the mistake of his marriage over again because he is unable to grow into a new and more mature relationship, Howard Ingham is finally a man without a stable identity. Thinking of his life late in the story, he wonders who he is:
He had the awful feeling that in the months he had been here, his own character or principles had collapsed, or disappeared. What was he? Presumably someone with a set of attitudes on which his conduct was based. They formed a character. But Ingham now felt he couldn't think, if his life depended on it, of one principle by which he lived.
Contemplating his own feelings of emptiness, he thinks "it was strangely like a religious experience. It was like becoming nothing and realising that one was nothing anyway, ever. It was a basic truth."
Ingham, does, of course, survive and again, like Sydney Bartleby, because of his art. If Howard Ingham is finally anything, he is a writer, a person who defines himself daily through the words that he writes. At one point in the story he sets himself a working schedule: he must write every day, because if he doesn't, he will "go to pieces." The act of writing then, literally holds him together and, spinning out his tale, he takes form himself. The book he is working on while in Tunisia thus bears an intimate relationship to his own life and becomes the means through which he explores not only his own problems, but also attempts to create a self.
A glamorized version of his own life, Ingham's novel, Dennison's Lights, is the story of a man, Dennison, who becomes a bank embezzler, but whose criminality, because his deeds ultimately do more good than harm, he giving away most of the money he steals, is in question. Like his hero, Dennison, Ingham's criminality, his killing of the thief who tried to rob him, is also in doubt. For maybe the typewriter he threw at the thief's head killed him, but, then, maybe it didn't. As he never investigates the consequences of his deed and as no body is ever found, it having been dragged away in the dark by some young Arabs, neither Ingham nor the reader knows for certain what happened to the thief. But both deeds—Dennison's embezzlement and Ingham's possible killing of the thief—force their perpetrators to live in a secret and criminal world, "a world of darkness known only to him." Although Dennison seems, at one point, to be headed downward toward total collapse, as does Ingham himself, Ingham, by making (he crucial decision not to have Dennison collapse, thus saves not only Dennison, but also, by extension, himself. Dennison does pay for his crime, by going to prison, as does Ingham suffer for his deed, through a good deal of mental anguish. But both men survive, Ingham through his art saving Dennison and, Dennison, in turn, giving form to Ingham.
Both men, if survivors, are finally forgers, a term which comes to have special meaning in Highsmith's novels. For a forger is both creator and criminal, one who forges, as in "makes" something, but one who forges, as in "forgery," the attempt to pass off that which is false for that which is real. And that Highsmith's artists are forgers and thus basically dishonest, becomes clear. For Ingham is finally a forger both in his life and his art. Unable to create for himself a genuine identity, drawing his responses from those around him, never sure of what he thinks, refusing to confront the very issues his life raises—his possible killing of another man, his own homosexual desires—Ingham finally can create a self only through the act of writing. Writing itself here becomes a kind of forgery, a means of making a self impossible to achieve in any other way and yet a self which is inauthentic because it is composed of words alone. Ingham finally exists because he is a writer and, defined solely by that which he does, a dealer in artifice, he becomes that in which he traffics, an imitation of the real. And his books, reflections of himself, copies, therefore, of that which is not genuine, can become only that which they imitate, dishonest and second-rate. To be a writer, then, in this kind of world is to be a special kind of criminal, one who evades the real, a forger, then, of life itself.
This theme, the artist as forger, reaches its culmination in Highsmith's novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the first of the four books which feature her protagonist Tom Ripley. Tom Ripley is Highsmith's ultimate artist, a man who if he does not write, is an actor of immense abilities, gifted in the art of impersonation. As unformed in his identity as Howard Ingham, Ripley can, nevertheless, profit from this very fact, by passing himself off as other men. Like Sydney Bartleby, a master of invention, he can not only think up clever plots, but also turn them into reality. The Talented Mr. Ripley, mirroring Highsmith's other two studies of the artist, A Suspension of Mercy and The Tremor of Forgery, finally surpasses them both in quality and depth, and becomes her most profound study of the artist's personality.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is, on its most immediate level, a suspense story. Like A Suspension of Mercy, it is a novel with an ingenious plot which carries the reader at break-neck speed toward the final question: will the murderer, in spite of his cleverness, get caught? Of course, by now, we know the answer to that question. For Tom Ripley, like Sydney Bartleby, is a master artist and thus a certain survivor. Going to Europe at the request of an acquaintance's father, Mr. Herbert Greenleaf, in order to persuade Mr. Greenleaf's son, Dickie, to come back home to the States and to his responsibilities as the Greenleaf heir, Ripley masterminds a plot by which he, similar in size and looks to Dickie Greenleaf, will become Dickie Greenleaf, wear his clothes, use his passport, live off his money. Ripley must, of course, get rid of the real Dickie Greenleaf first, a task he accomplishes by killing him while they are out in a boat together. The rest of the novel traces the process by which Ripley does, indeed, literally get away with murder, his efforts to impersonate Dickie Greenleaf so successful that he is able to fool even those who know Dickie best—Marge Sherwood, Dickie's best friend; Dickie's father, Mr. Greenleaf—as well as the bank authorities and police officials of two countries, Italy and America. Ripley's scheme is so ingenious that he is finally able to produce a will, forged, of course, by him, in which Dickie leaves all his money to him, thus ensuring his financial security for the rest of his life. Tom Ripley is, indeed, as the title of the novel in which he first appears would suggest, a very clever fellow.
If The Talented Mr. Ripley is, like A Suspension of Mercy, a means through which Highsmith can display the ingenuity of her artists, it is also, like The Tremor of Forgery, a way in which she can explore one of her favorite themes: the effect of a foreign country on the Americans who travel there. And that she intends to use, in this case, Europe, in the same way that Henry James does, as a liberating and yet corrupting influence on the lives that are exposed to it, she makes clear early in her novel. As Mr. Greenleaf is seeing Ripley off for Europe, he asks him if he has ever read Henry James' novel, The Ambassadors? Ripley has not, but the question remains as a reminder of what Highsmith is up to in her novel. For The Ambassadors, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a book about an American who, at the request of another, goes to Europe in order to bring back home an errant and recalcitrant son. And Tom Ripley's journey, like Lambert Strether's before him, will be one that will expose him to all that Europe can offer the American: liberation from a Puritan upbringing and outlook; exposure to a culture rich in artistic accomplishments and to countries full of romantic places; and an atmosphere in which all actions, however immoral, seem if not actually sanctioned, then certainly accepted. And Tom Ripley, like Lambert Strether, will find the lure of Europe so enticing that he will be unable not only to persuade his quarry to come back to America, but also to return there himself.
The effect of Europe upon Tom Ripley is immediate and lasting. Arriving in Mongibello, Italy, where Dickie Greenleaf has been living for the past few years, Ripley is at once charmed by all that he sees: the town; Dickie's house; the two original Picasso drawings that hang in Dickie's hallway; Dickie Greenleaf himself. But by far the most charming thing that Ripley sees is Dickie's way of life, Dickie pursuing the life of an artist, painting in the mornings, sailing in his boat at sundown, drinking aperitifs in the evening in one of the cafes on the beach, taking trips to such cities as Naples, Rome, Paris whenever the mood strikes, answerable to no one for the way he spends his time or money. Ripley, comparing his life to Dickie's, is overcome by feelings of envy and self-pity and vows that he will devote all his efforts to becoming Dickie's best friend and thus a part of his life.
If Europe offers the ideal way of life, it also provides the moral atmosphere in which to attain it. Non-Puritan, seemingly indifferent to questions of morality, thousands of miles from the United States, it can offer the American there—cut off from family and social ties and thus from moral accountability—liberation, release from inhibitions. Tom Ripley was, to be sure, a petty crook in America, but in Europe he is free, if he is so inclined, to become a killer. Successful with Dickie at first, Ripley's hopes for becoming his friend are shattered by Marge Sherwood, an American living in Mongibello and Dickie's best friend. Becoming suspicious of Ripley, warning Dickie that Tom may be a homosexual with designs on him—a charge to which there may be some truth—Marge effectively drives the two men apart. On a trip to San Remo with Dickie, Ripley, sensing Dickie's growing indifference to him, realizing that he has lost his friendship forever, feeling humiliated and rejected, kills Dickie while they are out in a boat together, hitting him in the head with an oar and then weighing his body down in the water with a cement anchor. Dickie's death, however, is not without its practical side. For if Ripley cannot share in Dickie's life, by becoming his friend, he can, once Dickie is dead, become Dickie himself, assuming his very identity.
Ripley is, of course, a man eminently qualified for such a task. Like Howard Ingham in The Tremor of Forgery, Tom Ripley is a man without a self. Having no clear identity, he is a man who has rejected himself and all that he is: his unhappy childhood; his upbringing by a cruel and somewhat sadistic aunt; his impoverished emotional life. And in finding Dickie Greenleaf he finds for the first time in his life an identity he can accept, that he would even like for his own.
This transformation, this process by which Ripley absorbs Dickie into his own being, begins slowly. At first it is on a superficial level, Ripley merely copying Dickie's bodily movements, the way he walks, the way he parts his lips when he is out of breath from swimming. Then his efforts become more serious and far more encompassing. Mastering Dickie's voice, the little growl in his throat at the end of phrases, he begins to impersonate the whole man Dickie and in one of the most striking scenes in the book, attempts for the first time literally to become Dickie. Standing in front of a mirror, his hair parted and fashioned as Dickie wears his, dressed in Dickie's clothes, even wearing Dickie's rings, Ripley acts out a scenario in which he, as Dickie, confronts an imaginary Marge Sherwood, first telling her that he, Dickie, does not love her and then strangling her with his bare hands because she threatens to come between Tom and himself. It is a chilling scene in itself, made all the more so because it reveals not only the depth of Ripley's feelings for Dickie, but also the nature of his madness. Identity has become a deadly game, one mat he would kill for.
This is, of course, exactly what he does. Wanting a complete union with Dickie—in this sense Ripley is a homosexual—but unable to accomplish it physically—no one can become another person—Ripley accomplishes it, like the artist he is, through his imagination. Dickie's body, his physical substance, is, of course, the obstacle. But by removing that obstacle, by destroying Dickie's body, Ripley is then free to incorporate the idea of Dickie into his own being—through his mind. Murder, then, makes the process of attaining an identity complete and Ripley, with Dickie's physical presence removed, can become that which he thinks Dickie is.
There are, of course, several ironies here. For Dickie himself did not have much of an identity himself. Having rejected much of his own background, living off his father, refusing to do any kind of meaningful work, Dickie was a man who had yet to find himself. And Ripley, in modeling himself after Dickie, becomes that which had little substance to begin with. This irony underscores yet another one: Ripley, even after he thinks he has become Dickie, continues to act as Ripley, doing things, his murder of Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles, for example, when Freddie seems about to expose him, that Dickie himself would never have done. But in Ripley's world, where thinking something makes it so, Tom Ripley, thinking he is Dickie Greenleaf, becomes Dickie Greenleaf. Going to Paris, walking the streets, sightseeing, he delights in his new identity: "Wonderful to sit in a famous cafe and to think of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow being Dickie Greenleaf!… It was impossible ever to be lonely or bored, he thought, so long as he was Dickie Greenleaf!"
Ripley's joy at being Dickie is short-lived, however, for as Ripley, who is now Dickie, continues to act as Ripley, murdering Freddie Miles, for example, he begins to threaten Dickie's identity as well. Furthermore, the boat in which Ripley and Dickie had last been seen together in San Remo is found scuttled, blood stains on its bottom. And as the police cannot find Tom Ripley, who is now Dickie Greenleaf, they suspect Dickie of having murdered Ripley as well as Freddie Miles. Realizing that the time has come when it is more dangerous to be Dickie Greenleaf than to be Tom Ripley, that he must now kill Dickie again, this time for good, Ripley becomes despondent: "This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes." Ripley's confusion here—of identity with clothes—is characteristic and will provide the idea by which he gets rid of Dickie once and for all. Packing up Dickie's clothes, storing them in the American Express in Venice under the name of Robert Fanshaw, Ripley, in effect, kills Dickie for a second and final time. For if a person is the clothes he wears, then by disposing of Dickie's clothes, Ripley not only disposes of Dickie, but also makes it impossible for himself to become Dickie again.
If Ripley cannot be Dickie, he must become someone and it is at this point in the novel that Highsmith begins her deepest exploration into the question of identity. For as Tom Ripley begins to put together a new self, Highsmith lets the reader know what a genuine identity is not. For Tom Ripley, as artist, will base his ultimate creation, himself, on a lesson he has learned while posing as Dickie Greenleaf: that the important thing about an identity is not who you are, but who you think you are. Acting out something makes it so: "If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous," all you had to do was "simply act those things with every gesture." Gestures then, have become personality; acting, being; appearance, reality. And Ripley, in creating a self based on such principles, will, like Highsmith's other artists, become a forger, passing off that which is false, a sham-self, for that which is real, a genuine identity.
The fact that he is an American in Europe again aids Ripley's enterprise. Without any family or friends nearby, without any job to define him, with the money to travel and thus the means to escape any fixed existence, he can make himself into anyone he wishes. In such a fluid world, geography can become character; a person, the sum of the places he has been Going to Paris, Ripley begins to absorb that city into himself; walking the streets, he learns the names of its famous places; sitting in a well-known sidewalk cafe, he begins to have a new sense of who he is. It is a practice he will repeat in a number of cities—Rome, Venice, Athens—each place he's visiting adding further to his concept of himself. Sightseeing, then, literally becomes a way of life, the places one has been, the things one has seen, becoming one's self.
What one owns can also help to define one and Ripley sets out to associate himself with those things which best represent that which he would like to become. Ripley, of course, never owns anything; to own something would be to possess something of substance and value, an accomplishment he is at present incapable of. But he does rent. Moving to Venice, he leases a two-story house overlooking San Marco, with a garden "slightly run down," but with an interior which suggests all the splendor and wealth he would like for his own. There is a checkerboard black-and-white marble floor downstairs that extends from the foyer into each of the rooms, pink and white marble floors upstairs and carved wooden furniture so eloquent that it does not resemble furniture at all but rather "an embodiment of cinquecento music played on haut-boys, recorders and violas da gamba." He spends some time—Highsmith slyly points out "at least two weeks"—decorating the house and it reflects his growing good taste: "There was a sureness in his taste now that he had not felt in Rome, that his Rome apartment had not hinted at. "Indeed, Ripley's near-possessions, the house he rents, the way he has decorated it, all give him a new sense of himself: "He felt surer of himself now in every way."
If things can give one an identity, so can the media. The newspaper stories which begin to appear in the Italian press about the "sensational" Dickie Greenleaf case also help to define Ripley. In these stories he is described in some detail, as the friend of the now missing Dickie Greenleaf, as "a young well-to-do American" now living in a "Palazzo" in Venice. Ripley had never thought of his house as being a "palace" before, but seeing it called such in print must make it so and he immediately feels a new sense of pride. Going to a party, he becomes the center of attention. Recognized immediately, because of the newspaper stories, as being Tom Ripley, his identity is further confirmed; he must be someone because other people know who he is.
Slowly, then, Ripley puts together a self made up of the gestures he affects, the places he has been, the things he is associated with, the newspaper stories which confirm that he does, indeed, exist. A patchwork creation made possible by Dickie Greenleaf's money and held together by his own art—his ability to think up new plots, to act out new roles—Tom Ripley is, then, at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the perfect hero for further adventures. Highsmith will, in the three Ripley novels which follow, Ripley under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974) and The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), modify her concept of her hero somewhat, even suggest that as Ripley beings to lose his powers of invention—as he does in these novels—as he becomes, then, less of an artist, he becomes more of a human being, even moves toward acquiring a genuine self. But at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley is Highsmith's ultimate artist, a man who because he has no real identity, can become all things.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4334
SOURCE: "'Not Really Such a Monster': Highsmith's Ripley as Thriller Protagonist and Protean Man," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer, 1984, pp. 361-74.
[In the following essay, Hilfer characterizes Tom Ripley as a particularly "subversive variation on the possibilities of a suspense thriller protagonist" as well as a "strikingly original exemplar of a contemporary character type, protean man."]
Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's most memorable character, is a problem from the conventional point of view, an opinion enunciated, for instance, by Simone Trevanny, a character in Highsmith's Ripley's Game, for whom his appeal makes no sense: "'I cannot understand. I cannot,' she said. 'Jon, why do you see this monster.'" Her husband, Jon, surrogate to Highsmith's bemused reader, reflects, "Tom was not really such a monster. But how to explain?" How indeed? Tom may not be a monster or at least such a monster but Simone's view of him has some warranty. She has, after all, found him hosting two bodies, the death of whom she rightly suspects him of having facilitated. Luckily, Simone is unaware of four earlier murders Tom has accomplished but Tom's attempt to reassure her becomes rather counterproductive when circumstances force him to dispatch two mafiosi with a hammer before her very eyes: "Of all times, Tom thought when he'd meant to create a peaceable impression on Simone."
What to make of a character like Ripley is not a problem peculiar to the four novels Highsmith devoted to Ripley but one central to the suspense thriller genre. The best definition of this genre is that of Julian Symons, one of its leading practitioners, who emphasizes the genre's concentration on psychology, its unconventional morality (unlike the classic English detective novel, it puts "justice" into quotation marks), and the defining absence of a central detective hero. The protagonist of the suspense thriller is more likely either the victim or perpetrator of violence—sometimes both. So the problem of evoking sympathy where not conventionally placed is intrinsic to the genre. In this essay I shall explore Highsmith's Ripley as a particularly subversive variation on the possibilities of a suspense thriller protagonist and, simultaneously, as a strikingly original exemplar of a contemporary character type, protean man, more usually to be found in high than popular fiction.
First to the problem of a murderer-protagonist. As Highsmith herself puts it, in her how-to book on writing suspense fiction, "I think many suspense writers … must have some kind of sympathy and identification with criminals, or they would not become emotionally engrossed in books about them. The suspense book is vastly different from the mystery story in this respect. The suspense writer often deals much more closely with the criminal mind, because the criminal is usually known throughout the book, and the writer has to describe what is going on in his head." If this is imperative for the writer, is it not so, a fortiori, for the reader? Not entirely, according to Highsmith. The reader must care about the protagonist but this "is not the same as liking the hero. It is caring whether he goes free, or caring that he is caught rightly at the end, and it is being interested in him, pro or con."
The questions then in the Ripley books are: who is Ripley, what makes him interesting, why do we care about him, and, not least, why does Highsmith protect him always from being "caught rightly at the end." I shall answer these questions by means of a commentary on the first and best of the Ripley novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with cross references to others in the Ripley series when relevant.
The Talented Mr. Ripley begins with Tom being followed by a man whom he fears is about to arrest him. (Tom has constructed a minor scam with I.R.S. forms. Though criminal, Tom's scam is more a form of play since he has not had the nerve to get money from it. Tom's nerve improves during the course of the novel and the series, but it is important to recognize that he is always playing at crime.) The man turns out to be Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie Greenleaf, whom Herbert mistakenly supposes to be a close friend of Tom's whereas they are merely slight acquaintances. Even after being apprised of his error, Greenleaf proposes that Tom take a leave of absence from his job in order to retrieve Dickie from the Italian seacoast town where Dickie is living a pleasant expatriate life and return him to his responsibilities as scion of a large shipbuilding concern. This presents no problem for Tom since the job he must leave is fictitious, but when he arrives in Italy he finds it more appealing to insinuate himself into Dickie's enjoyable lifestyle than to persuade him to renounce it. The spanner gets into the works when Dickie falls out with Tom due to Tom's jealousy of Dickie's girl friend, Marge. Ultimately, Tom solves the problem by replacing Dickie; he murders him, impersonates him, and forges a will leaving his money to Tom Ripley. He is also forced to murder Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles, who discovers the impersonation.
This brief plot outline necessarily focuses on Tom's actions, especially his murders, but Highsmith's interest is less in Tom as murderer than in Tom as actor, performer, role player, in Tom's ability not merely to escape the limitations of his identity, but the identity itself. Tom is pleased with himself in direct ratio to his ability to stand outside this self, objectify it, play it as a role. Thus, early in the novel we get the first of many mirror images: "Slowly he took off his jacket and untied his tie, watching every move he made as if it were somebody else's movements he were watching. Astonishing how much straighter he was standing now, what a different look there was in his face. It was one of the few times in his life that he felt pleased with himself." On the ship to Europe he signalizes his "starting a new life" with the purchase of a cap reminiscent of the mythical helmet of invisibility: "A cap was the most versatile of headgears, he thought, and wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, he thought. The cap changed all that." Appearance takes priority over reality or, to be precise, for Tom it becomes an effective reality, creating class, moral, and national identity.
Tom's very defects turn out to be functional in his eventual transformation—his other-directed oversensitivity to others, his diffidence, his self-dislike all make it easy for him to shuck off his rather minimal self and become the other he has so well observed. His initial blunder with Dickie is to approach him at the beach in a bathing suit, a self-exposure which goes against Tom's genius and has the reverse effect to that of the versatile cap: "Tom stood there, feeling pale and naked as the day he was born. He hated bathing suits. This one was very revealing." But Tom's other-directed responsiveness soon has him unconsciously copying Dickie's walk as he becomes more and more Dickie's double:
They sat slumped in the carozza, each with a sandalled foot propped on a knee, and it seemed to Tom that he was looking in a mirror when he looked at Dickie's leg and his propped foot beside him. They were the same height, and very much the same weight, Dickie perhaps a bit heavier, and they wore the same size bathrobe, socks, and probably shirts.
Dickie even said, "Thank you, Mr. Greenleaf," when Tom paid the carozza driver. Tom felt a little weird.
At this point in the novel, Tom has no thought of murdering Dickie. What he aspires to is a kind of cross between a blood brother and mirror image of Dickie, living Dickie's life concurrently with him. He fantasizes murdering not Dickie but Dickie's friend, Marge, who is the reality principle interfering with Tom's dream of sharing Dickie's life. In the most bizarre scene of the novel, Tom, alone in Dickie's room and dressed in Dickie's clothes, fantasizes himself as Dickie murdering Marge: "'Marge, you must understand that I don't love you,' Tom said in the mirror in Dickie's voice, with Dickie's higher pitch on the emphasized words, with the little growl in his throat at the end of the phrase that could be pleasant or unpleasant, intimate or cool, according to Dickie's mood. 'Marge, stop it!' Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge's throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp on the floor…. 'You know why I had to do that,' he said, still breathlessly, addressing Marge, though he watched himself in the mirror. 'You were interfering between Tom and me—No, not that! But there is a bond between us!'"
What Tom has not yet realized is that he cannot be Dickie or even effectively play Dickie so long as Dickie is alive to be and do so. There cannot be two Napoleons in the same asylum. The conclusion of the scene above is that Dickie explodes Tom's act by catching him in the performance of it. Shortly thereafter Tom has an epiphany of Dickie's (and everyone's) irremediable otherness: "He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future…." To sum up, Tom now envisions relations with others as external and illusory, a matter of surface appearances. His initial response to this vision is to wish to die.
In a way he does this. He dies to himself as Tom and becomes Dickie, after murdering the original claimant to that identity. Tom so throws himself into being Dickie that his Tom-identity becomes more distant to him; he imagines telling Marge something "in Tom's voice." In becoming Dickie, he appropriates not only the latter's clothes but his smile, he packs like Dickie, paints like Dickie, even tries "to think about what Dickie would be thinking about." In sum, "Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie, brushing his teeth with his elbow jutted out, Dickie invariably putting back the first tie he pulled off the rack and selecting a second." Being Dickie is a vast improvement over being Tom: "it was impossible ever to be lonely or bored, he thought, so long as he was Dickie Greenleaf." Finally, in one of Highsmith's nicest moments, Tom-as-Dickie is asked about Tom and responds not untruthfully, that he doesn't know him very well.
But there are problems. As Tom splits Dickie's money between his own and Dickie's bank account, he reflects that "after all, he had two people to take care of." He can only be Dickie to people who have never seen Dickie and he is forced to murder Freddie Miles for stumbling across his impersonation. Worst of all, he must go back to being Tom when Dickie becomes the main suspect in Freddie Miles's murder. This prospect of becoming a real Tom as opposed to a fake Dickie is highly depressing: "He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new." He becomes upset at catching sight of himself in the mirror: "He looked as if he were trying to convey the emotions of fear and shock by his posture and his expression and because the way he looked was involuntary and real, he became suddenly twice as frightened" (my italics). It should be remembered that Tom enjoys mirrors when he is practicing a role before them. At this point, Tom arrives at his second major revelation—that "Tom Ripley" is like "Dickie Greenleaf" a role and that he controls the performance of it: "It was senseless to be despondent, anyway, even as Tom Ripley…. Hadn't he learned something from these last months? If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture." Settling into the role of Tom Ripley, he finds enjoyment in hamming it up: "He began to feel happy even in his dreary role as Thomas Ripley. He took a pleasure in it, overdoing almost the old Tom Ripley reticence with strangers, the inferiority in every duck of his head and wistful, sidelong glance." Later, Tom sets himself off from the lighter haired Dickie by dyeing his hair "so that it would be even darker than his normal hair." Tom even pulls off the tour de force of successfully playing Tom to the same policemen to whom he had earlier played Dickie.
It is not surprising that Tom "had wanted to be an actor" since the main thematic pattern in The Talented Mr. Ripley is Tom's confirmation in the belief that acting creates reality. At this point, a distinction is necessary. It is possible to construe a determinate identity for Tom in terms of two culturally talismanic terms: "Homosexual" and "Schizophrenic." The reader has doubtless picked up intimations of these identities simply in the quotes I've given, especially the one in which Tom, playing Dickie to the mirror, justifies himself to an imaginary Marge. "You were interfering between Tom and me—No, not that!" That obviously refers to homosexual attachment and we may suspect that Tom doth protest too much. Both earlier and later, Tom shows notable anxiety about being perceived as effeminate or homosexual and, in the scene where Dickie finds Tom playacting in Dickie's clothes, Tom is accused to his face of being "queer." In what is so far the latest in the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Tom dresses in drag partly as a disguise but more just for the experience. Most suggestive of all, Freddie Miles, before it dawns on him that Tom is impersonating Dickie Greenleaf, suspects that Tom's presence in what is supposedly Dickie's apartment wearing Dickie's cloths and jewelry must indicate a homosexual relation between them. After murdering Freddie, Tom thinks "how sad, stupid, clumsy, dangerous and unnecessary his death had been, and how brutally unfair to Freddie. Of course, one could loathe Freddie, too. A selfish, stupid bastard who had sneered at one of his best friends—Dickie certainly was one of his best friends—just because he suspected him of sexual deviation. Tom laughed at that phrase 'sexual deviation.' Where was the sex? Where was the deviation? He looked at Freddie and said low and bitterly: 'Freddie Miles, You're a victim of your own dirty mind.'"
The above passage also can be read as evincing Tom's schizophrenic tendencies. Tom's indignation at Freddie's suspicions seems curiously displaced. After all, Tom has murdered Dickie, surely rather more unfriendly an act than sneering, however unjustly, at supposedly deviant tendencies in him. Equally odd is that Tom, when he returns to his Ripley identity, feels free of guilt for Freddie's murder: "Being Tom Ripley had one compensation at least: it relieved his mind of guilt for the stupid, unnecessary murder of Freddie Miles." This is because Tom was being Dickie at that time. Later, when Marge asks Tom where he had been that winter—we know, of course, that he spent it playing Dickie—Tom suffers a slight identity slippage: "'Well not with Tom, I mean, not with Dickie,' he said laughing, flustered at his slip of the tongue."
But to anchor Tom's identity in latent homosexuality and schizophrenia is to read against the clear indications in Highsmith's novel that Tom's strength is in his indeterminacy of identity, in an emptiness of self that allows the superior performance of roles, eventuating in Tom's finest performance—the role of himself. So my answer to the question I raised at the beginning of this essay, the question of who Tom is, why we are interested in him and care about him is that we are interested in and care about Tom precisely because he is not anybody. It is this negative capability that exempts Tom from detection and exposure. Along, that is, with the author's sympathy for what Tom isn't. Ripley's non-essentiality, his lack of a determinate identity, is the making of him. It is his talent, his vocation, and we may recall that, as Falstaff pointed out, "'Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation." Ripley's interest is, in fact, paradigmatic; he refers back to the trickster archetype while traversing the narrow field of post-modern identity, beginning as a sleazy version of Riesman's other-directed man and developing into a sinister version of Lifton's protean man, a player with his own and others' destinies.
Tom's transformation begins with his other-directed need "to make Dickie like him," progresses to imitating Dickie, playing Dickie, and finally to the protean triumph of playing himself. The central feature of protean man, Robert Lifton notes [in "Protean Man," History and Human Survival (1971)], is the "repeated, autonomously willed death and rebirth of the self," associated with the theme of "fatherlessness." Tom, whose parents conveniently died in his early childhood, leaving him to the care of an aunt he detests, has carried the protean tendency to its logical extreme, reflecting at one point, "this was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person." Divested of past and parentage, Tom is remarkably free of the conventional constraints of superego, again matching Lifton's definition of protean man: "What has actually disappeared … is the classical superego, the internalization of clearly defined criteria of right and wrong transmitted within a particular culture by parents to their children." Alisdair McIntyre, in a less sanguine view of protean man than Lifton, could have been describing Highsmith's creation [in After Virtue (1981)]: "The self thus conceived, utterly distinct on the one hand from its social embodiments and lacking on the other any rational history of its own, may seem to have a certain abstract and ghostly character." One recalls Iago, whose motto is "I am not what I am not what I am."
Tom's sexual anxieties, then, can be best explained as compounding a conventional enough shame at a socially derogatory label (the novel was published in 1956) with an emergent protean man's dislike of getting fixed in any identity. In accord with Diderot's paradox of the actor, Tom is able to be anyone or anything only by way of being detached from the acts and identities he performs. Marge may well be on the right track when she comments in a letter to Dickie—which Tom in his Dickie-role actually receives and reads—"All right, he may not be queer. He's just nothing, which is worse." In the later books, we find Tom happily married to a lady as amoral and as relatively passionless as himself. And though Tom's self-detachment may be taken as schizophrenic, it is questionable if he is any more so than other literary adumbrations or fulfillments of the protean self—say, for a short list, Gide's Lafcadio, Mann's Felix Krull, Barth's Jacob Horner ("In a sense, I am Jacob Horner"), among others. In all these characters, as in Tom, indeterminacy of identity seems, as Lifton argues, less a dysfunction than a survival mechanism. Even when most absorbed in his role of Dickie, Tom never completely loses himself in his role: "He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolutely confident he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made."
Finally, within the conventions of the suspense thriller, Tom's survival and triumph is an evident authorial endorsement. The structure of Highsmith's book is built on the tension between Tom's potential exposure and punishment and his actual evasion and exemption. The novel begins with Tom's fear of arrest and throughout the novel Tom varies between fear of "nemesis" and confidence in luck: "Something always turned up. That was Tom's philosophy." After his murder of Freddie, Tom imagines all the possibilities of disaster he must face in carrying a dead body down several flights of stairs; he "imagined it all with such intensity, writhing upstairs in his apartment, that to have descended all the stairs without a single one of his imaginings happening made him feel that he was gliding down under a magical protection of some kind, with ease in spite of the mass on his shoulder." His magical protector is, of course, Highsmith, a protection she extends on condition that Tom play his roles audaciously and with a kind of artistic lightness. Tom's initial blunder with Dickie is to have come on too seriously, heavily: "Tom cursed himself for having been so heavy-handed and so humorless today. Nothing he took desperately seriously ever worked out. He'd found that out years ago." (Note, again, the paradox of the actor.) Tom's virtù is his joy in risk taking: "Risks were what made the whole thing fun."
Highsmith deliberately and shamelessly evades the conventional morality of crime and punishment. Toward the end of the novel she presents us with a barrage of signs that Tom has pushed his luck too far, has risked too much, that nemesis is finally, if a bit belatedly, approaching. Tom "considered that he had been lucky beyond reason"; he speculates "something was going to happen now … and it couldn't be good. His luck had held just too long." Certainly this is the way it ought to be and in the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (Purple Noon is the American title), Tom is exposed at the end as Dickie's body literally surfaces. In her how-to book on suspense fiction, Highsmith comments that it "makes a book altogether more eligible for television and movie sales if the criminal is caught, punished, and made to feel awful at the end." So Tom's exemption is a thoroughly calculated flouting of moral and literary expectations, a play against genre since even in the relatively subversive suspense genre a murderer-protagonist usually ends by being hoist on his own petard. Simone Trevanny in Ripley's Game stands in for readers shocked by any play with, evasion of, or undercutting of such expectation, though Highsmith rather unfairly characterizes Simone as hysterical and unreasonable for reacting with predictable shock and outrage to the bodies she keeps finding Tom stacking like cordwood. Highsmith can, however, turn back the accusation of immorality on more conventionally proper writers and readers: "The public wants to see the law triumph, or at least the general public does, though at the same time the public likes brutality. The brutality must be on the right side, however. Sleuth-heroes can be brutal, sexually unscrupulous, kickers of women, and still be popular heroes, because they are chasing something worse than themselves, presumably." Tom Ripley, it is true, has never achieved the popularity of Mike Hammer.
Still, he does all right for himself and Highsmith does all right by him. At the conclusion of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom has gotten off clear from two murders and found his forged will accepted with almost magical ease. It should not be too surprising that Highsmith's ending resembles that of Gide's Lafcadio's Journey (Les Caves du Vatican) where by a chain of extraordinary coincidences Lafcadio escapes the consequences of a gratuitous murder he has committed. Both endings imply a quasi-providential endorsement of the protagonists' actions with the respective authors in the role of deus ex machina. The deity is, of course, Proteus. Both these novels adumbrate a long reign for this usurper deity, an appropriate modern replacement for Zeus with his obsolescent baggage of nemesis and superego. In the last lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley, we see Tom instructing a taxi driver, "'To a hotel, please…. Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!'"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253
SOURCE: A review of People Who Knock on the Door, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XV, No. 40, October 6, 1985, p. 6.
[Below, the critic offers a negative review of People Who Knock on the Door.]
Even good novelists occasionally have a lapse, and Patricia Highsmith had a very bad lapse of several hundred pages when she wrote People Who Knock on the Door. It's the story of Arthur, 17, and the effects on him and his family when his father becomes a born-again Christian and tries to revise all their lives and impose his moral views on others.
Things come to a head when Arthur's girlfriend reveals that she is pregnant and opts for an abortion. Because Arthur approves the decision, he is put out of the house and denied funds for college. Meanwhile his younger brother Robbie becomes the father's faithful ally. Mom tries to keep peace by keeping everyone well-fed. In the end, inevitably, principles are challenged and hypocrisy revealed, and also inevitably, terrible violence ensues.
Alas, it's all thoroughly unconvincing. For one thing, Robbie is outlandish; when did you last see a normal 15-year-old playing horsey? And how many teen-agers casually drop by to have a cocktail with the old lady next door, or "smooch," or describe something as "kooky," or hang out with their buddies listening to the Beach Boys and Cole Porter? They certainly don't do that on my block. And, besides, has Highsmith never heard of Planned Parenthood? These characters act like nothing more than characters in a novel.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11763
SOURCE: "Patricia Highsmith." in And Then There Were Nine … More Women of Mystery, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 170-97.
[In the following essay, Klein provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Highsmith's works, concluding that the writer challenged the conventions of the mystery genre.]
In her refusal to be limited by the conventional considerations of the genre, Patricia Highsmith is, quite simply, one of the best and most significant crime writers working today. Critic Blake Morrison notes that "[T]o call her a 'crime writer' sounds limiting, even patronising, since, like Chabrol, Highsmith is less interested in the mechanics of crime than in the psychology behind them;" while Brigid Brophy extends the praise, "as a novelist tout court she's excellent…. Highsmith and Simenon are alone in writing books which transcend the limits of the genre while staying strictly inside its rules: they alone have taken the crucial step from playing games to creating art." What characterizes Highsmith's work beyond attention to character development and atmosphere is a way of examining human beings which unnerves and disquiets the reader. She takes a grim look at the darker side of human nature, revealing the innate capacity of everyone for violence, even murder. While some readers might deny this assessment of themselves, escaping to the classical puzzle novel with its neat definitions of villainy and while others, preferring those "mean streets," erroneously believe that they are facing death as it really can happen, Highsmith, both obviously and subtly, recognizes a common personality trait. Equally present in everyone, the propensity for evil is inescapable; its execution depends on circumstances, not the will or public posture of the individual.
In accenting dualities, Highsmith further comments on the universal inclination to violence. Her characters' duets of love and hate, power and powerlessness, order and disorder, guilt or guiltlessness never really display the expected results. All virtue can not reside within a single character, not can it invariably triumph. Blended in such a way that lovers hate, ordering disorders, or powerlessness empowers, the dualities are charged with intensity and mystery. Like sexuality, a persistent challenge in Highsmith's works, opposites and pairs reverberate discordantly.
Like only a few of her colleagues, Highsmith has written critically and instructionally about crime fiction. While undoubtedly exaggerating some of her advice and conclusions, nonetheless, she acknowledges the craft involved in writing popular fiction ("popular" is used here to identify that which is widely read and praised, not to make any unnecessary artificial distinctions between "literary" and "popular" fiction). The title of Highsmith's non-fiction, "how-to" book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, provides a significant indication of one approach to her work. It implies that organization of plot elements, development of action and concern for the overall structure of the work are central among Highsmith's concerns. Even a casual consideration of her novels and short stories verifies this obvious fact as the opening paragraph of each work exemplifies perfectly. Succinct, but action-filled, each opening forces itself upon the reader's attention. Four examples from me novels and short stories easily demonstrate the point:
Coleman was saying, "My only child, she was, but it doesn't mean she'll be your only wife. Your last wife."
Those Who Walk Away
"There's no such thing as a perfect murder," Tom said to Reeves. "That's just a parlor game, trying to dream one up. Of course you could say there are a lot of unsolved murders. That's different." Tom was bored. He walked up and down in front of his big fireplace where a small but cozy fire crackled. Tom felt he had spoken in a stuffy, pontificating way. But the point was he couldn't help Reeves, and he'd already told him that.
Greta showed Ed the letter as soon as he opened the door. "I couldn't help opening it, Eddie, because I knew it was from that—that creep."
A Dog's Ransom
When Mr. Peter Knoppert began to make a hobby of snail-watching, he had no idea that his handful of specimens would become hundreds in no time.
Like other famous first lines in literary works (eg. Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina), they orient the reader not merely to characters or plot but primarily to atmosphere, the prose setting. Tightly organized yet never hurried, Highsmith's novels and short stories compel the reader's attention through her careful delineation of contrasts between realistic and improbable detail.
Although Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is extremely varied in its approach—concerned with choosing an agent, expecting advertising of a publisher, recognizing the germ of an idea, or organizing the first page—it is generally chatty and personal in style. Highsmith uses her own ideas and works, her failures as well as her successes to focus the details of her advice. For the reader rather than the writer of fiction, the volume's greatest appeal lies in the important clues it provides to Highsmith's thinking and the perspective on her own work which it articulates; as a volume of criticism of the genre, it is generally unfocused and limited in its concerns.
At the outset, Highsmith claims to accept the trade definition of suspense: "stories with a threat of violent physical action and anger, or danger and action itself." But she refuses to concede the usual limitations ascribed to the genre, believing instead that "the beauty of the suspense genre is that a writer can write profound thoughts and have some sections without physical action if he wishes to, because the framework is an essentially lively story." This contrast between the usual expectations and the expanded form of the genre is at the heart of Highsmith's talent and success. More widely praised in England and Europe than in the United States, she is not limited abroad to a narrow category, rigidly defined and briefly reviewed. Instead she is accorded serious consideration; as a result, she encourages young writers to "keep as clear of the suspense label as possible." She indicates her own limitless conception of the possibilities, free of formulaic blandness of gore and brutality, by citing Crime and Punishment as a perfect example of the genre's possibilities.
The centrality of character formulation and development as a subject in this book belies the title's insistence on "how" to focus on "why;" not being formulaic mystery or detective novels, her works are never concerned with teasing the reader about "whodunit." In fact, the tantalizing question of why crime is planned or committed is seldom answered with satisfying finality. Instead, the reader is treated to a progress report on the criminal's mind and emotions at work. People, then, rather than plots, are at the center of Highsmith's suspense-filled universe. The crucial pair—character and atmosphere—are both defined and placed through a "bit of action" which is focused at the center or the climax of the story. Although this action—such as an imitated murder (The Blunderer) or an exchange of victims (Strangers on a Train)—may often first occur to her without the appropriate characters attached. Highsmith notes, its direction and thrust later serve to identify a major facet of the characters' personalities or wills.
As action determines her characters, Highsmith explains, point of view affects her tone. She abandoned first person narrators as a novelistic device when she "got sick and tired of writing the pronoun 'I,'" and recognized that her scheming characters seemed more sympathetic when filtered through the authorial consciousness. Because Highsmith varies even using two different perspectives in a single novel, most of her works, despite their similarities, have a fresh and unique appeal. She is adamant about the importance of good and careful writing, critical of the gimmickry which pervades many novels and most short stories. Nonetheless she is not tediously serious; the writer must acknowledge the game-playing element in his work, she notes.
Highsmith is thus led to acknowledge the recurrent theme in her own works, which she sees in six of her first ten books—the relationship between two men, frequently strangers, occasionally mismatched friends. These two do not always divide neatly into categories of good and evil, right and wrong, criminal and victim; their relationships, whatever overtones of these they may contain, are based on a real or perceived inequality which Highsmith manipulates, blurs, or emphasizes. She reuses this theme easily, believing that "[U]nless one is in danger of repeating oneself, they should be used to the fullest, because a writer will write better making use of what is, for some strange reason, innate."
Because puzzles and mysteries bore her and because she finds "the public passion for justice" artificial, Highsmith believes in the inevitably interesting and dramatic criminal: "I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal." Naturally, then, she is careful to recognize the necessity of suspending moral judgments and even shutting off one's mind to certain strictures and proscriptions which she would unquestionably acknowledge in daily life. Moralizing and censorship are equally unacceptable to her; recognizing the use the artist makes of experience, she rejects artificial judgments.
When all the subjects on which she cautions other writers to take care are considered in view of her own fiction, Highsmith's concern for character presentation, development and unfolding is clearly at the center of her work. Carefully she builds one detail after another, aiming at a portrait of the person himself. His inclinations are probed; his secret musings revealed; his sudden and often unexplained plunge into criminality is charted. The atmosphere and actions which encourage and reinforce him are painted in. Not only the character alone but also the character in contrast draws her attention; in the recurring thematic pattern of pairs of men, the influence of one upon the other is explored. In the recurring pattern of couples of man and woman, the questions of power and powerlessness are presented and reversed, challenged and enacted. Finally, the pattern of the criminal's interaction with his second, sometimes unknown, self is considered.
Highsmith acknowledges an exclusive use of the masculine perspective in her own fiction: "women are not so active as men and not so daring." Not only are her protagonists male (with only one exception), but also their attitudes toward women are conventionally stereotyped. Almost unconsciously Highsmith validates the concept of women as appropriate victims of murder or violence; they are presented as having deserved punishment for being too available or unavailable sexually, too domineering or insufficiently independent, too loving or too hateful. The short stories collected in Little Tales of Misogyny with their stereotyped titles ("The Fully-Licensed Whore," "The Wife," "The Breeder," or "Oona, The Jolly Cave Woman") are the most openly anti-women. Inasmuch as women are easy victims, violence and crimes against them are easily justified and rationalized.
Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in his characteristic style, is a model for the rest of her fictional canon; in theme and attitude, action and characters it announces her chief concerns and the direction her work will take. Highsmith's concept of the thriller, its attitude and moral posture, is clearly enunciated here; her concern is not with uncovering the roots of a crime already committed in either the classical or hard-boiled style. She does not accept the legalistic notion of justice; detectives, though both private and official ones are included in many of the novels, are not memorable characters, but are overshadowed by the protagonist himself. In a similar way, detection is overshadowed by criminal activity; despite the presence of both, the focus is skewed. Neither the classical detective story with its focus on the investigated nor the hard-boiled with its concern for the detective's interaction with those he chases forms the basis for Highsmith's novels. Instead the criminal, his mind, and emotions, are minutely dissected. His perspective dominates the novels and comes to dominate the reader as well.
A focal concern of this and Highsmith's other novels is the ordinary individual's capacity for violence and murder. Anyone, the characters come to recognize, can commit murder; it is not that the individual must be right for the task but that the circumstances make anyone right. As Guy Haines comes to realize, contrary to his childhood beliefs in the goodness of human nature, love and hate as well as good and evil live side by side in every human heart. There are not different proportions of each depending on the person's temperament; all good and all evil coexist. To find them, it is only necessary to look a little for either one; anyone can be pushed over the brink. As Anne Faulkner expresses it, "Amazing what goes on in people's lives."
The action and situation of Strangers are typical of Highsmith. Two men, meeting accidentally, find themselves, almost without knowing how, caught in a love-hate relationship which puzzles them. As they are almost ignorant of its beginnings, they are unaware of how to bring it to a conclusion even if they were certain they wanted to. The action arises from a simple proposal by Charles Bruno: he will kill Guy Haines' wife if Haines will return the favor by killing Bruno's father; both will be able to escape suspicion since there is no link between them. In conception the plan is successful; its failure comes from both of the men who are to execute it: Guy cannot agree to the plan but can be manipulated five or six months later into meeting his obligation while Charley Bruno cannot keep himself from contacting Guy and trying to be friends. Thus both aspects of the plan's success—mutual consent and complete separation—are jeopardized.
The dualistic male pair is matched in two other all-male combinations: Guy finally confesses his share in his first wife's murder to her lover Owen Markman; Bruno is dogged consistently by Gerard, his father's detective, who eventually overhears Guy's confession. The Guy/Bruno pair thus splits into two less intense and less destructive segments—Guy/Owen and Bruno/Gerard. This is mirrored in the two wives of Guy Haines—Miriam, a redheaded southern girl with limited education, few social graces and too much interest in other men, contrasts with Anne, an intelligent, talented, wealthy woman of tact and sincerity. For all his vacillation, Guy can abandon neither; for all his determined gentlemanliness with Anne, Bruno wants to dispose of both. A pair of mothers, pair of murderers, pairs of houses, parties and hotels carry the point a bit too far in this first novel, but the crucial focus is well-developed and carefully maintained.
Charley Bruno is hardly an appealing character; his physical appearance, personal habits, tendency to whining and self-pity, not to mention his plan for murder, do not appeal to the reader. Yet Guy's tie with him is partially affectionate in nature; not only shared crime and Guy's guilt keep them together. Guy reveals his private feelings and problems believing that Bruno, as a stranger, is an unthreatening listener, but is forced to admit later that this is no ordinary stranger on a train but rather a cruel and corrupt one. Bruno seems incapable of being surprised; details only encourage him to probe for more information. Deciding to kill Miriam, his half of the "deal," he experiences neither guilt nor remorse, only a kind of excitement which gives direction to his life. Afterward he imagines his responses to a radio interview: She was like a rat to be killed; he couldn't say whether he would ever do it again: yes, he rather liked killing her. In the murder, in his plot to have his father killed so he and his mother would be free to live, in his drinking to constant drunkenness and in his reckless pursuit of Guy, Bruno reveals a man who always wants more, who cannot be sated. Although he claims to love Guy like a brother, he fantasizes being rid of Anne so the two men can really be close. His deficiency, Guy notes, is that Bruno does not know how to love, though he needs to learn. "Bruno was too lost, too blind to love or to inspire to love. It seemed all at once tragic." Bruno's only response is to equate love with sex or women and to think that he has never liked either.
Bruno quotes Guy as once having talked about opposites, saying that every person has an opposite, unseen part of himself which is lying in ambush waiting to attack unexpectedly and dangerously. This is clearly how Guy sees the two of them related: and to some degree, Bruno does also. Only metaphorically is it possible to understand the link between these two. Guy Haines is a well-respected young architect who seems to almost fall under the hypnotic spell of another man and his own innate decency. The latter, as much as the former, leads him to murder; because he is racked by guilt for not having prevented or accused Bruno in Miriam's murder, he equalizes his guilt by murdering Bruno's father. Guy is persistently haunted and reassured by the idea that his destiny, which he has always trusted, holds the answer to his guilt. He is convinced, for example, that atonement is part of his destiny and will find him without his searching for it; or, that the murder he's committed might have been part of his destiny—an improbable mixture of arrogance and humility which compels him to obey only the laws of his own fate.
A key to both Strangers and Highsmith's inversion of the standard techniques of the genre can be found in Guy Haines' profession. As an architect he is concerned with design, order, harmony and honesty. When he rejects a beach club commission because of Miriam's new entanglement in his life, Guy is genuinely pained to think of the imitation Frank Lloyd Wright building which will replace his perfect conception; in designing his own Y-shaped house, he refused necessary economies which would truncate the building. His work is, for him, a spiritual act, defined by unity and wholeness; it rejects disorder, fragmentation and shallowness. Contrasted in the two sections of the book are his description of the bridge he hopes to build as the climax of his career and his inability to accept the commission when telegraphed an offer. His dream of a great white bridge with a span like angels' wings is shattered when his feeling of corruption keeps him from his talent.
In Highsmith's fictional world, issues of order, harmony of civilization—whatever it is called—are seldom so simple and traditional. Contrasted with the more stereotyped perspective which Guy accepts is her series character Tom Ripley. His notions of order are equally predictable; Bach, or classical music in general, provide the right stimuli to focus his attention, distill and concentrate his mind. Ripley uses these devices, however sincerely he may value them as entities in themselves, as personal preparations for crime: fraud, theft, murder. Not so amoral, Guy uses them as avoidance mechanisms; he refuses to consider trying to create perfect order out of his own disordered mind. These attitudes toward order mark Highsmith's vacillating and threatening challenge to oversimplified theories of order and disorder, harmony and chaos. Never committing her fiction to either the triumph of order or the inevitability of chaos, she creates worlds which misuse both, locations in which both are equally and simultaneously present; in fact, she suggests that they may be indistinguishable. Highsmith's manipulation of these dualities suggests closer parallels with contemporary absurdists and existentialists than with her colleagues in crime or suspense fiction. Challenging the either or structure of human thinking in a work ostensibly about a pair of murders and murderers is part of Highsmith's conscious expansion of an established genre into a new and provocative form.
Like Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's masterful novel, The Blunderer charts the intersecting lives of two men who plan similar murders. Also filmed, this novel qualifies as one of the 100 best detective novels of all time, according to Julian Symons in the New York Times Book Review. "Unworthy friendships" is how Walter Stackhouse defines the subject of a book he considers writing: "A majority of people maintained at least one friendship with someone inferior to themselves because of certain needs and deficiencies that were either mirrored or complemented by the inferior friend." Coming across a newspaper report of an unusual death, Walter saves the clipping in his scrapbook of notes for his essays; later, he begins to consider how the murder might have been committed by the victim's husband. Miserably unhappy with his own wife Clara, he begins to fantasize committing a similar murder. Like Walter, Clara easily recognizes unworthy friends: she considers most of her husband's companions and even their neighbors in that light. Her critical, unfriendly, insulting manner costs Walter many friendships which he cherishes; he simply cannot forgive her.
Walter's fantasy life is rich and full. Because the world in which he lives does not meet his expectations, he creates an alternate reality in which the ordering of both events and motives are within his own command. Having convinced himself through reading newspaper clippings of Melchior Kimmel's guilt, he travels to the man's bookstore just to meet him, scrutinize him and reaffirm his verdict. Circumstances identical to those surrounding Helen Kimmel's death arise for the Stackhouses; Walter behaves exactly as he believes Kimmel had done, except that he does not kill Clara, although she dies. Initially, Highsmith's intermingling of Walter's fantasy with his actions implies murder; gradually, it becomes clear that Clara's death is truly not his responsibility.
The novel's irony develops from this confusion of reality and questions of responsibility. Kimmel has been a very careful killer; the police cannot prove his crime. Although they are suspicious, they cannot charge him. Nonetheless, he is guilty. Walter, not even sufficiently inventive to create his own mode of murder and then not sufficiently calculating or clever to go through with it, is a blunderer. He has left clues and suspicious evidence everywhere for the police to discover. Yet, he is innocent. The police are only reinforced in their unprovable thesis about Kimmel by the plethora of evidence they find against Stackhouse.
Bonding the two men further together in a strange alliance is their response to the police investigation. Initially both protect each other from Corby, a brutal, driven cop who tries to intimidate both Walter (psychologically) and Kimmel (physically). When their mutual protection breaks down, both men rush to betray each other to Corby; only the liar is believed. In a final irony and gesture of angry frustration, Kimmel kills Walter, taking great satisfaction in his death: "There was Stackhouse, any way! Enemy number one!" Captured immediately, Kimmel is caught killing the man who, he believes, murdered him by the blundering imitation which convinced the police.
Ironically, Walter's inability to acknowledge all the truth about his activities to either friends or the police leads to his being shunned. Neighbors too often questioned by the police avoid him; his respectable housekeeper quits; his friend and intended law partner withdraws from the arrangement; finally, his new girlfriend, a sensitive and affectionate violinist and children's music teacher, frustrated by his persistent evasions and new stories, begins to suspect him and ends their relationship. Even as Clara alive had alienated his friends, he too, responding to her death, achieves the same effect. His alienation is both the cause and effect of Walter's being forced into an isolated position where he feels compelled to create his own reality, ordering events which have no apparent basis in fact.
Walter Stackhouse's almost compulsive fascination with his counterpart is part of his cycle of "unworthy friendships." The ones he had documented for his essays clearly invoked an aura of power whereby the superior friend maintained his status through this relationship. And yet, in the pairing of Stackhouse and Kimmel, Highsmith challenges the foundation of so-called friendship which Walter establishes. The surface of an unworthy friendship implies all power and prestige to the superior partner; yet his dependence on the socially, economically, or morally inferior partner puts him under the second man's power. Should the weaker person withdraw even the slightest, the ostensibly stronger personality would be left without a framework in which to judge himself. Kimmel and Stackhouse articulate this exactly; the imaginative, amoral, clever Melchior Kimmel cannot evade Walter Stackhouse's blundering imitation or undesired attachment. Walter's fascination with this unwilling companion alerts the police and marks his power in the relationship. However, prior to this, his similar fascination had so engaged Walter that he felt compelled to imitate Kimmel's supposed wife-murder, implying that he is actually as powerless to resist Kimmel's subconscious, hypnotic influence as he later is to avoid Kimmel's enraged revenge.
Inverting and reversing concepts of power and powerlessness between the two men, Highsmith here indicates even more clearly her view of human conflict. Frequently, the same issue is raised more covertly in the novels and short stories, shown as male-female struggle. Both men in this novel insist on the unreasonable power which their wives have over them; the extent is more fully described in the Stackhouses' marriage but is implicit also with the Kimmels'. The temporary appearance of female power is shattered, however, when the women are threatened by the power-seeking men. Both women, the novel implies, are justifiably punished; Kimmel shares this attitude when he murders Walter. This parallel suggests a second: in establishing "unworthy friendships," men are looking for the male equivalent of a wife—someone whose inferiority is unquestionable, whose "power" can be manipulated, whose defined existence reinforces the ego of the man who chooses him/her. In Highsmith's novels, true and positive friendships are seen as impossible. Characters feed parasitically off each other, destroying the "friend" for their own needs, having sought someone whose destruction they will not really regret. Even when a character, such as Charley Bruno, sees the relationship as symbiotic—mutual rather than one-sided—he does not recognize how enormously different the intentions of the two friends are. As a result, the same alienation and destruction are inevitable.
The link between power and sexuality is clearly enunciated in The Two Faces of January, recognized in England as the best foreign crime novel of 1964 by the British Crime Writers Association. Ostensibly based on the criminal-accomplice alliance between Chester McFarland and Rydal Kenner, their relationship actually begins with Rydal's surprised recognition of Chester's physical resemblance to his recently dead father, an archaeology professor at Harvard. Seeing Chester in this context, Rydal vacillates between relating to Chester himself or to Chester as a shadow of his father with Rydal alternating between his fifteen-year-old self and his current adult stage. The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of the two men filtered through a central consciousness so that their reservations and curiosity about each other are both documented. Meanwhile, the authorial voice is weighing both. This pairing is further complicated by Chester's wife's (Colette) resemblance to Rydal's first love, Agnes, who had accused him of raping her, initiating Rydal's serious conflict with his father. Rydal's attraction to Colette generates his conflict with Chester, the father substitute.
The dual identities which these characters have in Rydal's mind are matched by their multiple aliases, assumed under a variety of circumstances and for different reasons. Chester's phoney stock dealing has led him to use various names in the U.S.; his flight from murder in Greece forces him to purchase two false passports. Colette, deciding at the age of fourteen that she did not like her given name Elizabeth, renamed herself; marriage changes her name again as does flight with Chester. Suspected of murder, Rydal not only obtains a false passport but also poses as an Italian, his fluency in languages allowing him to blend into crowds in Greece, Crete and Paris also.
Similar to their manipulation of names—accurate and false—is the author's and characters' dealing with truth. Rydal has a juvenile criminal record because of Agnes' accusation of rape and an attempted grocery robbery in bitterness and anger at being disbelieved; nonetheless, he is no criminal. Chester McFarland, who has escaped suspicion, owes his income to deception and fraud, his continued freedom to murdering a Greek police officer, and his conflict with Rydal to the killing of his own wife in an attempt to murder Rydal. However, they both protect and expose each other in the police investigation triggered anew by Colette's death; the unspoken and unacknowledged between them keeps each committed to the other. Finally, in his deathbed confession, Chester continues to lie, freeing Rydal from all voluntary participation in either murder or flight to escape arrest.
It is continually clear that Chester's parental resemblance persists in its influence. Chester's protection of him, clearing him of complicity in any of Chester's crimes, demonstrates a faith in Rydal's essential decency and reverses his father's harsher judgment on that same point twelve years earlier. Rydal considers his own behavior, perhaps also reflecting on the past:
He did not by any means emerge a hero, nor did his behavior appear very intelligent, but none of his actions was labelled criminal.
The final note of reconciliation with his past, father, and himself is signaled in Rydal's decision to attend Chester's funeral although he had deliberately bypassed his own father's, because "Chester deserved more than that." In this, Rydal rounds off his adolescence and frees himself to return to the States. As his paternal grandmother's money, willed as a sign of her belief in him, had freed Rydal to escape to Europe, Chester's money, extorted in exchange for silence and freedom, sends Rydal back home.
In himself, Chester McFarland is not an especially interesting character. A petty criminal in terms of his types of crime if not his financial success, his only complexity comes from Rydal's interest in and confusion about him. Before the police official's death, he is friendly and fairly easygoing; he kills almost by accident, shows little remorse or fear and is surprised by his wife's more emotional response. His attempt to murder Rydal comes from male sexual jealousy and possessiveness over Colette and Rydal's mutual attraction; though he fails to eliminate his rival, Chester does break up the flirtation by killing his wife instead. His reaction is proportionally more one of anger at Rydal for having escaped than of sadness or self-directed anger.
On the other hand, Rydal Kenner is a psychologically complex and even confusing character. Throughout the novel, his actions and reactions are based on a mixture of feelings of anger and betrayal at fifteen and his adult attempt to feel reconciled with his father through an intense attraction to and rejection of Chester McFarland. Immediately involved in Chester's criminal activities, the reverse of his relationship with his own stern father who had him sent to reform school, Rydal begins to confuse the two men, superimposing the image of one over the other. No longer the less knowledgeable child, Rydal assists the unprepared McFarlands, through his knowledge of Greece and the language, to obtain false passports and escape notice; this knowledge is ironically the result of his father's disciplined teaching in Rydal's childhood. Rydal's response to Colette's flirtation because she reminds him of his first love offers him the opportunity to justify his adolescent behavior, avenge the rape charge, punish his father for being wrong, and take advantage of Chester. The mutual seduction of young Rydal and Agnes is superseded by the flirtations seduction of Colette; when she changes her mind, Rydal's acceptance of that decision despite his aroused feelings vindicates his former claims of innocence. Because they never slept together, although Rydal taunts Chester with the idea that they did, he is able to manipulate the sexual situation as Agnes had done, hurting the father substitute/husband.
In most of Highsmith's works sexuality correlates with power and possessiveness. Men generally don't like women as people; Charley Bruno merely speaks more openly than most about the opposite sex as a whole rather than a specific individual:
('What significance did it have for you that your victim was female?')… Well, the fact that she was female had given him greater enjoyment. No, he did not therefore conclude that his pleasure had partaken of the sexual. No, he did not hate women either. Rather not! Hate is akin to love, you know … No, all he would say was that he wouldn't have enjoyed it quite so much, he thought, if he had killed a man (Stranger).
This unadmitted hatred is tied to possessiveness in two ways: jealousy and envy. Men wish to possess both women themselves and what women seem to have simultaneously. To do this, it becomes necessary to destroy women physically or psychologically. Chester McFarland insures permanent ownership of his wife through her death and from this he also gains Colette's possession—Rydal Kenner and his fascination. For Rydal, who had never possessed her in either sexual or legal terms, her murder had to be avenged not so much for her loss as for his own.
This stereotyping of male-female relationships as little more than potentially destructive sexual encounters is typical in Highsmith's fiction. Several causes are worth considering: first, she has totally absorbed social attitudes and is unconscious of the anti-woman tone; second, she is acknowledging a mind-set on the part of her readers which is too strongly ingrained to be easily overthrown; third, having challenged the boundaries of her genre in so many other arenas, she is unwilling to force the issue. Certainly not arguable in most cases is the theory that the portraits of women are ironically inverted as critic Tom Paulin notes of Misogyny (and the point is valid elsewhere): "[I]t would be wrong to read these stories as indirectly feminist satires on dependency because the real centre of their inspiration is the delight Patricia Highsmith everywhere shows for the brutal ways in which these unlikely women are first murdered and then 'thrown away as one might throw away a cricket lighter when it is used up.'" Paulin's "everywhere" must, however, be modified, as must any judgment of Highsmith's treatment of women, to acknowledge her 1977 novel Edith's Diary. Even here, however, the revisionist treatment of women is covertly presented.
Not usually considered a suspense novel, Edith's Diary is unique in Highsmith's canon for its female protagonist. The novel is ostensibly the story of a former New York housewife and writer's move to rural Pennsylvania and of the years which follow during which her son drinks, fantasizes and can't hold a job; her husband divorces her and remarries; his invalid uncle finally dies and Edith's favorite great aunt and supporter dies. Throughout, Edith records these events and others which never happened in a large leather-bound diary she has had since college. It is her confidante and her escape. Finally, her friends and ex-husband accuse her of mental instability and an incomplete grasp of reality; trying to disprove them, she is accidentally killed. In fact, the novel is anything but what it appears to be. Unlike her counterparts in other novels, Edith is never acknowledged as a victim nor is her death seen as murder. While no single individual is actually responsible for killing her, Edith dies as a result of society's pressure to conform to a female stereotype urged on her by her ex-husband. As a representative of the larger community, Brett Howland stifles Edith's psychological life and contributes to the circumstances which lead to her physical death.
In Edith's Diary, Highsmith is following in the tradition of nineteenth century women writers who disguised their tales of anger and frustration in the more conventional and acceptable cloak of punishing women for their independent behavior. As recent feminist literary criticism has noted, a pattern of action was developed in which the assertive, strong-willed, intelligent female character suffered one of three inevitable fates: insanity, suicide, or death, as apparently logical outgrowths of and altogether commendable punishment for their behavior. What critics have also noted, however, is the way women writers have used these surface stories to hide their more subversive underlying message. Certainly, Charlotte Bronte and Charlotte Perkins Gilman provide perfect examples of this; Jane Eyre and the nameless narrator-writer of "The Yellow Wallpaper" are Edith Howland's literary ancestors. They write their own stories because they are unable to create their own lives; Edith's diary becomes a novel, like Highsmiuth's, in which the woman writer tells two stories.
The surface story of Edith's growing madness and apparent personality change is told in two ways: by her ex-husband and her friend, Gert Johnson, and through her diary entries. The people who know her become convinced that she is changing, that she is no longer in control of her own sanity. They verify this change by pointing to four specific activities which they cannot understand and do not wish to accept. Edith, they say, has become unusually and excessively argumentative to the point where she is willing to alienate friends and acquaintances; she has become increasingly conservative in her attitudes and proposes more authoritarian institutions in her writings; she has published parodies or fantasies in underground newspapers. Finally, she has refused a $10,000 check from her husband who offers it as part of the estate of his dead uncle. For the casual reader, Edith's diary entries reinforce the charges of instability: she invents a happy, successful marriage and life for her son Cliffie whose amoral and lazy behavior has remained unchanged since his childhood; and, after their divorce, she writes of her ex-husband Brett's death, not his actual remarriage and new family. In emphasizing her happiness and satisfaction, Edith's diary entries seem directly contradictory to her reality in which anger and frustration surface daily over the divorce and having to continue to care for Brett's invalid, incontinent Uncle George while Brett and his new family avoid the daily responsibility and expense.
If this evidence seems weighted against Edith, it rapidly becomes apparent that the submerged story, carefully revealed and concealed, makes a different point. At the novel's opening, Edith is a young married mother. Her husband wants to live in the country which he believes their child needs and deserves. Although Edith agrees to move, she is not sure she accepts Brett's rationale. Apparently happy in their new home, Edith becomes more tied to her family; even the local newspaper they try to start jointly has Brett, the professional, as the final authority. And, although he delegates the responsibility for their son Cliffie, Brett's advice and criticism make it clear that he still wishes to control how she handles the boy. The pattern is continued when his Uncle George comes to live in the extra room which was to have been Edith's study; almost alone, she cares for the selfish old man. Nonetheless, she has some illusions of control over her own life; she believes she participates in the decisions which direct her life. When Brett divorces her, leaving George and Cliffie behind, pressing money and, later psychiatrists on Edith, she begins to recognize how few of the decisions reflected her own choice.
Unable to change the divorce, Cliffie, or George, Edith takes control of her life in two logical ways: her social opinions alter and her diary records a better life. It is certainly plausible that the liberal Edith should gradually become more conservative and even propose stricter, more authoritarian measures in some of her articles. Even as others have controlled her life, she is demanding a place to control also. Having lost power in her own actual world without being aware of it, she gropes for another part of the world where her knowledge, experience, talent or mere presence will offer her some escape from a powerless position. Yet she also continues to write for Shove It, an underground magazine, which accepts a fantasy deliberately more extreme than her actual beliefs, almost as though to demonstrate how varied her opinions are. In this, she seems to believe that by constantly changing the grounds of her argument, by persistently refusing to be forced into any mold, she can avoid the judgment and limitations society—in the pernicious form of family and friends—seeks to impose upon her.
The diary entries, which seem to demonstrate Edith's decline, are actually very carefully introduced, making clear her awareness of the life she is creating for herself in exchange for the one others would like to force on her:
Edith had in the last month decided that Brett should be dead since about three years now. It didn't matter that this conflicted with George's demise and funeral service. Edith was writing her diary for pleasure, and was taking poetic license, as she put it to herself.
While she does not consistently insist on this fictive approach, occasional reminders do surface to alert the aware reader of her deliberate and conscious creation of an alternative reality. Aware that her husband and friend know that she mistrusts their plotting to get her to see a psychiatrist, Edith, nonetheless, tries to placate them—"make a gesture of goodwill!" Offering to show them a piece of her sculpture, she trips carrying it down the stairs, hits her head and dies. While falling she "thought of injustice, felt her personal sense of injustice combined now with the crazy complex injustice of the Vietnam situation…."
Parallels with the Vietnam war are not inappropriate in this covertly feminist novel; at issue is the repeated question of power and superiority. The traditional American male, secure in the knowledge that his point of view is always accurate, saw himself rushing to defend the smaller and weaker nation of Vietnam as he sees himself hurrying chivalrously to assist the weaker sex, all the time despising these "gooks" and "broads." In unconsciously deliberate power plays, he destroys both. Edith's attempt to placate society, to convince it to leave her alone, are the gestures of the subordinate; her failure to achieve even understanding or an independent life is inevitable. The demands she makes challenge the established order's view of itself and threaten the hierarchical arrangement of power and status.
If Strangers on a Train is the model for Highsmith's later work, then The Storyteller presents a paradigmatic overview of her non-series novels. Highsmith must have enjoyed writing this compendium of good and bad murder-detective-suspense tales enormously. In a short story, "The Man Who Wrote Books in his Head," she creates a protagonist who so completely wrote and polished his novels mentally that he felt no need of committing them to paper; even on his deathbed he is able to quote passages accurately, although he has obviously remembered only some of his works. It is certainly true that, with the exception of Walter Stackhouse, all of Highsmith's characters are inventive and imaginative, however, in no other work as compared with The Storyteller do their stories intersect and yet so completely miss the mark since, after all, the murder they describe here never happens.
The victim is Alicia Bartleby whose accidental death actually follows the investigation of her suspected murder. Accused by a neighbor and his partner is Sidney Bartleby, a novelist and television scriptwriter. Complicating Sid's defense is the diary he kept after Alicia's departure for a secret rendezvous with her lover. Wishing to experience guilt in order to use the material in his writing, Sid has fantasized Alicia's murder and recorded the details in his diary. Hoping to clear himself, he tracks his wife; when she later dies, Sid forces her lover to commit suicide, believing him guilty of Alicia's death.
The novel is an unusual one in Highsmith's canon with far less of the overt brooding and dark atmosphere which marks most of her work; it is even more striking for its apparent lack of or interest in violence until the very end. These factors combine to give a misleading surface impression of the story and the author's intentions. Although the work seems more benign, even positive and relatively harmless, it is actually more negative and critical of human inclination to crime and violence than her more blatant murder novels. Couched almost entirely in stories, fantasies, inventions, novels and TV scripts, the substance of the book seems distinct but unthreatening; the characters seem inventive but non-violent. In fact, the very complex and satisfactory quality of their fantasies seems, through eighty percent of the book, to replace the need for action. Insidiously, Highsmith makes the reader laugh, approve, even easily identify with the story-makers, especially Sid; for who has not imagined what he would never wish to do?
Because Sidney and Alicia Bartleby have marital problems, they decide to separate briefly, she deliberately not telling him that she's going to Brighton where she hopes to meet a new lover, Edward Tilbury. A writer with a growing sense of hostility, Sidney has little success selling his ironically named novel The Planners. Having often imagined the details of murdering many people, including his wife, Sidney decides to use Alicia's departure as an opportunity to visualize her dead and himself the murderer. He even keeps a notebook to help him feel like a real criminal, noting actions and reactions as if for a novel: "Sidney thought automatically and as impersonally as if he were thinking about the actions of a character in a story." When the police find the notebook, Sidney explains his view of it: "The narrative—descriptions in the notebook—is not true. You might say the ideas in it are true. I mean, it's not a diary of facts."
Including Sidney's, which is the most elaborate and most imaginative, six different stories intersect throughout this novel, delighting the reader by Highsmith's adroit parallels. The Bartlebys' neighbor, Mrs. Lillybanks, constructs hers around having seen Sid carrying a rolled carpet over his shoulder out of the house at dawn on the day after Alicia had left. Carrying the carpet as though it contained a heavy body, Sid is fantasizing murder; Mrs. Lillybanks suspects him of just that. Sid's partner in writing TV scripts has a much more self-centered version of the story; Alex Polk-Faraday blackmails Sid for a larger share of their joint royalties when the police are investigating. Refused, he tells a version of Alicia's murder story which claims to take seriously his and Sid's joking repartee about wife-murderers. Unlike Mrs. Lillybanks who has cause for suspicion and remains silent, Alex accuses Sid to the police. Meanwhile, Alicia, under an assumed name, and her lover are deliberately hiding out, refusing to respond to police information requests in the newspaper. Alicia's version of events is based on embarrassment at having to admit where she's been and what she's done; the longer she hides, the deeper this difficulty goes. Edward Tilbury, on the other hand, commutes weekly to his office in London where he tells the false story of his weekend whereabouts over several months. Concerned primarily for his reputation, he urges Alicia to respond to the police; she, with the same concern, refuses. Overlying all these inventions is Sid's newest TV character, The Whip:
The Whip would be a criminal character who did something ghastly in every episode…. The audience saw everything through the Whip's eyes, did everything with him, finally plugged for him through thick and thin and hoped the police would fail, which they always did. He wouldn't carry a whip or anything like that, but the nickname would be suggestive of depraved and secret habits…. He has no police record, because he has always been too clever for the police. And he started young, of course. No, that couldn't be conveyed, because The Whip had no intimates with whom he talked. That would be part of the fascination: the audience wouldn't know what was on The Whip's mind until he started doing things.
Sidney thinks about his journal of Alicia's "murder" and episodes of The Whip: the former "gave Sidney a pleasant feeling of both creating something and of being a murderer"; the latter undoubtedly reinforced it.
Eventually Sidney becomes a killer but not as he had expected, nor is Alicia the victim. Instead, he seems to be responsible for Mrs. Lillybanks' heart attack: he believes she may have died from fear of him. He also forces Edward Tilbury to commit suicide, inaccurately suspecting him of having pushed Alicia off a cliff. Neither death is a conventional murder; neither can be attributed to him. Like The Whip, he eludes capture and is more clever than his detractors; he even recognizes that he could safely write the facts of Tilbury's death in his notebook without attracting police suspicion.
Sidney's claim and belief that he is punishing Tilbury is debatable. It seems far more likely that his actions result from sexual jealousy, guilt for suppressed hostility against Alicia, revenge for the difficulties their hiding out cost him and anger for Tilbury's apparently having done, in supposedly murdering Alicia, what Sidney himself is able only to fantasize doing. Finally, moving confidently and aggressively against Tilbury, he is able to become his own character, to create himself.
Rootless or dissatisfied, Highsmith's characters often need, like Sidney Bartleby, to create themselves. In one of two ways, Highsmith defines this self-creation or re-creation through the concept of dualities which regularly appears in her novels. First, two characters are bonded together in a love-hate relationship as one tries to absorb the essential qualities of the other so that the two seem as one. Charley Bruno does this with Guy Haines in Stranger, leading both of them to murder and rejection; Walter Stackhouse imposes himself on Melchior Kimmel with both success and failure. Otherwise, a single character, equally unsettled about his own nature and personality, divides into two, becoming both what he was and what he hopes to be. Colette McFarland (January) changed her name as a teenager to feel like a different person; Edith Howland writes a second self. In This Sweet Sickness, David Kelsey functions normally in his work world while simultaneously constructing a fantasy-marriage, decorating a home and having conversations with his imaginary bride. With unsatisfying self-images, these characters require an alternative mirror to the one which reflects reality. They remake the world to conform to their needs, even if that leads to murder and violence.
In certain ways, they would all like to emulate Sidney's creation, The Whip. Defined in a phrase—"The Whip acts"—this character serves as a standard against which all Highsmith's characters measure themselves. The reader feels much like the projected TV audience; in the latter case motivation is unknown because The Whip shares none of his thoughts with friends. In the novels, psychological and emotional attitudes are presented and analyzed but no conclusion is ever clearly and incontrovertibly reached. Characters often seem to act and especially to kill, for reasons other than those articulated by the text. If The Whip is a model of the unknowable killer-of-action, then his direct and mirror images among Highsmith's protagonists are like him in the acting and unlike him in being as unknown to themselves as to their audiences. Too few see themselves clearly; their self-images are informed by fantasy and desire.
Highsmith's only series character, Tom Ripley, appears in four novels published between 1955 and 1980: The Talented Mr. Ripley, which won both the Mystery Writers of America Scroll and the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, Ripley under Ground, Ripley's Game and The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Because even the first novel is based more on character alone than on the combination of character development within a self-ending plot and because Tom himself is likeable despite his criminal actions, the Ripley character is one of the few Highsmith creations who can continue. He bears some resemblance to Rydal Kenner in The Two Faces of January; in fact, both Ripley and the young man he befriends in The Boy Who Followed Ripley are like Rydal in their attempts to escape and yet understand the past, to know themselves and comprehend their own often implausible actions. The Ripley novels are also made more interesting in having the usual traits of a series: the recurring cast of supporting characters including his wife, housekeeper, criminal associates and even his first murder victim, Dickie Greenleaf; familiar and new aspects of the protagonist are developed as former episodes and established traits are woven into each additional novel—music, art, the American-in-Europe character. Tom Ripley remains recognizably familiar yet develops interesting aspects as he matures.
The young Tom Ripley introduced in The Talented Mr. Ripley, is gauche, uncertain and not quite immoral or guiltless; he has a strong sense of inferiority and an intense desire to change his lifestyle and himself. Several typical patterns are established here and continue with slight variations in the subsequent novels: the mixture of sympathy and justification Tom feels, his desire to get and then protect exactly what he wants and feels he deserves, his isolation which is not loneliness, and his willingness to kill. The last is the least interesting in itself. The reader's real fascination with Ripley comes from the mixture of all his other tendencies with that one, from questions about the absence of guilt and of any ordinary pangs of conscience.
At the novel's opening, Ripley is reasonably worried about being followed from one bar to another by a stranger since he has been operating an IRS scam. Although the potential difficulty works out well, in accord with Tom's philosophy that "something always turned up," the Ripley status and attitude are established. First, he has cause to be always on guard; secondly, he manages to escape detection. The meeting he has with Dickie Greenleaf's father and the subsequent commission to convince his distant acquaintance, Dickie, to return home from Europe give Tom what he hopes will be an opportunity for a new life. He dwells on his rejection, deprivation, modest and unfulfilled childhood desires and hopes to succeed. Like Lambert Strether in Henry James' The Ambassadors, Tom fails completely in his assignment, the results satisfying him and disappointing his employer. Ironically, this "job" does lead him to a new life, but not as he had anticipated—he does not become the smart, well dressed, clever and successful American in Europe.
Perhaps the results of his trip ought to have been apparent from his interview: he lies to the Greenleafs about how well he knows their son, his education, his former jobs and tells them the truth only about having been orphaned and raised by an aunt. Yet, "he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt if he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true." Feeling rejected by Dickie and his girlfriend and also by Mr. Greenleaf's businesslike letters when he cannot convince Dickie to return home, Tom assuages his genuinely hurt feelings by imitating Dickie, wearing his clothes and mimicking his voice. Caught at it, he is embarrassed and his hurt, angry feelings grow:
He hated Dickie, because however he looked at what had happened, his failing had not been his own fault, not due to anything he had done but to Dickie's inhuman stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold.
For this, he feels justified in murdering Dickie.
Although Tom occasionally, and once in particular, regrets having killed Dickie and wishes he could change what had happened, he is more often pleased with his cleverness in evading discovery by Dickie's friends and family or the police, in masquerading successfully as Dickie and in forging a will making himself Dickie's heir. It is this last success which finally frees Tom from his early awkwardness, feeling of inferiority and needing the world to approve of him; it gratifies his desire for luxury, importance, self-justification and getting away with something.
When he reappears in Ripley under Ground, Tom has married the daughter of a wealthy businessman and provided himself with an income by participating in an art fraud where forgeries are passed off as the work of a reclusive painter who actually has committed suicide. Disguise is again an important motif as Tom impersonates the painter Derwatt as he impersonated Dickie Greenleaf. Determined again to protect his possessions, he poses successfully and kills where necessary. In this novel, Ripley's material acquisitions and personal taste form an important part of the development of his character; the opportunity to create himself and his life has been used in ways which satisfy him:
Tom loved his leisure, however, as only an American could, he thought—once an American got the hang of it, and so few did. It was not a thing he cared to put into words to anyone. He had longed for leisure and a bit of luxury when he had met Dickie Greenleaf, and now that he had attained it, the charm had not palled.
As well as any other example in the novel, this clarifies his state of mind. He is complacent and self-satisfied, almost a bit smug and superior about others who can not achieve as he has; while the stated goal is appreciation, the means to it was murder—which presumably others could also not handle. He demonstrates no pangs of conscience or remorse; his pleasure is not dimmed by the memory of how it was obtained. Like Sid Bartleby, David Kelsey, and Edith Howland, he has assumed another identity in which his actions are reasonable and logical, his rewards deserved and justified.
The three legal and ordinary pleasures which he enjoys are introduced here and developed in subsequent novels: gardening, music and art. His illegally obtained incomes help him build a greenhouse, purchase a harpsichord and collect fine paintings, both real and forged. Music especially becomes a leitmotif as Ripley uses different types or even individual pieces in varying circumstances to alter or improve his mood. Preparing to impersonate the painter Derwatt, he sends his colleague out to purchase a copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream to inspire him. Jazz, on the other hand, does nothing for him in crucial moments—"only classical music did something … because it had order, and one either accepted that order or rejected it." After a successful shootout with the Mafia and destruction of the bodies, he discusses Bach with his dazed companion, describing the composer's work as instantly civilizing.
Because he is not so frantic for acceptance or affection as he had been with Dickie Greenleaf and because he is now more mature about his role in relationships, Tom can be more introspective about his marriage. Neither sex nor his wife Heloise's family money concern Tom as much as their shared disrespectful partnership, their ability to laugh together at conventional attitudes, their similar though not equal amorality. However, no matter how important she is to him and how much confidence he has in her, he does not tell her what he does or where his money comes from, although she suspects both. Even in lovemaking he preserves a certain separation which might be "shyness or puritanism … or some fear of (mentally) giving himself completely" but may also be a positive pleasure experienced from the "inanimate, unreal, from a body without an identity." And yet, humanly contradictory, he does not want to be rejected, salving his ego when people who've heard rumors about his reputation withdraw by the knowledge that most people really liked him when they got to know him better in his own home where he has created an ambiance of culture, taste and friendliness which charms them. The reader shares his neighbors' vacillating judgments of Tom, subtly drawn to like him despite distaste and revulsion for his actions by Highsmith's refusal to relinquish these contradictions in his portrait.
Ripley's contradictions certainly extend to his crimes and murders: while he gives the impression of being willing to bypass violence and additional crime so long as he can protect his safety and income, he also kills without squeamishness or regret and commits minor crimes virtually without thinking about them except when the arrangements inconvenience him. There is a strange quirk of logic in all but the first novel which allows his actions to seem finally justifiable. The cruelest of Ripley's actions is no crime at all: because cancer victim Jonathan Trevanny had, Tom thought, sneered at him, Ripley begins a cruel game in Ripley's Game to drag the cancer victim into a scheme to murder two Mafia men. He wants to "make Jonathan Trevanny who Tom sensed was priggish and self righteous, uneasy for a time." Ripley succeeds, but Trevanny, who kills one Mafia man alone and three more in Ripley's company, becomes estranged from his wife and child, confused and guilty and finally dies in another Shootout. Although Tom recognizes the role of his own curiosity and later tries to help Trevanny accomplish the murders and make peace with his wife, the casual manner in which he sets all this trauma in motion and his suggestion that medical records be falsified to prod Trevanny to further action are thoughtlessly and needlessly callous. In the end, Ripley can even feel virtuous because the victims were Mafia—"there were people more dishonest, more corrupt, decidedly more ruthless than himself"—and because Trevanny's wife, having not helped the police, seems as corrupt as "much of the rest of the world."
Mixed motives regularly dog Ripley's decisions. To protect the Derwatt forgery schemes, he believes that he would "lay my soul bare, show him the poems I've written to Heloise, take my clothes off and do a sword dance…." (Ripley under Ground): instead, he murders. Death and deception are justified in the name of Bernard Tufts, Derwatt's close friend, admirer, and forger whose conscience drives him toward suicide. Telling himself that he's going to help Tufts, Ripley half consciously urges him toward death, making Tufts doubt his vision and sanity. With this death, two of Ripley's problems seem solved: Tufts cannot now reveal the forgery scheme and his burned corpse can be falsely identified as Derwatt. Though he thinks he might have preferred another outcome, Tom knows he consciously worked the situation out as he really wanted. Even Ripley's apparently generous offer to help runaway Frank Pierson in The Boy Who Followed Ripley return to his family and reject his own feelings of guilt at having pushed his crippled father off a cliff is motivated, in part, by Tom's seeing himself in the boy and wanting to recreate and thus justify his own behavior. How far apart the two are is registered in Tom's attitude about guilt:
How was Frank ever going to achieve the big justification, which would take away all his guilt? He might never find a total justification, but he had to find an attitude. Every mistake in life, Tom thought, had to be met by an attitude, either the right attitude or the wrong one, a constructive or self-destructive attitude. What was tragedy for one man was not for another, if he could assume the right attitude toward it. Frank felt guilt, which was why he had looked up Tom Ripley, curiously Tom had never felt such guilt, never let it seriously trouble him. In this, Tom realized that he was odd. Most people would have experienced insomnia, bad dreams, especially after committing a murder such as that of Dickie Greenleaf, but Tom had not (Boy).
Yet, in taking Frank to Berlin, giving him time to plan, rescuing him from kidnappers and flying home to the States with him, Ripley shows understanding and compassion which almost no one else could. However, his inability to understand Frank's guilt and need for personal salvation eventually contribute to the boy's suicide. Tom's sympathy and recognition of his failure to comprehend leave him as vulnerable as he had been with Dickie Greenleaf's rejection and no more certain how to cope with it.
Tom's guiltlessness and apparent inability to comprehend guilt feelings in others are among the strongest impressions a reader receives from the Ripley series. In the four books Tom participates in over a dozen murders, three extended fraudulent schemes, four major betrayals of trust and dozens of minor crimes. Only infrequently and briefly is he ever even willing to consider the morality of his decisions or the ethical nature of his behavior. Highsmith's conception of the criminal-hero as a superior person (expressed in Plotting) is manifest in Tom Ripley's creation of himself. Once he has justified, however briefly and inadequately, lying to Dickie Greenleaf's father in order to secure the trip to Europe, he recreates himself. Rejecting his unpleasant childhood, all the memories and all the lessons learned in it, he becomes a new-born. His schooling both on the ship and in Italy convince Tom of the futility of moral behavior. Not immoral but thoroughly amoral, he accepts no standards of judgment which would undermine his new status and freedom. In the clear-cut contrast between himself and Frank Pierson, Tom is genuinely bewildered. Intellectually, he knows that some people feel guilty; he takes advantage of this in dealing with them. Emotionally, he no longer comprehends the feeling. Self-serving and self-protective, Tom recognizes that to atone himself to guilt would inhibit his financial and criminal success; so he perseveres in his chosen ignorance of guilt and rejects circumstances which would force the sensation upon him.
Because Tom Ripley, like few other Highsmith protagonists, is a calculating criminal whose behavior is both conscious and deliberate, he poses a dilemma for the reader. On the one side, his actions and their consequences are vicious and destructive; he can be neither enjoyed nor admired in that light. On the other, his motivations and choices are clearly and logically debated; there is a certain fascination to the way his mind works which can intrigue and attract a reader who is simultaneously repulsed. Tom's criminality seems to fit him; it is a part of his everyday life. Side by side in his living room hang two "Derwatt" paintings, one real and the other—"in the place of honor"—forged. He recognizes his preference for the forgery despite his judgment that the other is better art. This image may also represent his life where ordinary activities stand next to criminal ones, the latter usurping the primary place in his life. For the reader, the disconcerting blend of real and ordinary with forgery and crime may discompose; but, at least here, readers understand how Tom operates and where his priorities intersect.
Having considered the extraordinary talent and vitality which Highsmith brings to the genre, as well as the innovations and expansions she uses to extend its limits, the conclusion to this essay is an appropriate place to speculate on her reception by readers. Julian Symons, who admires her work, calling her "the most important crime novelist at present in practice," also recounts an anecdote about mystery publisher and fan Victor Gollancz regarding Highsmith's novels. Having read The Two Faces of January, Gollancz declined to read her works further. Symons wryly remarks that Highsmith is an acquired taste which some never manage. It is possible to analyze, admire and value her contributions to fiction without having acquired the taste and, even, without particularly wishing to read her next published work. While admiration and pleasure need not always go hand-in-hand, some consideration of the divergent feelings her work provokes illuminates her intention.
In establishing the novels' frameworks, atmospheres and, often, characters, Highsmith seems to be providing a realistic perspective. Details are sharp and accurate; settings are reliable, characters behave in ways observable in society at large. While readers of classical puzzle-mysteries look for an intellectual challenge and fans of the hard-boiled expect psychological truth and action, no reader of crime or mystery fiction anticipates deliberate violations of realism. In such circumstances, puzzles cannot be solved or criminals' moves anticipated. Nonetheless, Highsmith violates this convention; unbelievable details, actions, psychology or motives sit side-by-side with realistic elements. If the readers were merely confused, disoriented, or annoyed by these juxtapositions, the novels could be rejected as failures. However, although these reactions are shared by Highsmith's audience, this response must be separate from the judgments. Perhaps one of Highsmith's great strengths is in making readers nervous and uncomfortable with her talent.
Chief among Highsmith's deviations is her presentation of psychological motivation. The characters seem so much like known and understood people in the everyday world that their decisions to kill are unanticipated, unpredicted and baffling. Because the murderers are such ordinary people, the readers initially identify and empathize with them. Highsmith uses the narrators' varieties of omniscience to create sympathy for the protagonist; she manipulates readers to like her characters and understand their lives and feelings. She draws her readers into recognizing themselves in most of the characters' action and behavior. Then a character murders; the readers are faced with accepting Guy Haines' discovery that anyone has the capacity for killing given the right circumstances. Rejecting this idea, which would force them to see themselves as potential murders, the readers attempt to retrace the character's psychological state, mental attitude and reasoning patterns which led to the decision to kill. Frequently, there are none; or, more accurately, none really matter. Only the intersection of victim, killer and circumstances make this occasion different from others. The crime-solution game of conventional detective novels becomes a new kind of psychological scavenger hunt in which all the clues either mislead or direct the readers to vacant lots. Without the explanations which allow the readers a comfortable place from which to contrast themselves and the murderer, their avoidance mechanisms are employed for self-protection. They become irritated with the character, seeing ways in which circumstances could have been avoided, loopholes sought and danger eluded. In this process of criticism and distancing, readers often confuse their dislike for the characters and discomfort with the criminal activity for a valid critique of the novel and its author.
In challenging the readers' self-image of safe innocence and protective, benign behavior, Highsmith risks alienating her audience. Her canon of twenty-two crime books indicates more clearly than any single evaluation how willing she is to take such risks. Her characters are too much like and yet too unlike her audience to be attractive and appealing; their behavior is too close to the dark ruthlessly hidden side of human personality; their actions, however, much they may correspond with readers' fantasies, are too disruptive to be allowed. In showing us ourselves, Highsmith takes the elements of her given genre and creates a sharp, new fictional form.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287
SOURCE: A review of Little Tales of Misogyny, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 91, April 6, 1986, p. 22.
[In the following review, Hegi criticizes Highsmith's portrayal of women in Little Tales of Misogyny.]
Punishment is the central theme of this collection of stories about women that was first published in a German translation in the mid-70s. The titles of the stories give an indication of their content: "The Mobile Bed-Object," "The Middle-Class Housewife," "The Breeder," "The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife." Patricia Highsmith's women destroy men and, as a result, most of them are punished. Yvonne, "The Coquette," is killed by two of her suitors "with various blows about the head." Claudette, "The Dancer," is strangled by her partner for refusing to sleep with him. Mildred, the bed-object, is dumped into a canal and drowned. "She had been thrown away, as one might throw away a cricket lighter when it is used up, like a paperback one has read." Catherine, "The Victim," wears makeup and platform boots though she isn't even 12; her rapes are portrayed as a direct result of her appearance: "As time went on, when Cathy complained about rape, her parents paid not much attention. After all, Cathy had been on The Pill." Patricia Highsmith is the author of several books, including The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder and Ripley under Ground. In Little Tales of Misogyny she uses her women characters to perpetuate the worst stereotypes. Her selection of titles certainly indicates that she is aware of the hatred of women that fills the pages of her book, but this awareness does not make up for it. Her tales seem intended to be witty and sarcastic; yet they come across as shallow and vicious.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
SOURCE: "Death for Elsie," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 14, August 7, 1986, p. 21.
[In the following excerpt, Ricks provides a positive review of Found in the Street, focusing on Highsmith's depiction of crime and her portrayal of the protagonist, Elsie Tyler.]
Patricia Highsmith has been praised by Graham Greene in the good old way as 'a writer who has created a world of her own'. She can be even better than that—when she takes a world and makes it not only her own but ours. She lurks in the murk where you have to peer to check if this is an—or the—underworld. In her seething city-settings, paranoia may be the saving of you, and yet paranoia does have, too, a hideously masochistic alluring power. She is the poet of these death-bearing pheromones of fear.
Found in the Street is her exact territory; she patrols these Greenwich Village streets as if from a neighbourhood vigilante force. Strangers on a powder-train. She knows crime well, especially in its intimacy with sin and with frustration; she watches for the selfish illiberality of paid-up progressives and for the malfeasances of the Watch Committee, for prurience and high-minded corruption. As a novelist she is herself placed in this grey area or combat zone: should the new Highsmith be sent for review to the supreme fiction people or to the crime squad? She capitalises candidly on these equivocations: Her studies of alienation are at once very literary and allusive and entirely untrammelled by fictive thickenings and alienation-effects. If she is more than admired by, actually is read by, highbrows, this is partly because there is just now a special relief in so unfurrowed a writer from 'the underworld of letters'.
The phrase is T. S. Eliot's. His breach between the underworld of letters and 'serious writers', even though he judged the former (like the music hall as against 'serious' theatre) to be the more healthy in many ways, is one which Highsmith's art both concedes and does something to heal. Their cities, Eliot's and hers, are weightily real and phantasmagorically unreal. 'That subway smell was of old metal-on-metal, of oily dust moist with human breath, the semi-trapped air.' Questions of reality are crucial to Highsmith, but—as to Eliot—they are spiritual questions, not philosophical ones: spiritual, and instinct with the spiritual's fear of an alliance between erotic and economic forces. Elsie Tyler, the victim in Found in the Street (or the victim who, unlike the others, has a sudden dying, not a long day's one), is dead-set for success, garish and enslaved, in the world of glossy modelling and of lip-service to art, an underworld of unreality which comes on as the overworld. Highsmith's anger, dismay and pity at such a world, and particularly at what it does to human decision, choice, and therefore reality, are precipitated by the conditions which Eliot enunciated with grim lips, suggesting
that with the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions, rather than in those 'bewildering minutes' in which we are all very much alike, that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an élite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous.
Found in the Street begins with a moment of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions: the decision by a shabby-genteel embittered loner to return to its rightful owner a wallet containing, among other things, 263 dollars. This social and spiritual act has falling upon it the shadow of the impure motive, since the proud good citizen is trying to prove not just something but everything, including that his violent principled atheism puts religionists to shame. 'I'm an atheist, by the way, so naturally I returned your wallet.' But the novel's plot is not bent upon the wallet found in the street but upon the person found there in the opening sentences: Elsie Tyler, who is alive, naive, confident of body, staunch of nature, and educable of mind. Ralph Linderman, who found the wallet, and Jack Sutherland, who lost it, vie for her, though neither as a lover exactly: Ralph, to set her apart from the city predators, there in her coffee-bar and in her shared rooms; Jack, to lift her above her pinched contingencies into some larger air (the larger air-conditioning of affluent squalor, it does seem). Others, too, compete for her: her room-mate, gay; an ex-lover, gay; Jack's wife, found playing both sides of the street. The end is death for Elsie. Do a girl in. Her death is like her life—tangential, in a way: if neither Ralph nor Jack is guilty. And they are shown to be—show themselves to each other to be—much more like each other, in their dangerous idealisings of Elsie, than they dare admit, even though the idealisings are, the one, unworldly, the other, worldly.
It is a question whether the book itself doesn't idealise Elsie. She comes across as oddly vaporous—oddly because that might seem to be a way of not coming across (though one remembers George Eliot's pungent vapour Stephen Guest). Perhaps Highsmith can't quite bear to think that the matter to be contemplated is less that of a liveliness, a life, annulled than of a collusion between something of a personal nullity and modelling's nubile nullities. More likely, though, is that T. S. Eliot's terms apply, and that Elsie is not permitted—not by the book but by something in her and in her society—to become real. 'That was crazy, airy, unreal, his words and his feelings even, as unreal as the Elsie he saw in the photograph in which her face showed largest.' Elsie has something of the vaporousness of the heroine of 'Maud', the heroine loved and competed for and done for: trapped in the wishfulness, not just the wishes, of the driven others. There are gleams, and Highsmith is in her way, like Tennyson in his, a religious writer; I thought of Clough on 'Oh! that 'twere possible', from 'Maud', and on the simmering solitude of the crowded cityscape:
It seems to satisfy a want that we have long been
conscious of, when we see the black streams that
welter out of factories, the dreary lengths of urban
and suburban dustiness,
The squares and streets,
And the faces that one meets,
irradiated with a gleam of divine purity.
The cityscape has its Dickensian gleams, too. When Ralph and Jack slug it out (their quarrel in the street is a thing to be entirely hated, since the energies displayed in it are not fine), there is a moment of suspended quotation which would have delighted both Dickens and his modern analyser Mark Lambert:
'Adulterer,' Ralph said calmly, 'and murderer'. Sutherland said just as calmly, 'Piss off or I'll bust you wide open.'
Just as calmly, but not just as poisedly. Dignity's preposterousness meets indignity's factitiousness. What a world. And what a steely style to indict it with. 'Jack did not exactly hear it, but Elsie had been pronounced dead, the attitude was that she was dead.'
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SOURCE: A review of Found in the Street, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, p. 4.
[In the following review, Ames praises Found in the Street.]
Found in the Street is a complex character study of New Yorkers brought together by chance. Elsie is a vivid, young waitress with the magnetism and energy to break into the modeling world. Ralph Linderman, an atheist with a dog named God, is the aging security guard who becomes obsessed with protecting Elsie's innocence. And Jack Sutherland is a wealthy, aspiring artist with a mostly happy family life. He has the fortune—or misfortune—to have his wallet returned by Linderman with all $263, as well as credit cards and photographs, still intact.
Written by a longtime American exile, this accomplished and engrossing novel captures the taste and texture of life in Manhattan. From the exhilaration of discovering a previously overlooked Greek take-out restaurant to the feel of jogging through the empty, early-morning streets, "You could never tell what might happen in New York!"
This 19th novel goes far beyond the bounds of the "mystery," a genre label that has stuck to Highsmith's work since her first, Strangers on a Train, in 1950. It is time she reached a wider audience.
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SOURCE: A review of Found in the Street, in New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, Vol. 92, p. 24.
[In the following positive review, Burgin discusses the psychological elements in Found in the Street]
Patricia Highsmith writes compellingly about those ambiguous boundaries that are supposed to separate rational behavior from irrationality and beautiful lives from grotesque ones. Her 19th novel [Found in the Street] centers on Elsie, a pretty 20-year-old waitress who has moved to Greenwich Village from upstate New York, dreaming of modeling or becoming an actress. Friendly, earnest and preternaturally charismatic, she captivates everyone who meets her, including Jack Sutherland and Ralph Linderman. At the novel's beginning, Ralph is already obsessively following her, warning about the dangerous company she keeps. A lonely night watchman and amateur inventor in his mid-50's, Ralph is at once a moralist and an atheist, an idealist and a spy. He is contrasted with Jack, a wealthy and amenable illustrator in his late 20's, and his wife, Natalia, a quasi-socialite art gallery manager, both of whom befriend and fall in love with Elsie. They help her modeling career by introducing her to the chic social world of the Village and SoHo. Ralph misperceives but is correctly alarmed by Elsie's sudden rise in society. Meanwhile, Elsie, who is gay "just now," also excites the passions of three other young women. Despite a plethora of coincidences, the novel's violent conclusion is both surprising and esthetically satisfying. Ms. Highsmith keeps her potentially bathetic material under control through a patient unfolding of luminous details. She understands her characters' conflicts and how they are inflamed by the peculiar tensions of their environment. Often misrepresented as a genre writer of thrillers, Ms. Highsmith is a fine psychologist and ironist, and her newest novel is a powerfully disturbing, resonant creation.
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SOURCE: A review of The Black House, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, p. 13.
[Below, Champlin offers a positive review of The Black House.]
The Black House is a collection of stories by Patricia Highsmith, the Texas-born author long a resident in Europe. Like Ruth Rendell, she keeps a very, very cold eye on the world. Her protagonists are apt to be as amoral as other writers' villains.
She is at her most characteristically cynical in "Not One of Us" in which a circle of his friends conspire in the most subtle ways to drive a decent but boring fellow named Quasthoff to suicide.
In the title story, murder is done by some local chaps simply to preserve the myths they have created for themselves about a deserted house in an Upstate New York village.
In "Old Folks at Home," a man and his wife kindly decide to house an elderly couple from an overcrowded retirement home nearby. The consequences are disastrous and morbidly funny, and you would expect nothing less from Miss Highsmith. Weird, but not too weird.
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SOURCE: "The Way We Live Now," in New York Review of Books, March 31, 1988, Vol. XXXV, No. 5, pp. 36-7.
[In the following excerpt, Towers offers a mixed assessment of Found in the Street, expressing reservations about Highsmith's "downplaying of the dramatic."]
[Highsmith] is prolific, with nineteen novels to her credit, together with six volumes of short stories…. [She] frequently writes from the point of view of one or more of her male characters, who may or may not be "straight"; in fact, taken as a group, Miss Highsmith's characters, male and female, represent a wide spectrum of what used to be called the perverse….
Highsmith is one of those writers of genre fiction who have a following among literary people, especially in England. She has been handsomely praised by Graham Greene, Julian Symons, and Auberon Waugh. In this country she has had enthusiastic readers ever since her first book, Strangers on a Train, which was filmed by Hitchcock, but her literary reputation is fairly recent and seems just now to be gaining momentum. Found in the Street, which was published in Britain in 1986 and in this country only a few months ago, has been widely and for the most part glowingly reviewed.
The novel begins with the image of a pretty girl with short blond hair and white sneakers making her way, smiling and spirited, down a Greenwich Village street. Suddenly she spots a man "with a rather side to side gait and with a dog on a leash. The girl stopped abruptly, and took the first opportunity to cross the street." We cut immediately to the consciousness of the dog walker, a middle-aged man named Ralph Linderman, who is clearly obsessive and a bore, his head full of angry clichés about dirty streets, littering kids, and muggers. We learn that eighteen years before he had fallen down an elevator shaft in a garage where he worked as a security guard and has felt changed ever since. We learn too that he is preoccupied with a young blond girt, Elsie, whom he met in a coffee shop, and worries about her safety in this dangerous, sordid city. While Ralph is conscientiously scooping up the mess of his dog, a black and white, piglike animal he has named God, he finds a wallet lying in the gutter. Though a cantankerous atheist, Ralph thinks of himself as one of the last moral men, and there is no question that he will return the bulging wallet to its rightful owner.
Thus we meet the second consciousness of the novel—that of a blandly reasonable, agreeable man whose character contrasts in every way with Ralph's. Jack Sutherland is an "upscale" young book designer and commercial artist who enjoys a coolly modern marriage with a good-looking fairly rich woman named Natalia. "She was the kind of girl, or woman, who would bolt and run off, perhaps forever, if she felt the marital harness chafing even a little." They live in a handsomely decorated apartment on Grove Street in the Village (only a short distance from Ralph's Bleecker Street tenement) and have a bright little girl, Amelia. For the rest of the novel we alternate between Ralph and Jack, following the former from his dingy flat to the garage where he works at night and the latter to conferences about his art work, to parties, gallery openings, and other events in the life of a young New York husband and father. In addition to the returned wallet, Ralph and Jack have a bond in their mutual fascination with the young blond girt, Elsie, whom Jack, too, has encountered at the coffee shop where she works as a waitress.
Terrified that Elsie might fall into prostitution or get hooked on drugs, Ralph makes a nuisance of himself at the coffee shop, lecturing her on her sex life and issuing baleful warnings. He begins to spy on her, following her to her apartment. Jack, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her looks and spirit and wants to sketch her—all without any acknowledged desire to go to bed with her. When Ralph one day sees Elsie leave Jack's building (she has innocently helped him carry home some groceries), he suspects the worst and writes Jack a letter telling him not to see the girl again. What follows is a situation of mounting paranoia on Ralph's part and growing annoyance on the part of Jack and Elsie. Having set up this situation, Patricia Highsmith complicates it by revealing that this sunny girl of men's dreams is, at least for the present, a lesbian, and that Jack's wife, Natalia, has fallen in love with her. Jack's easy acceptance of his wife's homosexual affair is an example of the passivity that seems to afflict so many of Patricia Highsmith's male characters, including her murderers.
Interestingly (and typically) the author does not play up the inherent drama in the situation, but mutes it, slows things down, and distracts us with other matters. We are allowed to spend a lot of time with Amelia, watching her being put to bed, listening to her prattle with her parents, particularly her father, who, more than the elusive Natalia, is in charge of domestic arrangements. We tune in on Ralph's reminiscences of his wretched, brief marriage and listen to his misogynous imprecations. From time to time we are allowed to glimpse Elsie's meteorically rising career (aided by Jack and Natalia) as a fashion model. The explosion, when it occurs, is produced not by the bomb that has been quietly ticking away but from another source altogether—the sudden murderous impulse of a jealous "dikey" type whom we have met only once before and may well have forgotten. Murder, in Patricia Highsmith's hands, is made to occur almost as casually as the bumping of a fender or a bout of food poisoning.
This downplaying of the dramatic in her work has been much praised, as has the ordinariness of the details with which she depicts the daily lives and mental processes of her psychopaths. Both undoubtedly contribute to the domestication of crime in her fiction, thereby implicating the reader further in the sordid fantasy that is being worked out. Found in the Street is a fairly typical example—less lively than the cycle involving that prince of disguises and offhand murder, Tom Ripley, and less stolid than, say, Deep Water. The claustrophobic and obsessional quality that Graham Greene has praised (and that I certainly experienced in other novels going all the way back to the rantings of the polymorphously warped Bruno in Strangers on a Train) is here limited to those passages in which we are trapped in the boring mind of Ralph Linderman, but its impact is undeniable. The denouement, when it occurs, is skillfully worked out and its effect is enhanced by the way in which the reader has been led to expect something altogether different.
But I have reservations that apply, in varying degrees, to Patricia Highsmith's other novels as well. The ordinariness—what might be called the calculated banality—of her approach extends to her use of dialogue, which in the case of Found in the Street is generally commonplace and often dull. Miss Highsmith's ear seems to fail her when she attempts to reproduce the speech of the contemporary American young—would a girl like Elsie really pepper her speech with "gollys" and "by goshes" and refer to young men as "fellows"? Furthermore, the utilitarian flatness of the novel's prose is such that one is never tempted to quote more than is strictly needed for illustrative purposes. While the characters, here and elsewhere, come equipped with any number of interesting kinks, quirks, and neuroses, their rendering seems to me to lack a certain energy that would make them memorable in their pathology. I suppose I should at this point confess that I find the understated approach to the crime genre that Miss Highsmith's British critics admire less appealing than the fast-paced, vulgarly sensational, and demonically attuned crime novels of a writer like Elmore Leonard.
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SOURCE: A review of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 5, 1989, p. 4
[In the following review, Raskin offers a mixed assessment of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, commenting on Highsmith's "wry portrayals of human folly."]
The catastrophes [in Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes] actually are all "unnatural," prompted when Patricia Highsmith's bizarre, blundering characters attempt to defy nature: the defense tactics of a high-rise crumble against a crawling army that fumigation can't kill; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finds that its hiding place for nuclear waste isn't so sporting after all; a Japanese whaling ship gets its due after a day harpooning whales.
While best known as a writer of thrillers, Highsmith, a Texas-born author now living in Switzerland, is primarily concerned with crafting stories to evoke the human comedy. Her wry portrayals of human folly sometimes lack sympathy, as in the tasteless piece "Rent-a-Womb," which trivializes the abortion debate. But Highsmith condescends wittily and without favor, and so we soon cease to take offense, enjoying stories we might otherwise have dismissed as prejudiced.
"Mabuti," for example, satirizes the dictator of a small African nation, who frantically tries to prepare for the arrival of a United Nations delegation, burning everything from garbage to corpses and trying to transform Government House, a brothel with "a couple of rooms holding papers with which the country gained its independence," into a "building like the Parthenon." Everything goes awry, of course: The city is shrouded in smoke from the burning when the delegation arrives and the Government house erupts in a conflagration when Mabuti soldiers try to "properly" cremate people who had died in an elevator. The U.N. members are less-than-pleased—so Bomo has them shot.
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SOURCE: "A Feminist Approach to Patricia Highsmith's Fiction," in American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, edited by Brian Docherty, St. Martin's, 1990, pp. 107-19.
[In the following essay, Evans relates Highsmith's exploration of the unconscious in her novels and short stories to feminist critical theories.]
A critical examination of the work of Patricia Highsmith from a feminist standpoint unavoidably presents a number of challenges, the first being the difficulty of ascertaining precisely to what genre her novels belong. To see her as a 'crime writer' would be inaccurate as well as limitative, since it would mean ignoring certain elements of her stories which are outside the usual crime-detection-arrest pattern. To call her a mystery writer may be more accurate, since she was once awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America, yet the nature of mystery in her novels differs greatly from what is usually expected, in so far as it never comes from wondering who the evildoer is; instead it is connected with what kind of person he is, or more accurately it enfolds the reasons which make him progressively deviate from the norm and become a murderer.
Patricia Highsmith herself stated that she was 'interested in the effect of guilt on [her] heroes' and her study of the invisible 'glass cell' which surrounds and isolates the criminal is one of the remarkable features of her work. It may well be that this is the key to understanding the precise nature of her work, and it will need to be examined in relation to feminist critical theories in order to establish accurately the status of the work defined as woman's writing.
It has been said that there are as many forms of feminism as there are women, and, while this can only be seen as a reduction to the absurd, the fact remains that a number of tendencies exist, some mainly concerned with everyday social issues, and others, more particularly among French women writers and critics, essentially involved in debating the intellectual aspects of feminism. One important element of this approach has been the redefinition of what is meant by women's writings, no longer in relation to male literature (for instance, being 'potentially as good as …' or 'indistinguishable from …'), but in relation to language itself as a means of expressing the inner consciousness of the female writer, proceeding, in other words, according to what Róisîn Battel calls the 'rejection of phallic discourse'.
This concern with language or, more precisely, with the creation of languages (discourse) can operate at the linguistic level of language, involving considerations of form, organisation, vocabulary, syntax which, in the discourse, reflect female identity, or it can explore the deeper layers of the text to search for a novel apprehension of the unconscious as expression of the female psyche—in other words, a writing of self. The corpus of literary analyses which has been produced during the past twenty years or so has amply demonstrated the value of textual deconstructions at linguistic and at psychoanalytical levels in establishing a formula able to define accurately the specificity of woman.
The advantage of this two-pronged investigation is that it not only covers the manner in which a woman writer expresses herself within a literary text, but also encompasses her selection of plots, and her presentation of episodes and characters, thus highlighting in turns the various strands of a complex pattern.
What criteria should then be considered in this quest for an 'authentic' feminine voice?
Traditionally, women writers have been seen as lacking the sense of logic, universality and objectivity which is commonly thought to characterise the production of male authors, so much so that, if a woman succeeded in that field, as, for example, George Eliot did, she was accused of 'committing atrocities with it that beggar description'. Women were, on the other hand, credited with a gift for immediate empathy with the world around them, as well as an appreciation of each of its separate elements. In that connection it may be interesting to hear Jan Morris, who before undergoing a sex-change was a man, explain that, as far as she is concerned, the most thrilling thing about being a woman is that she no longer feels remote and alienated from her urban surroundings, but is deeply conscious of being part of them.
No such empathy, however, is in evidence in the novels of Patricia Highsmith. At best, the surroundings are indifferent, and not infrequently they are hostile. The comfortable home of Vic and Melinda Van Allen, in Deep Water, is never described; there is mention of a 'nice' house, a 'good' phonograph and a 'favourite armchair', and also a dented metal vase, since Melinda is prone to throwing things when annoyed, but nothing more.
Similarly, in The Glass Celt, when Carter is released from the penitentiary, it is obvious that his wife has taken particular care to make their flat attractive for his return, yet there is only a brief reference to a rubber plant and to some 'gladioli in a large vase', without even, as one would have expected, a notation of colour. The only colour mentioned, in fact, is that of the 'two thick red books' on the chest of drawers, right in the bedroom. These crimson-coloured law books belong to Sullivan, the lawyer initially commissioned to establish Carter's innocence, who is now Hazel's lover and will eventually be killed by Carter.
Julia Kristeva, a radical feminist as well as a rigorous theorist, realised that there was no single feature that could identify or characterise all feminine texts, and that most texts can dissolve identities, as she illustrates with reference to avant-garde authors such as Joyce and Artaud. Indeed, while postulating a distinction between man's and woman's writing, she asserts that, to the extent that it is not a natural construct, the term 'woman' itself can not be defined: 'La femme ce n'est jamais ça' ('Woman is never what one supposes'). Criteria are therefore to be sought in the social rather than the individual context. Following this line, Kristeva argues that women, because of their social roles, tend to be more mindful of ethics and to create a 'maternal' climate of calm and tenderness, so that, when a woman novelist writes, she either reproduces a real family or, at least, creates a similar imaginary one.
This is rather less easy to identify, but, for all that, there is no evidence that Patricia Highsmith's own affective or moral values play a part in her novels. She does not write in the way, for instance, that Claudine Herrmann suggests: 'As soon as a woman speaks up, it is usually to reclaim the right to the present moment, to affirm the refusal of a life alienated in social time which is so hostile to interior time.' Little of what appears in the novels relates exclusively to the present, the general tendency being to anticipate future events. This is even more apparent in the short stories, where the first words prefigure the tragedies to come. The opening sentence of 'The Birds Poised to Fly'—'Every morning, Don looked into his mailbox, but there was never a letter for him'—takes the reader to the very centre of the drama, the awaited letter that his girlfriend Rosalind does not write. His frustration tempts him to look into the mailbox next to his own, where a fickle boy friend has left uncollected a love letter from another girl.
Similarly, the words 'Stanley Hubbell painted on Sundays', which open 'The Barbarians', identify the relaxing occupation so dreadfully spoilt by the raucous exclamations and shouts of the ball-players under Hubbell's window. He drops a stone from his window onto a player's head, nearly killing him.
By such means, time is made into a continuum. This contradicts also Virginia Woolf's contention that feminine writing explodes time into a series of 'moments', each complete in itself, in an effort to distance the text from the masculine tenets of logic and of strict temporal and causal perspective.
Undoubtedly Virginia Woolf insisted on using that disjointed form herself—in Mrs Dalloway for instance, where only one ordinary day in the life of a married woman is depicted. This proved a fitting demonstration of her belief that 'how one writes is more important than what one writes', but the fact remains that many women writers, past and present, have chosen to work within a logical context.
This, at least to some extent, is probably what led to a reappraisal of the question and prompted some radical feminists to wonder whether it made sense, intellectually as well as politically, for women to attempt to write in a 'new' language which, in order to be their own, would reject logic. Such a 'discourse that surpasses the regulated phallocentric system', as Hélène Cixous defines it, may distinguish a feminine text from a masculine one, but at the same time it may prove self-destructive.
It may be more fruitful to accept, as John Stuart Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft and more recently Simone de Beauvoir have maintained that women, like men, are part of the human race and therefore that their writing—meaning the terms they use, their style or the structure of their discourse—is not gender-oriented. The way would then be open to consider Patricia Highsmith's work as part of a feminine corpus of production, and to see whether a psychoanalytical investigation of her plot and character presentation yields elements which can be related to another aspect of feminine writing: that which consists in liberating and expressing the unconscious, as specifically shaped by a woman's perception of it.
A brief survey of Patricia Highsmith's novels shows that the great majority of her central characters—often psychopathic killers—are male. As statistics demonstrate mat most violent criminals are men, here selection can legitimately be seen as representative rather than sexually biased, although, to be fair, some of her killers, such as the snails which appear in two of her stories, can hardly be fitted into statistical realism.
In the novels dealing with male criminals, the distinctive function of women can, however, be observed either in gender-oriented social relations or in the woman's distinctive nature. The feminist standpoint, which here can be termed as 'feminine epistemology', goes beyond the appearance of women's function—love, motherhood, care of the home and of the outside world—in order to explore the systemic relations of a sex-gender universe. The Marxist view of gender-related functions sees these as derived from forms of labour, with men, traditionally, dominant in the fields of science and technology, and endowed with cognitive and objective rationality, while women are closer to nature and more subjective and emotional, so that for them labour and love become inextricably mixed.
Women's traditional work primarily involves the bearing and bringing-up of children, and in that connection it can be noted that in Patricia Highsmith's novels children often appear as part of the family unit. The 'care' they receive from their mothers varies greatly, although it never appears as loving and tender. It seems to range from bland duty or indifference to sheer brutality.
In The Glass Cell, there is no doubt that the little boy Timmie is reasonably well looked after by his mother, but, for instance, despite the boy's obvious distress at having a father in prison (Carter has been imprisoned for embezzlement, although he is in fact innocent), she writes calmly to her husband that 'Timmie is bearing up pretty well. I lecture him daily, though I try not to make it sound like a lecture. The kids are picking on him at school of course….' When Carter has been released, she does not bother to come home from work on her birthday, but goes straight on to a party, despite the fact that Timmie is waiting expectantly to give her his present: 'Timmie had bought a white slip with brown embroidery … quite an expensive item.' By contrast, he is shown real affection by his father, who makes various gifts for him while he is in prison, including 'a good sized chest of oak with [his] initials carved in its lid'.
When the boy accidentally cuts his hand, it is again his father who shows concern, while, on another occasion, he is shown companionably washing the dishes with Timmie drying and putting them away. Obviously, when we compare Carter's attitude towards the boy to that of his wife, who is secretly conducting her longstanding love affair, we have to conclude that Patricia Highsmith depicts the behaviour of the couple towards their child in a non-stereotyped way.
It could be argued, of course, that Carter's caring attitude is meant to stress how fundamentally honest and decent he is, since his arrest has been due to a false testimony. However, if we consider another novel, Deep Water, we find a similar contrast between mother and father. The mother, Melinda Van Allen, is indifferent to her daughter Beatrice, known as Trixie: 'She had not wanted to have a child, then she had, then she hadn't, and finally, after four years, she had wanted one again, and finally produced one.' It is left to her father to care for her: 'Just then Trixie's pyjama clad form appeared in the doorway. "Mommie!" Trixie screamed, but Mommie neither heard nor saw her. Vic got up and went to her. "S'matter, Trix?" he asked, stooping by her. "I can't sleep.'" The tragedy here is, of course, that the father is a psychopath, and that the story as it develops takes him from the faintest stirring of an unbalanced mind to the full-blown horrors of successive murders, culminating in the strangling of his wife.
Through all this, Trixie is ignored by her mother, but an object of concern for her father. He is sorry for what will happen to her, and at the very end, when he walks out of the house with the police officer who has just arrested him, his befuddled mind conjures a vision of the child: 'He saw Trixie romping up the lawn and stopping in surprise as she saw him with the policeman, but frowning at the lawn, Vic could see that she wasn't really there. The sun was shining and Trixie was alive somewhere.'
We should certainly search in vain for an expression of 'woman's writing' in this novel, if we mean by that writing expressive, even if only subconsciously, of women's feelings of love and tenderness, of role-playing. What is more, in 'The Terrapin' there is a little boy, Victor, whose mother is even more devoid of understanding and affection. She never pays attention to anything he may have to say, never even listens to him, and, despite the fact that she is a professional illustrator of children's books, she has no understanding of his longing to look 'grown up', to wear long trousers and sturdy manly shoes. All she can say, in her stiff foreign accent, is 'Veector, you are seeck. And retarded. You know that?' She makes fun of him, slaps him, and when, one day, she brings a terrapin to cook for the 'ragoût', the boy's show of affection for the poor animal only seems 'seeck' to her and she refuses even to let him take it downstairs to show to his friend. When she cuts up the creature to cook it, his latent hatred for her crystallises:
He thought of the terrapin, in little pieces now, all mixed up in the sauce of cream and egg yolks and sherry in the pot in the refrigerator. His mother's cry was not silent [like the terrapin's had been], it seemed to tear his ears off. His second blow was in her body, and then he stabbed her throat again. Only tiredness made him stop.
Giving up the search for maternal care, we might look instead for qualifiers of sexual difference, taking as our point of departure the traditional association of female sexuality with passivity, the opposite of masculine thrusting aggressiveness. Freud, in The Disappearance of the Oedipus Complex (1933), equates 'feminine' with vagina and 'virile' with penis, concluding that 'anatomy is destiny'. Feminist theorists usually contradict him by insisting upon a valorisation of individuality, perhaps through refusing marriage: Simone de Beauvoir, for example, remarked that she could have married Sartre, but would thereby have ceased to be herself. Other feminists have sought to assert control of their lives by selecting a variety of lovers and partners, or by aggressively preserving their virginity, or by becoming part of a familial community, as Germaine Greer suggested, or an all-female group, like the women of Greenham Common—in other words, as Dale Spender expressed it, by altering the pattern of relations with men, making the woman an autonomous subject revelling in her regained freedom from sexual bondage; 'Men is an issue over which feminists agonise.'
In Patricia Highsmith's novels, relationship patterns involving women mostly involve married women who indulge in extramarital affairs. One such woman is Hazel in The Glass Cell, who, however, writes to her imprisoned husband every day, being supporting, cheering him up through his various unsuccessful appeals and eventually welcoming him home: 'Hazel kissed him on the cheeks, then on the lips. She was crying. She was also laughing. Carter blinked awkwardly at the lights that seemed so bright, at the dazzling colour everywhere.' She retains this fondness to the end, even to the extent of forgiving him for having killed her lover.
Her lover is the lawyer, Sullivan, who seems to hover in the background from the start, offering assistance and organising holiday outings; but, when asked by her husband, she repeatedly denies that they have an adulterous relationship: "'I hear you are seeing Sullivan a lot," he said, and saw in her face that he had hurt her. "I see him as often as I tell you I see him…."' She goes on denying it until caught, when she has recourse to the old traditional formula: 'You don't understand women.' Whether this affair was deliberately initiated by her, or whether she drifted into it because she enjoyed the lawyer's protective presence, felt attracted to him, or could not resist his advances is certainly never made clear; all she will say is 'it happened while you were in prison'.
Initially, one may feel that she was fond of her lover, since she appears 'ravaged with grief' when she hears that he has been killed; she wants his murderer found and punished, and yet, when she realises that her husband is the killer, she only tells him, 'Everything is going to be all right!' The level of natural determinism in her attitude must be seen as rather limited.
Melinda, in High Water, is unfaithful on a grander scale and makes clear her evident desire to attract men. She smiles 'a gay catch-me-if-you-can smile' over her shoulder whenever someone she fancies comes near, and, as a result, jealousy will be the motive for a whole series of murders, although the first lover is disposed of simply by a threat. Melinda does not miss him, as she is already having an affair with a not-too-bright instructor at a riding-academy, who is succeeded by a very young record salesman, and others. So, on the surface, there seems to be evidence of feminist self-assertion, in the form of a determination to live to the full. Life for Melinda is 'the pursuit of a good time'.
Her husband's jealously would then present a dreadful, murderous but totally logical reaction. This is, however, not the case, and again the opacity of the character's mind makes a definite judgement impossible. Melinda's husband is unbalanced from the outset, as his passion for bedbugs and snails shows; his soft even voice and his fixed smile ought to give him away, and so should some of his odd statements, such as 'I have an evil side too, but I keep it well hidden', which cause further distortion to the portrait.
There remains, however, the possible argument that, by destroying the masculine image and altering the powerful emotion of jealousy to make it into the pathetic blubberings of a monster, another form of feminist writing is realised, akin to that suggested by a radical French feminist, Annie Leclerc: 'One must not wage war on man. That is his way of attaining value…. One must simply deflate his values with the needle of ridicule.' This might also account for the presentation of other male 'heroes' in what seems the same 'destructional' perspective, where apparent logic turns to aberration. Could it be that Patricia Highsmith, as an Observer critic once suggested, 'writes about men like a spider writing about flies'?
This is a tempting approach; indeed Peter Knoppert, in the story 'The Snail-Watcher', shares Vic Van Allen's sick fascination for snails. He watches and breeds them until they fill the living-room, cover the walls and eventually suffocate him: 'There were snails crawling over his eyes. Then just as he staggered to his feet, something else hit him…. He was fainting. His arms felt like leaden weights as he tried to reach his nostrils, his eyes, to free them from the sealing, murderous snail bodies.' Snails in fact appear again as deadly animals, this time in giant form, in the story titled 'The Quest for Blank Claveringi', where they deliberately set out to kill the distinguished, but far too arrogant, professor of zoology.
What makes it difficult, nevertheless, to see such effects as a 'destructional' feminist expression is the presence in the novels of female criminals, some of them just as subject to psychopathic disorders as Highsmith's males. Perhaps the most haunting example is that pretty young woman Lucille Smith in 'The Heroine', so determined to make good and to lead a happy life, to forget her own mad, wild-eyed mother. Having secured an ideal job as a nursemaid in a beautiful and happy household with two lovely children, she none the less eventually turns pyromaniac and sets fire to the house.
There is also, in 'When the Fleet Was in in Mobile', which Graham Greene called his favourite story, the haunting portrait of Geraldine, who reveals in the disconnected form of an interior monologue what seems to be the cruel and obsessive character of her husband, so that her action in killing him seems fully justified. Slowly, however, her own underlying irrationality emerges, together with the echoes of some past nymphomania which drove her to meet the sailors 'when the fleet was in'. In the end, as Graham Greene so pithily put it, 'what seemed at first a simple little case of murder' becomes an unbearably claustrophobic experience.
The fascination of Patricia Highsmith's characters lies precisely in the way their twilight world is painted, in small impressionistic touches. They see themselves as normal and may appear so to casual onlookers, yet, when details of their speech or behaviour are sifted carefully, the flaws in their make-up come to light, and one can foresee the horrors to come.
Similarly, in Those Who Walk Away, what begins as the natural grief of a father whose daughter had committed suicide, and his unjustified but understandable anger against his son-in-law, develops progressively into an obsessive stalking of the tragic young husband through the narrow passages and the piazzas of Venice:
Ray [the young man] had started suddenly, but he had slopped walking. In the shadows ahead emerging from a triangular shadow that clung to a small church like a dark pyramid, he saw Coleman [his father-in-law] looking over both shoulders, obviously looking for something, someone.
'What is it?' Antonio asked.
'Nothing. I thought I saw someone.'
Coleman was still in sight. Then in another second he wasn't. He had vanished in the slit on an alley on the left of the church square.
And it may well be that it is at that level, when the extraordinary accuracy of Highsmith's observation is realised, and when her gift for psychoanalysis is recognised, that one can legitimately re-examine the possibility of a feminine form of writing. It has been said that it is an oppression to force women to adhere to 'the stereotype of a passive powerless and sexually masochistic femininity', yet, as Deborah Cameron states,
It seems to offer us through its account of the construction of the self in family relations and the unconscious mind, an understanding of how subordination can be internalised deep in our personalities. Moreover it is centrally concerned with the forging of sexual identity and with the extreme importance of the sexual in all aspects of mental life.
In that light, the stories of Geraldine and of Ray's father-in-law, for instance, have all the concepts posited first by Freud and renewed by Lacan in a purely masculine context, and eventually enlarged and 'feminised' by women such as Hélène Cixous, a lecturer in psychology, in The Laugh of the Medusa, and Luce Irigaray, initially a member of the Lacanian school. Irigaray, realising how Lacan's theories were limited by their exclusion of women, attempted a reappraisal of women's relation to their unconscious, which she sees as radically different from men's—a belief which leads her to wonder whether women are not in fact the unconscious which their writing reveals.
It is certainly true that in Patricia Highsmith's novels the unconscious is reconstructed through language, to the extent that Coleman, for example, in Those Who Walk Away, 'recognises' his dead daughter's scarf in the different, newly bought scarf that he pulls out of his hated son-in-law's pocket, and that Geraldine, in 'When the Fleet Was in in Mobile', can 'hear' the words spoken by her father when she was a child, by her friend Marianne when she was young, or, more recently, by her now supposedly dead husband, just as clearly as she hears the woman speaking to her on the bus, or the man that she meets during the ride on the merry-go-round.
Past and present are fused in her mind in such a way that submerged memories partly resurface and she 'recognises' an old boyfriend, far more real to her, in the unknown state policeman who comes to take her back. At the end, her madness taking over, she screams while holding her fists in front of her eyes to blot out reality: 'Then his face [the policeman's] and the lights and the park went out, though she knew as well as she knew she still screamed that her eyes were open under her hands.'
It would seem fair to accept that the wealth of details given to express in terms of language a range of emotions which escape the mould of logical reality, and the empathy which emerges from Patricia Highsmith's pages for the characters who, despite their desire or their illusion, cannot come to terms with others or cope with the outside world, bring her work within the scope of feminine writing—not at the superficial level that some feminist propagandists have surmised, but in the deeper realm of psychoanalysis where the act of writing is an exploration of the unconscious and where women have excelled from time immemorial, in a way which makes them enthralling tellers of tales.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2928
SOURCE: "From Villain to Vigilante," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 34-8.
[Mawr is an American educator and critic who has written works on Romantic poetry. In the following essay, she discusses the development of the character Tom Ripley in Highsmith's Ripley novels, stating that the series shows Ripley's "progression from a villain to a vigilante as the world becomes even too evil for his taste."]
Have you ever wondered how the criminal mind works? Patricia Highsmith has. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, focused on the pathology of a central character; and her only series character, Ripley, is a professional criminal. Some writers might make the hero charming—a bumbling crook, or a swashbuckling villain—but not Highsmith. Ripley is a thief, a murderer; he even takes risks in order to make it all more "fun."
Ripley undergoes some very interesting changes throughout the four-book series. In his debut, he lives in a fantasy world; and Highsmith presents him as the unfortunate product of a corrupt society. By the fourth book, society is presented as a malignant force which makes criminal behavior an inevitability. A close look at this most unusual series, which began in 1956 and was last added to in 1980, shows Ripley's progression from a villain to a vigilante as the world in which he lives becomes even too evil for his taste.
The original Tom Ripley, in the 1956 The Talented Mr. Ripley, lives in a society which hardly touches him—which, in fact, he half creates in his imagination. Tom is given a conventional fairy-tale orphan's background, complete with a sadistic aunt who belittled and humiliated him. Apparently as a result of this, Tom is lacking in self-confidence and drive, has identity problems, and creates his own imaginary world. Such a self-created world comes in later life to control him, and he loses his ability to tell real from imaginary. It is this invented "reality," coupled with Tom's weak sense of ego and contempt for the "real" Tom Ripley, which leads him first to attempt to alter his identity and finally to kill another human being with whom he has identified, actually assuming his identity.
Tom's great need to find an identity leads him to attempt to find it through "love": someone will love him, and he will lose himself in the identity of that person. He meets and seizes upon Dickie Greenleaf. "More than anything else in the world," Tom wants Dickie to like him, but in this Tom fails:
In Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for all the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be an illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.
Tom's disappointment finally results in murderous rage toward the would-be object of his love and identification, so Tom kills Dickie and finds after Dickie's death the identity that has eluded him: he assumes Dickie's name, his appearance, his voice, his manner, until it finally comes easier to Tom to be Dickie than to be Tom Ripley.
Tom Ripley's imagination has vast powers over the external world. It can cause "the whole city of New York" to "collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage." But it does not have the power to give Tom Ripley self-confidence, or cause others to love or even like him. Since Tom could not get Dickie to love him, he killed him, and now he must go on killing in order to protect his new identity as Dickie Greenleaf. He has no doubt that these murders are justified; they are, after all, necessary to protect what simply is due him. In these latter respects, Tom becomes more the type, not of the psychotic in his world of delusions, but of the amoral, unfeeling psychopathic criminal—the type he will become in later novels.
Another development within Tom in this first novel is his increasing enjoyment, not only of his masquerade, but of the feeling of danger that goes with it. He has always chosen to "tempt fate," to "take a chance" whenever he can. After the first murder, "it was as if he were really inviting trouble, and couldn't stop himself." He thinks about taking risks and realizes that "risks were what made the whole thing fun" because "he was so bored." What had begun as a need to find a secure and acceptable identity has become a need for stimulation, for excitement to allay the boredom of life. For Tom, in whatever incarnation, cannot really feel very much. His overriding need is always to fill up the void that is Tom Ripley—with another's identity, with the stimulation of danger.
These latter elements are further developed in the second novel, Ripley under Ground (1970). The recognizable traits of the psychopathic criminal, which have become evident in Tom by the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, here dominate. Tom is no longer at the mercy of his imagination, and he is now Tom Ripley pretty consistently, and apparently satisfied with this. Tom now prides himself on his sensitivity, sincerity, and moral rectitude, while at the same time emerging as a moral Typhoid Mary. In the first novel, Tom murdered the person closest to him. In the second and third in the series, he becomes a malignant influence on those who are sucked into his orbit. In each novel, someone is driven to suicide through contact with him.
In Ripley under Ground, Tom is a creator and part owner of a counterfeit painting racket. Bernard, the counterfeiter, becomes increasingly distraught over his own dishonesty, and Tom realizes that Bernard must die or he will expose the scheme and ruin everyone involved. When, after lengthy pursuit by Tom, Bernard kills himself, "Tom began to realize that he had willed or wished Bernard's suicide." Bernard has accused Tom of being the "origin" of the whole fraud, and Tom's response is to acknowledge—while deriding—the fact that people look upon him as "a mystic origin, a font of evil."
In this novel, Tom is less a prey to his fantasies, more secure in himself, but more in need of external stimulation to alleviate his boredom. Even some of his criminal activities, such as smuggling, cause him to experience "fatigue, contempt, boredom even." Only danger can alleviate this boredom, and the excitement of the dangerous game banishes all other concerns. Tom tells himself—and, as is usual with his imaginary constructs, believes—that he is concerned with ethics, with right and wrong. He even has feelings of sympathy for the wife of one of his murder victims. But Tom never really feels very much—including a sense of "right" and "wrong." He "saw the right and wrong, yet both sides of himself were equally sincere," because for Tom the actual reality is still that bottomless pit which is Tom's lack of identity—of any inner self. He is in constant—and increasing—need of stimulation to fill that void. And the more he fills it, the less he feels, and the more he needs. When the art collector first reveals that he is onto the forgeries, Tom does not know if he should feel anything or not: "Tom was unworried. Ought he to be more worried? He shrugged slightly."
Tom is fairly consistently self-confident, he is aware of his lack of a basic sense of right and wrong, but he is also becoming increasingly moralistic and self-righteous, and this characteristic manifests itself in his responses to French society. He thinks with scorn of "French bloody-mindedness, greed, a lie that was not exactly a lie but a deliberate concealment of fact." In Tom's observations about French society, Highsmith initiates the move toward depicting the actual society in which her protagonist functions. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom lives in a New York City of his own imagination and in an Italian tourist wonderland. The natives are hardly noticed, and crime is not a significant enough occurrence to be commented on. In Ripley under Ground, French society is full of greedy, dishonest people, and crime is a way of life—a business. Tom's new friend, Reeves Minot, is a smuggler by profession, and Tom's "business" interest is art forgery. Even murder is a business in this society, and the "honest" people are not really honest, cheating each other every chance they get. This is a different picture of society from the first Ripley novel, and this Tom is more confident but more criminal, more hardened. Those changes will be developed in the next two Ripley novels, but, with the added twist that Tom, while rarely seeing himself as evil (or even criminal), will become increasingly disgusted with criminal activity in society and will begin to direct his efforts against other criminals—and simply, he will tell himself, for the sake of foiling professional criminals. At the same time, he will continue to seduce and to destroy ordinary, innocent people—and still see himself as a decent, moral person. In the most recent Ripley novel, Tom does, in fact, see himself as the hero, fighting impersonal crimes in a corrupt society.
In Ripley's Game (1974), the focus is divided between Tom and his victim, Jonathan Trevanny, who seems to serve as counterpoint to Tom: against Tom's pretensions to ethics and morality is placed the genuinely ethical and moral Jonathan. And, while Tom always feels that he "understands" Jonathan, Jonathan never feels that he understands Tom. While Tom's "understanding" of Trevanny is always skewed, he yet is able to draw Trevanny into his schemes, and finally—while convincing himself that he is Trevanny's benefactor—to destroy him, both morally and physically. Tom's malignancy is stronger than the ordinary man's morality, just as, in society as it is seen in this novel, crime is stronger than honesty and the lives of criminals are worth more than the lives of ordinary citizens.
The Tom-Jonathan comparison is ubiquitous throughout Ripley's Game. Jonathan cannot manage the self-control to lie convincingly to his wife; Tom is still the master of invention, and one of his greatest inventions is his perception of himself as sensitive, ethical, and civilized. It is he who suggests pulling Jonathan into his and Reeves's criminal schemes, but, when Reeves actually acts on the suggestion, Tom calls it "a dirty, humourless trick." Tom's luring Jonathan into crime is soon looked upon by him as an act of beneficence, and he both congratulates himself and feels some empathy with Jonathan, whom he can now view as just a murderer, like himself. As he did with Dickie Greenleaf, Tom identifies with his victim and feels the warmest of feelings for him while never understanding that Jonathan both abhors and is mystified by Tom. Tom engages in crime to allay the boredom of his life—the boredom of being Tom Ripley. Jonathan has no need for stimulation and, in fact, after at first feeling "a bit euphoric" thinking of the money he will earn for his wife and child, is able to feel nothing.
To Tom, it is imperative that he see the rest of the world as no better than himself—as corruptible, as always having something to be ashamed of, as Jonathan must have felt once he became a murderer. Tom constructs a picture of himself as a heroic figure, kindly benefactor to Jonathan Trevanny, and moral superior to most criminals. He has the utmost contempt for large-scale, professional criminals, such as the Mafia, of whom he thinks as "more dishonest, more corrupt, decidedly more ruthless than himself." And, because "the law couldn't get its hands on the bigger bastards among them." he, Tom, will become a vigilante, assassinating criminals whom the law cannot touch.
But, Tom's pretensions to moral righteousness aside, the society portrayed is growing more corrupt, at least within the context of the Ripley novels. Organized crime and random violence exist in a society in which governments do not seem to be "aware of the insane actions of some of their spies. Or those whimsical, half-demented men flitting from Bucharest to Moscow and Washington with guns and microfilm." This last is Tom's view, and in such a context Tom's "game" is relatively harmless, his claim to be a force for the good and the right almost credible. It is these claims and this eroding society which become dominant in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980).
The original Tom Ripley created his own reality. In The Boy, the deception is more often on the part of the environment, and Tom is at its mercy. The illusion of wilderness in the Grunewald Forest of West Berlin first leads Tom to wonder if everything is not an illusion, and then leads him to succumb to the deceptions of a gang of criminals and to fail to prevent the kidnapping of Frank (the "Boy" of the title). External forces exert an unaccustomed control over Tom. After Frank's kidnapping, Tom feels that he "had never felt thus shaken by something that he himself had done, because in such cases in the past, he had been in control of things. Now he was anything but in control." Unlike the earlier, omnipotent Tom, this Tom becomes "tired of fretting over things he couldn't do anything about."
Tom once again identifies with the male figure in the story but this time seeks to protect his alter ego from the society that threatens both of them. No longer does he seduce the innocent into crime (Frank is a murderer before he meets Tom). And, this time, Frank's suicide seems to have nothing to do with Tom's influence. In this case, Tom's identification seems benign, a magnanimous, protective gesture. His perception of his righteousness grows as he opposes the professional criminals who try to kidnap Frank, and his perception seems (for a change) fairly close to reality. Tom initiates no evil, and the forces he is battling do seem more evil than he is. But the old Tom is still there, pursuing criminals finally for the ultimate good: the risk, the danger, the stimulation. And Tom Ripley the heroic crime fighter is still Tom Ripley who thinks like a criminal, anticipating the kidnappers at every turn—and succumbing to the foolhardy out of his abiding love of danger.
The old Tom Ripley is still with us, but the society in which he operates is now so rotten—really rotten—that the criminal with a "code" comes off as a hero. Any morality is superior to the total depravity into which most of society has sunk.
This view of society is not confined to the later Ripley novels. In her The Glass Cell (1964), Highsmith depicts a naïve protagonist first victimized by criminals, then corrupted by the prison environment in which he is unjustly confined. That Highsmith's focus on society begins to usurp her earlier vision of isolated criminality is underlined by her using The Glass Cell as the one extended example of her creative process in her 1966 how-to-book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (wherein she speaks of one of the "elements" of the story as "the deleterious effect of exposure to brutality in prison, and how this can lead to anti-social behavior after release"). Her next two novels, excluding the 1970 Ripley under Ground and the 1974 Ripley's Game, continue the new interest in social forces: The Tremor of Forgery (1969) depicts the effects of the alien view of criminality in Tunisian society on an American, and A Dog's Ransom (1972) is an obsessive portrait of a crime-ridden New York City which corrupts and destroys decent human beings. Three of Highsmith's four most recent novels (The Boy Who Followed Ripley is the exception) are set in the United States (and the latest Ripley novel ends there), and none focuses primarily on criminals. All (Edith's Diary, 1977; People who Knock on the Door, 1983; and Found in the Street, 1986) depict a society in which most people are either obsessed with fanatical religious or political beliefs or are turned inward toward totally self-serving, socially irresponsible behavior. Both orientations can lead to criminality, and they do so in these books. The evolution of the picture of crime and society which occurs in the Ripley novels is consistent with the evolution occurring in Highsmith's other works. But, while Ripley's perception of society seems to parallel Highsmith's, his perception of himself does not.
One must remember the irony: Tom Ripley may be right about the world, but he is still thoroughly lacking in insight into Tom Ripley. His motives are, ultimately, the strictly personal ones of his need for the stimulation of danger and, still, for occasionally losing his identity in a masquerade of some kind. These last Ripley novels are not works of social criticism. Patricia Highsmith remains the novelist of the psychological portrayal of criminal behavior. She simply has moved, over the years, toward a more social orientation—to a greater awareness of the effects of society on behavior.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1974
SOURCE: "Lovers on a Train," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 10, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following positive review of Carol, which was originally published as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Clapp discusses the plot of the novel, focusing on Highsmith's depiction of landscape and homosexuality.]
'Beautifully written' is novel-reviewer's shorthand for 'written by a woman'. So is 'slim'. And 'slender'. I began to note these casual condescensions when I was helping to judge last year's Booker Prize. But then, prizes bring out prickliness. 'Do you think,' asked one contributor to the London Review of Books, 'that the Booker panel is as distinguished as it should be?' The question was delivered with a speculative air, worthy of the academic who spoke. 'After all,' he mused on, 'there are probably dons who would be prepared to act as judges.'
So it seems. There is, for example, Eric Griffiths, who was beamed onto the television screen cutting the Booker finalists, especially the females, down to size. He blamed A. S. Byatt for producing 'the kind of novel I'd write if I was foolish enough not to know that I couldn't write a novel'; he commended Brian Moore for having included, in one of the most routine sentences Moore has ever written, the words 'a quarter to nine'. Beryl Bainbridge's An Awfully Big Adventure he denounced as being a novel 'about a charming little girl written by a charming big girl'. Books don't come slimmer than that.
Some critics seemed to think that male writers must have been strenuously extruded from the short list. Why, one friend asked indignantly, wasn't the 'Amis-Barnes Axis' on it? The explanation that neither writer had published a novel in 1990 was met by a witheringly sceptical silence. Others seemed unnerved by Bainbridge's novel, which was patronised as a 'surprise' finalist. The surprise was partly because her novel had been put out in unfashionable December and skimpily reviewed. It was also expressive of a conventional idea of a Booker book. Bainbridge's novels are short and funny and dark. They are very particular: an inventory of their names and contents—all those loofahs, geysers, murders, Fredas—could not easily be accommodated in another contemporary novel. They are not usually described as 'ambitious'. And ambition, which is easier for people to agree about than, say, a sense of prizes. It is a unisex quality. When Bainbridge was first shortlisted for the Booker in 1973, the prize was won by J. G. Farrell for The Siege of Krishnapur, this year it went to A. S. Byatt's Possession. Both these good winners were rightly praised for the largeness of their historical reach. Bainbridge's scenes are more claustrophobic—both drabber and more dire. But small does not mean puny. There is a scatter—it is hardly a line—of female wits whose stage is narrow, whose mode is elliptical, and whose secrets are guilty. They are called Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. All have crime at the heart of their novels. None of them is a crime novelist.
Patricia Highsmith is. And in making murder her main point, she has avoided being thought of primarily as a woman novelist. She has made a career of producing books of settled menace, in which acts of homicide surface, almost welcomed, as breaks in routine. Her heroes kill not without feeling, but without fear of reprisal. They bash because someone is about to get in their way: 'He remembered his cool thoughts of beating her senseless with his shoe heel.' And they strangle as part of a self-development project:
If he were interviewed he would say, 'It was terrific! There's nothing in the world like it.' ('Would you do it again, Mr Bruno?') 'Well, I might,' reflectively, with caution, as an arctic explorer when asked if he will winter up north again next year might reply uncommittingly to a reporter.
Highsmith, who has said that she 'never thinks about style', has developed a distinctive prose which catches the obsessions of her protagonists, their dogged attention to detail, and their insulation from the rest of the world. This can go too far. Some of her narration has a stunned, Janet-and-John quality.
But the restaurant served only beer and wine, so they left. Carol did not stop anywhere for her drink as they drove back towards New York. Carol asked her if she wanted to go home or come out to Carol's house for a while, and Therese said to Carol's house. She remembered the Kellys had asked her to drop in on the wine and fruitcake party they were having tonight, and she had promised to, but they wouldn't miss her, she thought.
This passage—a limp note in an atmospheric book—is from Highsmith's second novel, which, under the unsurprising title Carol, is now published in Britain for the first time. Carol is a novel about a lesbian love-affair, and was written shortly after Strangers on a Train, which was branded by Harper as 'A Harper Novel of Suspense'. Anxious not to be relabelled as 'a lesbian-book writer', Highsmith submitted the manuscript under a pseudonym: Harper turned it down. She changed publishers, and the book appeared in 1952. It was called The Price of Salt and was said to be by Claire Morgan; it received 'respectable' reviews, piles of fan mail, and sold a million copies in paperback. It is a romance which reads almost exactly like a Patricia Highsmith thriller.
Highsmith got the idea for Carol in 1948, when she was 27. She had finished her first novel, was broke and fed up, and had taken a job in a Manhattan department store. She was sent to work in the toy department, on the dolls' counter—where all those floppy or morbidly stiff little limbs and those rows of glassy eyeballs must have appealed to her. One day a blonde woman in a mink coat came into the store. She was elegant and a little uncertain. She bought a doll, gave a delivery name and address, and left. 'It was a routine transaction … But I felt cold and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.' Highsmith went home and wrote out the entire plot of Carol, which begins with a meeting between a salesgirl and a glamorous older woman in the toy department of a large store, spills out across the North American continent, as the two women decide to go travelling together (at first simply as friends, later as lovers), and ends with the couple looking as if they will try to settle down together. It took Highsmith two hours to plan her book. The next day, still in a strangely swoony condition, she was diagnosed as having chicken pox. Characteristically, she identifies the germ that gave her the fever and pustules with the germ of her idea for a novel: she describes herself dreaming up her love story with a face full of 'bleeding spots … as if … hit by a volley of air-gun pellets'.
Carol is constructed like a Highsmith thriller, with pages of uneasy eventlessness punctuated by sudden alarms. If anything, these alarms are more frequent and more exciting than those in her suspense novels. The young heroine Therese, infatuated by her companion and beginning to trust her, discovers a gun tucked away in her suitcase; as Therese and Carol travel from Chicago to Salt Lake City, a solitary man seems to follow them from hotel to hotel; in an unfamiliar town, the couple discover a bugging device strapped to their bedside table. There is a car chase through unpeopled hills, a confrontation with a detective, a pay-off and the possibility of a shoot-out. Each incident is given piquancy by the equivocal character of Carol, who is lovely, cool, mocking, given to abrupt silences and unpredictable sweetness. Her attitudes and affections are often in doubt; her impenetrability is as threatening as it is alluring.
But it is the landscape, glimpsed in Hopper-like snatches, at once sharp-edged and one-dimensional, which gives the novel its tang. That and the details of weird animation. Here is a Highsmith character eating a canteen lunch: 'The peaches, like slimy little orange fishes, slithered over the edge of the spoon.' And here is another, downing a wholesome bedtime posset: 'The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh or hair …' This is a world full of the eerie vitality of the miniature. A toy train, freighted with tiny men and little logs, speeds round the department store in which Therese works, 'like something gone mad in imprisonment, something already dead that would never wear out'—or like the funfair roundabout near which a killing takes place in Strangers on a Train. A model village fascinates Therese, who wants to design theatre sets, and who pins up tiny cardboard rooms on her walls. Her fascination elicits one of her lover's acerbic observations: 'You so prefer things reflected in glass, don't you? You have your own private conception of everything … I wonder if you'll even like seeing real mountains and real people.' Which could be said of Highsmith's murderers.
Like her murderers, Highsmith's lovers make their dreams come true. In Strangers on a Train Bruno imagines committing the perfect murder ('the idea of my life'), and then does it. In Carol the 19-year-old shop assistant fantasises about kissing the beautiful older woman—who has money, a husband, a child and a huge house—and ends up running off with her. In many novels such success would be punished, but in Highsmith's fiction people get away with things. Tom Ripley begins a murderous career by drowning one acquaintance and battering another—and then swans off to a Greek island. Therese and Carol are vilified and threatened by husbands, lovers and lawyers, but finally decide they can manage a future together. It was this glimmer of a happy ending that attracted early readers of Carol. 'Prior to this book', Highsmith reflects, 'homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming-pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.'
It is unlikely that the sex in the novel drew people to it. Sharing a bed in a town called Waterloo, Therese and Carol kiss and fondle: then, suddenly, white flowers are seen glimmering in water, arrows are sent whizzing, and bodies melt into 'widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow'. This can't be good news. Highsmith can write persuasively about sexual feeling, but she is at her best when she does so obliquely. Before Carol, she had written Strangers on a Train, with its celebrated exchange of murders by two men, one of them a mother-dependent wheedler who craves the admiration of his counterpart. Immediately after Carol, she wrote The Blunderer, which featured a similarly charged relationship between two men, whose sexual ambiguity is given even more emphasis: 'Kimmel was aware that he felt intensely feminine, more intensely than when he spied upon his own sensuous curves in the bathroom mirror.' (Melchior Kimmel, who has vulgarly fat lips and a tendency to shrug, is an envier of 'Anglo-Saxon good looks'.) When Highsmith began her Ripley series, with The Talented Mr Ripley in 1955, she created a protagonist who dresses up in his host's trousers and prances in front of the mirror, who is disgusted by his chum's girlfriend, and who savours as his most bitter memory an episode in which he was called a sissy at the age of 12. Carol has the compulsion of a thriller; Highsmith's thrillers have the lure of romance.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
SOURCE: A review of The Price of Salt, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, June, 1991, p. 16
[In the following review of The Price of Salt, which Highsmith published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Wagner examines Highsmith's depiction of homosexual love.]
To risk love is to risk unhappiness, but for those whose love goes against the main currents of society, punishment and tragedy are certain. The only way, in fact, that generations of writers who discussed "forbidden" love could get away with creating three-dimensional and sympathetic characters is to make sure everyone suffered by the final curtain. A publisher, editor, or even a self-censuring author might force an unhappy ending on those fictional couples unfortunate enough to love across racial, political, or socioeconomic barriers or whose passion violated marital or religious vows. The necessity of imparting a lesson by destroying star-crossed lovers is part of indigenous myth, the Bible. Shakespeare, and, of course, the mid-century literature of the gay and lesbian community. To love someone of the same sex was to sin, and sin could only be written about (and enjoyed) if it was punished by death or abandonment. This forty-year-old classic [The Price of Salt] broke the rules.
It charts a difficult love between two women, with the complications of a husband, former lovers, and a child. Some of the conflicts will seem a little clichéd to today's readers, who have seen the story recounted in dozens of novels, if not ones nearly as well written. The younger woman learns about life as her passion for the older woman takes her out of herself; it allows her to take risks she would not have taken on her own behalf. The affair affects her relationship with others and even her career; she becomes willing to try to leave the usual dead-end jobs and hasten her success as a stage designer in New York. She begins to know herself.
This is not a perfect couple, and, in some ways, their attraction is a mystery. The younger woman is timid and vague; she seems too young in the beginning to be taken seriously. The older woman, on the other hand, is almost ruthless in her desire to achieve her ends. There is the awkward and dated glamour of her money and power, but this wears a little thin. What works is watching the author develop both characters into better people.
Love as a teacher, particularly between partners of different ages and experiences, is not new. It is not unexpected that the younger woman should become so much wiser by the end of the book. But the surprise at the end, the happy surprises, must have made the original readers cry with joy. Not having to compromise oneself, yet still finding an intimate and positive connection with another human being is rare in fiction, more so in the gay and lesbian fiction written in the "pulp" years of the genre.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659
SOURCE: "Past Crimes," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 360.
[In the following essay, the critic discusses Highsmith's five Tom Ripley novels, focusing on Ripley's matter-of-fact attitude toward crime.]
Through the years we have had the chance to follow the extraordinarily eccentric life of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley, who surely must be one of the oddest series figures in crime fiction since Raffles, the gentleman crook. The Ripley novels have been appearing since 1955, and the fifth and latest, Ripley under Water, came out in 1992.
The first in the series is the strongest and probably the most bizarre. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) is truly a masterpiece of crime fiction, one to rival in weirdness Highsmith's first novel, Strangers on a Train. At the beginning of this on-going saga the impecunious Mr. Ripley is hired to go to Europe to find the wayward son of a wealthy Boston couple. By the end of the novel, Ripley has not only murdered his quarry, but he has also forged a will in his favor, financially setting himself up for life, and he has done all of this with apparently little cost to his conscience. Tom Ripley has been looking over his shoulder ever since.
By the second novel, Ripley under Ground (1970), Tom Ripley has become a silent partner in The Buckminster Gallery in London which specializes, unknown to its customers, in art forgeries of a dead surrealist artist, Derwatt. In addition, he does a few favors to help a friend who runs a high-ticket fencing operation out of Germany and putters in his garden while enjoying the good life with his wife, Heloise, in their suburban villa, Belle Ombre, situated just outside Paris. Through the rest of the books Tom continues to prosper despite the fact that he continues to break the law, on occasion murdering those who threaten his secure existence. Not that all of these crime stories do not have their strange attraction but once Ripley has married and settled down with his wife to live an outwardly bourgeoisie life, the books lose some of their tension. Part of the problem is that as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will be caught no matter how dangerous the adventures he experiences.
The action of all of the novels after the first takes place from Belle Ombre and although Ripley jets around Europe and even once in a while to America, he always returns to the safety of his wife and house. In this series however safety is conditional. Ever since the questionable events of the first book, Ripley has existed under a cloud of suspicion, watched by the police and always prey to those who would pry into the mysterious disappearances of the increasing number of people who seem to vanish when Ripley is around. He never quite rids himself of the sins of his past, although he does seem to be able to live with his transgressions with little regret.
What makes the books so fascinating and so eerie is the flat, matter-of-fact attitude toward murder and mayhem which Ripley maintains. He suffers momentary pangs of remorse or disquieting thoughts on occasion, but in general, he slips down the bloody trail he walks with a certain ease. And those around him, even if they know about Ripley's crimes, seem little bothered by them. It is as if the world he inhabits is strangely immune from guilt.
These are unsettling works of fiction, full of macabre humor and devilish insouciance, which play on the reader's fantasies of individual power and choice. In a universe so full of nasty people and random, uncontrollable events, it is awkwardly satisfying to watch someone exercise his personal will unfettered by the normal constraints of legality and civilized controls imposed upon the rest of us. For the successful creation of fiction as powerfully attractive as the Ripley novels are, Patricia Highsmith deservedly has earned her place as a crime writer of exceptional achievement.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4560
SOURCE: "A Train Running on Two Sets of Tracks: Highsmith's and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train," in It's a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth A. Tremblay, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, pp. 103-13.
[In the following essay, Mahoney provides a comparative study of Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train and Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of the work, concluding that "the two works are substantially different in focus and direction."]
Highsmith's Strangers on a Train provides a psychological analysis of Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno and their intertwined relationship. Hitchcock transforms the material into a thriller, focusing on action, suspense, and surprise. In the novel, the personalities of the characters, Highsmith's stylistic techniques, and the plot structure emphasize the similarities between Haines and Bruno; in the film, however, the visual links between the two are confused by the transformation of Haines into an innocent hero.
It begins with a casual conversation between two men on a train. When one of them shifts the topic to a "trade" of murders—"I kill your wife and you kill my father"—the first strands are spun of a web of violence that will entangle both men. Readers of suspense fiction and fans of Alfred Hitchcock films will immediately identify this plot: Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train (1950) and Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film adaptation of the same name.
Highsmith describes the starting point for her novel [in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction]: "the germ of the plot for Strangers on a Train was: 'Two people agree to murder each other's enemy, thus permitting a perfect alibi to be established.'" Highsmith's own novel deals somewhat ironically with that plot germ, since Guy Haines does not, on the train, "agree" verbally to the trade of murders suggested by his fellow "stranger" Charles Anthony Bruno. In Guy's revelations about his wife, Miriam, to Bruno, and in his silence after Miriam's murder, however, there is an implicit consent, and Guy eventually becomes a full accomplice in the exchange of murders, killing Bruno's father as his part of the trade. In Hitchcock's film, on the other hand, the exchange of murders is far more one-sided, with Bruno Killing Miriam but Guy, in return, attempting instead to warn Bruno's father, the intended second victim.
As suggested by the dramatic plot change in the film, the two works are substantially different in focus and direction. Highsmith focuses on the psychological analysis of the two men and their intertwined relationship, whereas Hitchcock's transformation of the material into the genre of the thriller means a corresponding focus on action and the characteristic Hitchcock elements of suspense and surprise. According to John Russell Taylor, "In Strangers on a Train Hitch had managed, by instinct rather than conscious thought, to find a deeply disturbing subject—that of an exchange of guilt—which could be satisfactorily externalized in thriller form." Hitchcock himself commented, "Strangers on a Train wasn't an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with."
As various film critics have pointed out, Hitchcock's opening shots for the film capture a sense of the film as a whole:
Extremely low camera placements in the opening sequence prepare us for a film that will take place largely in a subterranean world of anxiety and nightmare. The credits run over a scene looking back from the inside of a cavernous train station to the brightness of the world outside. As they end, a cab turns into the entrance. It disgorges Bruno, or more accurately, Bruno's garish shoes and trouser legs. A second cab pulls up at the dark curb and unloads Guy's legs, feet, and tennis racquets. The film begins with a movement into darkness from which it will return only at the very end….
As the action of guilt and entrapment commences, images of descent and imprisonment proliferate. The camera stays at knee level for a minute and a half after the credits, until Bruno's foot and Guy's bump under a table in the lounge car. This opening sequence includes an expressive shot of the shadow of the train proceeding along the intersecting and diverging tracks of the railyard…. The image of the converging rails at the beginning of Strangers on a Train serves as an emblem of the plot, in which characters in a chaos of unconnected human lives coincidentally converge and collide, turn apart, and pursue crucial actions in parallel.
Those opening shots of the two pairs of feet moving towards each other and of the converging railroad tracks emphasize the connection between the two men, the deliberate image of them as doubles. Robin Wood points out that, in the process, our sense of the opposition between the two pairs of shoes seen in the opening sequence—Guy's modest dark shoes and Bruno's flashier two-toned spats—becomes a parallel "imposed by the editing on what would otherwise be pure contrast." This sense of Bruno and Guy as doubles is reinforced both visually and linguistically throughout the scenes that follow by such elements as Guy's lighter with its engraving of crossed tennis racquets, the link between the "doubles" of tennis player Guy and the scotch doubles ordered for them both by Bruno, and Bruno's thoughtful murmurs of "Crisscross" as he lies back in his private compartment, holding the lighter Guy has left behind and contemplating the trade in murders he has just suggested to Guy.
Yet despite the film's technical brilliance in suggesting the idea of doubles, the viewer's sense of Bruno as the representative of Guy's unexamined and repressed desires is shortcircuited by the plot level of the film, resulting in a significant departure from the dynamics of the Highsmith novel. In plot terms, Guy is an innocent man, guilty on a conscious level of neither Miriam's death nor Bruno's plans to have his father killed. Hitchcock's editing techniques visually link Guy and Bruno; for example, when Hitchcock cuts from a scene in a telephone booth where Guy, drowned out at first by a train, shouts about Miriam, "I said I could strangle her!" to a shot of Bruno's curved, upheld hands, the sequence directly links Guy's desire for Miriam's death to the means by which Bruno will accomplish that death. Yet the essence of the film's plot is that Guy, the innocent hero, will eventually emerge uncorrupted from the world of darkness into which Bruno has temporarily plunged him.
When Hitchcock's Guy, having entered Bruno's father's bedroom at night in accordance with Bruno's murderous plan, attempts to warn the father (only to find a suspicious Bruno there in his place), the opposition, rather than the likeness, between the two men becomes marked. Even though Guy carries a gun with him on his nocturnal expedition, the speed with which he pockets the gun outside the bedroom and calls out the name of Bruno's father makes it nearly impossible to believe that Guy is seriously tempted to carry out the killing to protect himself from Bruno's blackmailing threats. As a result, the scene's suspense derives from Hitchcock's deliberately misleading the viewer, rather than from any sense of Guy as a potentially complex and unpredictable character torn between two possible choices. When Guy is confronted on the staircase by an apparently vicious guard-dog and the viewer is swept into fear for Guy's safety, that very anxiety (considering that Guy may be about to kill a defenseless old man in cold blood) is designed to force viewers to deal with the moral ambiguity of their own reactions. Yet the viewers' moral dilemma is patently manufactured if there is no real chance of Guy's killing Bruno's father, and this converts the whole sequence to the level of a clever trick. (Interestingly, Wood, in revising his essay on the film, shifts from seeing this problem as simply a "misjudgment" to commenting that "Major lapse in artistic integrity' is perhaps not too strong a description.")
This confrontation between Bruno and Guy reveals to Bruno as well as to viewers that Guy will not succumb to Bruno's dark desires. In retaliation, Bruno threatens to find an appropriate revenge for the "betrayal": he will falsify evidence of the innocent Guy's guilt. After Bruno's decision, the film moves quickly to two dramatically crosscut races against time: Bruno's attempting to rescue Guy's lighter from a sewer so he can use it to incriminate Guy, and Guy's attempting to win his tennis match at Forest Hills as quickly as possible so he can thwart Bruno's plans. This crosscutting emphasizes the differences between the two men by means of a striking visual contrast: the darkness of the sewer scenes and the open, sunlit scenes of the tennis match represent each character's moral condition.
As the film progresses, viewers clearly discern the men's dramatic opposition despite the chaos of events and the confusion of the police. In the film's climactic scene Guy follows Bruno to the carnival grounds where Bruno killed Guy's wife, Miriam. There the police are misled by the ambiguity of a carnival worker's cry; looking towards the two men, he exclaims: "He's the one. He's the one who killed her." As the accidental shooting of the carousel operator sends the carousel hurtling at top speed, Guy is swept dramatically from the ordered safe world he craves into the instability and disorder linked with Bruno. Nevertheless, the opposition between the two men remains paramount, captured in miniature by a vignette where a young boy attempting to help Guy is pushed viciously by Bruno and nearly falls from the wildly spinning carousel; Guy risks himself to save the child, with the result that he himself is nearly killed by Bruno.
As soon as the carousel's crash and the discovery of Guy's lighter in the dead Bruno's hand have revealed Guy's innocence to the police, Guy is able to return to a harmony with the ordered world beyond the carnival gates. The film ends, however, not with the death of Bruno, but with a humorous parallel that indicates the degree to which Guy is free of Bruno and the threat to Guy's world and his sense of self that Bruno represented. A minister on the same train as Guy and Anne (the woman Guy loves and intends to marry) inadvertently repeats Bruno's opening question, "Aren't you Guy Haines?"; Guy and Anne look at each other and exit the car, leaving behind the bemused minister. The repetition of Bruno's comments by this clearly harmless "stranger" underlines Guy's return to a world of order and normalcy.
Earlier in the film, the use of other minor "strangers" on trains also de-emphasizes the idea that the link between Guy and Bruno is predestined, necessitated by something within Guy himself rather than by random chance. Just as the minister's question is a harmless repetition of Bruno's, so another passenger has earlier nudged the foot of another man accidentally, just as Guy had nudged Bruno's. And Guy's supposed acquiescence to Bruno's murder plot—"Now, you think my theory's okay, Guy? You like it?" "Sure, Bruno, sure. They're all okay"—is humorously repeated, on the same night that Bruno kills Miriam, when Guy casually assures the drunken Professor Collins, in response to a confused question about differential calculus, "Yes, I understand."
The clear separation between Guy and Bruno during the later part of the film is responsible for an element of moral ambiguity in the film as a whole: Guy's pleasant future of marriage to Anne and a political career has been provided for him courtesy of Bruno, who has removed Miriam, the only obstacle to Guy's happiness. Guy's ability both to separate himself from that murderous desire and to profit from its results has been described variously: Spoto calls it "one of Hitchcock's darkest ironies," whereas Wood notes that "the effect seems at times two-dimensional, or like watching the working out of a theorem rather than a human drama."
In contrast to the portrayal in Hitchcock's film, Highsmith's novel makes the link between Guy and Bruno a major component of the book's overall direction. Highsmith's use of both Guy's and Bruno's narrative points of view acts structurally as Hitchcock's crosscutting does in his adaptation: forcing us to picture the two men as inextricably linked doubles, rather than as separate individuals. But whereas in the Hitchcock film this visual fusing runs counter to the development of the plot itself, in Highsmith's novel the personalities of the characters, the stylistic techniques, and the structure of the plot all emphasize the doubling.
The fusing of the two main characters in Highsmith's novel begins, as does Hitchcock's visual linking, with the train journey. The encounter between Highsmith's Guy and Bruno is accidental only in the most superficial way; though the encounter is not planned, the sense of shared identity arises immediately and is reinforced by Guy's denial of its existence: "All he despised, Guy thought, Bruno represented. All the things he would not want to be, Bruno was, or would become." Despite these protests, Highsmith's Guy is quickly drawn to something in his companion, unlike Hithcock's Guy, who is presented as alternately amused, annoyed, or irritated by Bruno and his notions. When Bruno propounds his theory that "a person ought to do everything it's possible to do before he dies, and maybe die trying to do something that's really impossible," Guy's reaction reveals a likeness to Bruno: "Something in Guy responded with a leap, then cautiously drew back. He asked softly, 'Like what?'"
Highsmith continues to stress the psychological links between the two men through her portrayal of Guy's passive vulnerability when he is confronted with Bruno's aggressive curiosity. Hitchcock's adaptation de-emphasizes this sense of passivity, instead presenting Guy as a successful professional tennis player—a career choice which helps emphasize his physical presence and suggests that he is a man of action. In the film, Miriam's threat to Guy is minimal, existing only because it is impossible for Guy to refute her false charge that the child she is carrying is his and she an abandoned wife. This strong, active, tennis-playing Guy effectively resists Bruno's murder scheme by attempting instead to warn the intended murder victim. In contrast, Highsmith's Guy is not a tennis player but a successful architect with a tendency to live in his mind, to see the world in ideals and abstractions while refusing to recognize or fully acknowledge his own suppressed emotions and needs. Until he meets Bruno, his companion on the train is a volume of Plato, an old high school text that he accidentally leaves in Bruno's compartment and that later becomes a clue to be used against him. He has brought the book as "an indulgence to compensate him, perhaps, for having to make the trip to Miriam." But while the words he reads make sense to him, an inner voice questions, "But what good will Plato do you with Miriam."
Guy's inability to face his tangled feelings about Miriam makes him an easy prey for Bruno, with his cool, unshockable curiosity. Finding in Bruno the stranger to whom he can admit Miriam's unfaithfulness, Guy realizes that "he had never told anyone so much about Miriam." Bruno evokes in Guy the feelings he has tried both to conceal and ignore; when Bruno asks how many lovers Miriam had, Guy, in answering, finds himself caught in a surge of emotion: "'Quite a few. Before I found out.' And just as he assured himself it made no difference at all now to admit it, a sensation as of a tiny whirlpool inside him began to confuse him. Tiny, but realer than the memories somehow, because he had uttered it."
Despite, or perhaps because of, this whirlpool of emotion, Highsmith's Guy remains vulnerable and passive, enabling Miriam to control him through his inability to confront difficult situations. He is willing to give up the chance to bring into actuality the Palmyra, a building he has designed, rather than face the emotional chaos and failure of his relationship with her. Miriam recognizes Guy's weakness and taunts him about his decision to give up the Palmyra to keep her from coming with him: "Running away?… Cheapest way out." Guy later tells Anne that, because of Miriam, he had decided the Palmyra simply wasn't part of his "destiny."
While Hitchcock's stronger, more active Guy Haines successfully resists Bruno's attempts to draw him into crime, Highsmith's confused, passive architect fails to resist Bruno because Bruno represents a part of Guy himself. In fact, in the novel the interaction between Guy and Bruno immediately takes on an overtone of mutual sexual attraction downplayed in the film's presentation of their first encounter. In the film, Bruno has no sooner met Guy than he launches into innuendoes about Guy's publicly known relationship with Anne, a senator's daughter, and his desire to get a divorce so that he and Anne can marry. In the novel, Bruno's conversation focuses on Miriam, the hated and destructive other. He knows nothing about Anne, and later feels cheated when he learns about Guy's relationship with her. However, the novel's Anne is significant in her absence, since Guy is thinking about Anne when he initiates the meeting with Bruno: "Suddenly he [Guy] felt helpless without her. He shifted his position, accidentally touched the outstretched foot of the young man asleep, and watched fascinatedly as the lashes twitched and came open." Thus begins the complex triangle as Guy's allegiance shifts between her and Bruno.
Later in the novel, Guy's relationship with Anne and Bruno becomes an almost mystical ménage à trois. During his wedding, Guy discovers Bruno in the church: "He [Guy] was standing beside Anne, and Bruno was here with them, not an event, not a moment, but a condition, something that had always been and always would be. Bruno, himself, Anne. And the moving on the tracks. And the lifetime of moving on the tracks until death do us part…." Soon, however, three becomes a crowd. Guy and Anne's home is invaded by an uninvited Bruno, who is as immediately comfortable as if he were one of the inhabitants. Before long, Bruno comes to view Anne as the invasive presence and begins to think and act destructively toward her. Anne's prized sailboat is damaged on a surreptitious sail that Guy and Bruno take together; and Bruno finally considers eliminating Anne as the only obstacle left between himself and Guy: "Anne is like light to me, Bruno remembered Guy once saying. If he could strangle Anne, too, then Guy and he could really be together."
Guy's suspension between Anne and Bruno represents the struggle between the creative and destructive elements within himself, a struggle which Hitchcock's secure playboy is never forced to endure. For Guy, his architectural designs represent in concrete from the grace, beauty, and order that he discovers in the act of creation; as Kathleen Klein describes it, "His work is, for him, a spiritual act, defined by unity and wholeness; it rejects disorder, fragmentation and shallowness." His ultimate dream as an architect has always been to build that visible symbol of unity and balance, a bridge—he imagines designing "a white bridge with a span like an angel's wing." Guy's vision of Anne as an ideal—the light opposed to the darkness represented by Bruno—links her directly with the creations of his mind; and at Guy's wedding, Bob Treacher, who later offers Guy a chance to realize his dream, notes that Anne is "as beautiful as a white bridge."
Similarly, Guy recognizes a starker, destructive side of himself mirrored in Bruno. As Guy journeys to Great Neck to kill Bruno's father, he defines the relationship between them quite differently than at their first meeting: "He was like Bruno. Hadn't he sensed it time and time again, and like a coward never admitted it? Hadn't he known Bruno was like himself? Or why had he liked Bruno? He loved Bruno." After the murder, that sense of shared identity tightens; as Guy considers how good and evil, hate and love exist simultaneously in the human heart, he thinks, "Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved." This insight is confirmed by a dream later that night, in which Guy imagines himself waking to find Bruno springing into his room. To Guy's question, "Who are you?" Bruno finally answers, "You." While he and Bruno are on the train early in the novel, Guy sees how the intelligence and clarity of his creative professional life run counter to the confused emotion and blindness of his personal life; once he has murdered, Guy understands a starker contrast:
He felt rather like two people, one of whom could create and feel in harmony with God when he created, and the other who could murder. "Any kind of person can murder," Bruno had said on the train. The man who had explained the cantilever principle to Bobbie Cartwright two years ago in Metcalf? No, nor the man who had designed the hospital, or even the department store, or debated half an hour with himself over the colour he would paint a metal chair on the back lawn last week, but the man who had glanced into the mirror just last night and had seen for one instant the murderer, like a secret brother.
Guy is at peace in his work on the Palmyra project because of his belief that it will reach perfection: "And the more he immersed himself in the new effort, the more he felt recreated also in a different and more perfect form." The house that Guy designs for himself and Anne is likewise beautiful in both design and final form. But the idea of that house, like the finished and inhabited house itself, becomes infected and changed by becoming linked with the thought of Bruno. On the night Guy learns that Miriam is dead, he has been visualizing the house he will build, seeing it in his hotel room as "shining white and sharp against the brown bureau across the room." After the phone call reporting Miriam's murder, he looks again at the bureau: "Now, where he had seen the vision of the white house, a laughing face appeared, first the crescent mouth, then the face—Bruno's face."
Symbolically, the design of the house, planned by Guy before his encounter with Bruno on the train, reflects Guy's position as the focal point of a triangle. The house is conceived of as "Y"-shaped; and while Guy has considered dispensing with one of the arms of the "Y" in the interests of economizing, "the idea sang in Guy's head only with both arms." The house is designed to project from a white rock, and to look "as if alchemy had created it from the rock itself, like a crystal"; Guy, in fact, considers naming the house "The Crystal." As Guy imagines the house, it is a work of proportion and balance, in harmony with both itself and the environment from which it has sprung.
The idea of the house as a crystal echoes and contrasts with Guy's earlier menial description of himself when he thinks about ways in which he has sabotaged himself and chosen to fail: "There was inside him, like a flaw in a jewel, not visible on the surface, a fear and anticipation of failure that he had never been able to mend." The jewel image is repeated when Guy drops overboard the gun he has used to kill Bruno's father. Bruno has sent Guy a Luger for the murder; Guy rejects the gun for its ugliness and ungainliness, and uses instead a gun he had bought as a teenager, an object purchased solely for its cleanness of design and aesthetic appeal. Guy's use of his own gun indicates the degree to which he is fusing what he considers the best of himself, his sense of beauty and design, with this act of destruction; it also emphasizes that he is acting of his own volition, rather than being compelled by Bruno. After the murder, despite the fact that the gun is the one concrete piece of evidence linking him to a crime, Guy is reluctant to eliminate its loveliness: "How intelligent a jewel, he thought, and how innocent it looked now. Himself—." Highsmith's Guy, unlike his creations or the beautifully designed gun, is "flawed," and he is unable to achieve within himself the harmony and balance he values. This inability renders him vulnerable to Bruno's suggestions and makes him utterly unlike the Guy Haines created in Hitchcock's film.
In the opening minutes of the Hitchcock adaptation, the shot of railway tracks coming together, and then diverging, sets the tone for the film: Guy's and Bruno's lives will converge, and then separate. In Highsmith's novel, however, the image of train tracks is used throughout to emphasize Guy's sense of imposed direction, a cessation of choices: "the lifetime of moving on the tracks."
In the firm, the encounter with a stranger asking "Aren't you Guy Haines?" can be answered differently (and in a sense replayed) and so escaped. But for Highsmith's Guy, a meeting with another "stranger," Miriam's lover Owen, to whom he goes to confess his guilt, brings a fear of being further swept into a cycle rather than a sense of escaping one; as he describes the murder scheme and hears himself voicing Bruno's ideas, he has "a horrible, an utterly horrible thought all at once, that he might ensnare Owen in the same trap that Bruno had used for him, that Owen in turn would capture another stranger who would capture another, and so on in infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted." Guy can be renewed and escape from the cycle only by capture, confession, and punishment. True to his nature, the novel's Guy achieves a new ending for his script by passivity and acceptance rather than by action. He attempts to purge himself by going to Owen, telling him of the two murders, and waiting for him to make the appropriate decision. When Owen refuses to act—and indeed shows little interest in the whole situation—Guy is rescued from his passivity by the actions of the detective Gerard, who has listened to the confession by means of a telephone connection.
Despite the status of the Hitchcock film as an adaptation of Highsmith's novel, the differences in focus and plot ultimately make the two very different and individual works of art. And in spite of the drastic shift in overall effect caused by Hitchcock's plot changes, Highsmith considers Strangers on a Train one of the best of the films made from her novels. Perhaps the key to her ability to accept Hitchcock's vision of her novel as well as her own can be found in a comment Highsmith made on the artistic process:
Every human being is different from the next, as handwriting and fingerprints prove. Every painter or writer or composer has consequently something different to say from the next (or should have). A Rembrandt or a Van Gogh is identifiable from a distance and at once. I believe in individuality, in being oneself, in using the maximum of one's talent…. That is what the public finally loves—something special and individual.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742
SOURCE: "Savage Swiss Army Knife," in The Observer Review, No. 10612, March 13, 1995, p. 19.
[In the following review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Sage discusses the plot of the work and examines Highsmith's characterization and depiction of sex.]
Patricia Highsmith's (posthumous) new novel [Small g: A Summer Idyll] starts out in cool, utterly characteristic vein. A beautiful boy, a character we've hardly had a chance to meet, is murdered on page two by strangers who'll never be caught—not in any story she's responsible for. And, to add insult to injury, Lulu, a self-possessed performing dog ('a circus dog, from circus stock'), is introduced as a character in her own right, one who takes up more or less as much space as the humans, and has about as much inner life as most of them, too.
Highsmith once notoriously confessed that if she saw a kitten and a baby starving on the side of the road, she'd feed the kitten first if no-one was looking—and Small g: A Summer Idyll, like almost everything she did, builds in the same shocking lack of prejudice in favour of the human race. Although this time, oddly enough, there is a plot which distributes rewards and punishments, it's done in a way that privileges frivolity, fairy-tale style.
Lulu the performing dog, who's dressed up from time to time in dark glasses and a headscarf, like an old-style movie star on a cruise, socialises in the Zurich bar, Jakob's Bierstube, otherwise known as the 'small g', that gives the novel its title. Small g is apparently guidebook code for 'partly gay', and a typically tidy Swiss way of making sure you know where you are. Except that you don't, since Jakob's is where gay and straight worlds border on each other and violence lurks around the corner.
Rickie, Lulu's owner, and the lover of beautiful Petey, dead on page two, is HIV positive, and trying hard—we've cut to a few months later—to get back into his life. Sentimentally (sentimentality is OK for Highsmith, it's claims to profound feeling that she scorns), Rickie resolves to take an interest in a pretty girl, Luisa, who was also in love with Petey. Luisa it turns out, is a sort of prisoner of the couturier Renate, to whom she's apprenticed; and now the plot gets into its stride—a battle between Rickie and Renate over Luisa's destiny.
Renate is an agent of the gender-police, a gay-hater, and a hater of youth and sexual freedom in general; Rickie is on the side of the mildly camp fun that goes on at the 'small g', and sees Luisa as a surrogate self, someone who yearns for the same golden boys as he does. Teddy, a sweet-and-straight Prince Charming, turns up, and Rickie encourages Luisa's interest in him, to Renate's fury …
So much for Swiss tidiness. Highsmith (who lived in Switzerland herself during her last years) relishes, clearly, the opportunity to litter the orderly, uptight scene with ambiguities. Again, in characteristic style, you're told some of the most vital-seeming things (Rickie's being HIV positive, Luisa's having been sexually abused by her step-father) in passing. But the most cavalier authorial gesture is the use of fairy-story motifs.
Renate is referred to as 'the old witch', and actually becomes one, complete with club foot ('Clump, scrape') and a half-witted familiar, 'like a classic village idiot of yore', whom she brainwashes into violence against her enemies. Highsmith's famous contempt for justice is here turned inside out—we have fairy-tale revenge, when the witch gets her come-uppance, silly Rickie is 'a knight in armour', and it turns out the doctor who did the HIV test was only teasing.
Doubtless the little dog laughed to see such fun and the dish ran away with the spoon, too. From one angle, this 'happy ending' looks 'mellow'; from another, though, it's full of malice (straights are cripples) and fear and loathing of the surveillance of other people's lives that happens in anything resembling a family. Luisa thinks of Renate's eyes as 'knives cutting her brain open'. Highsmith lived with animals, was bi-sexual, left no known survivors (as the New York Times quaintly put it) and once complained that, when she started writing, 'homosexuals in American novels had to pay for their deviancy by cutting their throats'. In this latest novel she imagined a new generation of golden boys and girls who would escape the gingerbread house of either/or.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554
SOURCE: "Mellow at the Last," in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 152, No. 12, March 19, 1995, p. 29.
[In the following positive review of Small g: A Summer Idyll, Elborn states that the work "has a serenity rarely found in Highsmith's world."]
No other crime writer came near to possessing Patricia Highsmith's particular gift. Highsmith, who died last month, had an ability to stretch the nerves by teasing out the tension of some trivial domestic incident, or to describe suffocation by a cluster of snails, was entirely her own. Small g: A Summer Idyll is unlike any of her previous books, but from the first page, it is recognisably authentic Highsmith. Perhaps approaching her lesbian novel Carol in tenderness and theme, it has a serenity rarely found in Highsmith's world.
This does not mean that the novel is in any way soft. No story that opens with a vicious fatal stabbing by two drug-crazed thugs can be considered comfortable. But the victim, Petey Ritter, becomes a symbol which helps to unite a young Zurich community, both gay and straight. They have a cosy meeting-place in "small g", the codename given by a guidebook to Jakob's Beirstube Restaurant to indicate that at weekends, a partly gay clientele is welcome. The place is a centre for local gossip; Highsmith seems well-informed about the social and sexual habits of gay men, their anxieties about ageing, wearing the "wrong" clothes and fear of ending unattached on the scrapheap.
These are the concerns of Rickie Markwalder, a graphic artist of 46, whose younger boyfriend was the murdered Petey, and who is already unrequitedly in love with a young straight man called Georg. Rickie, who is a daily habitue of the restaurant, seems to know and like everybody, with the exception of two misfit characters. The more extraordinary is Renate, a middle-aged seamstress who employs a few women in a dress-making business. Her hatred of gay men edges on the paranoid. She is a monster, sexually frustrated and lonely.
Renate's behaviour becomes psychopathic when she forms an alliance with Willi, the other misfit. This impressionable, malevolent and retarded lumbering hulk is easily led by Renate into committing an act of violence in the dark of night against a gay man. "Give him a good big scare, Willi. You know how," she says.
Highsmith's dexterity in controlling atmosphere depends on what we know but the characters do not. Scattered hints that Willi is a queer-basher are introduced but deliberately not proved, a classic Highsmith confusion without which her aficionados would feel cheated. The "big scare" results in Georg suffering a nasty, near-fatal "accident".
Nemesis is achieved in a particularly satisfying way, and yet it is not quite the point. If the novel is partly an eloquent appeal for tolerance of a gay society, it also, unusually for Highsmith, shows happy relationships. This is all the more remarkable because those involved at the start love or are loved by either the wrong person or someone of the wrong sex. Fulfilment seems impossible, but the characters in this "summer idyll" surprise themselves.
Highsmith generally planted no "message" in her books, considering that anyone of any sense would realise that there is no natural justice in this world. With Small g: A Summer Idyll, she seems to have felt that a statement about loving relationships of all kinds was more important.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1762
SOURCE: "Stranger than Fiction," in Out, June, 1995, pp. 70, 72, 150.
[In the following essay, Peters provides an overview of Highsmith's career, focusing on her fascination with death and murder, her lesbianism, and critical reaction to her work.]
"Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I am sorry that is so." This quote, from Oscar Wilde's personal letters, was used by writer Patricia Highsmith in a foreword to one of her 21 extraordinary novels. It might as well have been her epitaph (she died of leukemia at age 74 in Switzerland on February 4), for the statement sums up so simply the eerie melancholy that colored her lifework.
From her first novel, Strangers on a Train (immortalized, if bowdlerized, in Hitchcock's classic film), to her last, Small g: A Summer Idyll, about a bizarre gay bar in Zurich (published in London, just days after her death), Patricia Highsmith probed the dark depths of paranoia, delving into the minds of homicidal psychopaths and their victims. Very often, in her world, crime did pay. Her short stories were horrifying, frequently grotesque: A rat devours the nose of a small child; a snail-lover is smothered to death by millions of his slimy pets; a man saddled with a deformed baby strangles an innocent passerby in a sudden act of revenge. One treads gingerly in Highsmith's troubled universe, never knowing what waits around the corner. Graham Greene called her "the poet of apprehension." But she was also haunted by her own demons.
Pegged early on as a suspense writer, Highsmith transcended the genre, gaining cult status even as she was ignored by most American literary critics. Those who did pay attention compared her to Henry James, Dostoyevsky, and Poe. Immensely popular in Europe, her books were filmed by Wim Wenders, René Clément, and Claude Miller, and garnered numerous awards. But she never caught on with the American public, no doubt because she didn't portray them in flattering terms and had little patience with middle-class conceptions of good versus evil. To her, justice was a man-made conceit. Novelist and director Michael Tolkin (The Player, The Rapture) says. "She was one of the best writers in the world. I have never read a review of her work where there wasn't some hedging on the part of the critic, a slightly superior tone because she was a girl or writing in this genre. But she was a great writer, the last turn of the dial to unlock my novels. I don't think I could have written The Player without her."
Few people know, however, that Patricia Highsmith, by all accounts a passionate yet very private lesbian, was also an important figure in gay literature. In 1952, fresh from her success with Strangers on a Train, she wrote the ground breaking novel The Price of Salt. Perhaps fearful of being branded a "lesbian author" as she had been a "mystery writer," Highsmith wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. For decades this heartfelt romance, one of the first lesbian novels with a happy ending, was required reading for young women (and many men) eager to overcome their isolation and loneliness. Reissued several times, most notably by Naiad Press, the book is still in print. Eventually Naiad publisher Barbara Grier convinced Highsmith to use her own name on the book. "I worshipped that book," Grier says, recalling the thrill of discovering it in 1952 in a department store in Kansas City. "It was a very upbeat, pro-lesbian book, which in itself was a miracle." Highsmith's representative Anne Elisabeth Suter estimates The Price of Salt has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, so its impact cannot be ignored. But none of her obituaries mentioned it, except a personal piece by Tolkin in the Los Angeles Times.
In fact The New York Times' obituary did Highsmith another disservice by erroneously calling her "Ms. Ripley," confusing the author with her most diabolical creation, Tom Ripley, an engaging American psychotic living abroad, who continually gets away with murder. No doubt Highsmith, master of irony, was laughing in her grave. She often said that Ripley, not she, had written the first of the five books in which he appears. That novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is currently being developed as a project for Paramount Pictures by Sydney Pollack and William Horberg. "Highsmith was one of the great postwar novelists," Horberg says. "Her books are impossible to put down. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a profound love story. Ripley loves Dickie Greenleaf but can't have him, so, tragically, he destroys him."
For all their psychological intrigue, Highsmith saw her books merely as entertainments. Favoring emotions over style, she wrote in a spare, declarative tone that weaves a terrifying spell. The monotony of quotidian details lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Her protagonists are always cooking, drinking, or making their beds, so that when a murderer suddenly acts, the horror is infinitely more dramatic, raw. In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, one of her most affecting and disturbing novels, Highsmith grippingly depicts Ripley's growing affection for a handsome young man who has murdered his invalid father by pushing his wheel-chair off a cliff in Maine. He turns to the notorious Ripley for support. Later, Ripley dresses in drag for a rendezvous at a gay bar and commits murder to save the boy's life.
What was behind Highsmith's fascination with death and murder? One can only suspect it stems from her private obsessions. She was born Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. Her parents, commercial artists, had divorced before she was born. Patricia lived with her maternal grandmother until age six, when she moved with her mother to New York. Her mother remarried a man named Highsmith, who later adopted Patricia. Highsmith didn't meet her natural father until she was 12. In interviews she hinted that her childhood was less than happy. Emotional turmoil was constant.
A clue to her feelings may be gleaned from her early writings, odd little stories about homicidal children. She was inspired by a clinical text her family owned called The Human Mind, by Dr. Karl Menninger, filled with vivid case studies about pyromaniacs, sadists, and kleptomaniacs. Highsmith used it throughout her career as a character bible. "The Terrapin," for example, concerns a lonely boy whose mother dresses him in children's clothes. Alienated from his peers, in particular a bully next door, the youth grows increasingly hysterical until he stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive. One wonders, with a chill, if Highsmith's mother ever read that story.
Highsmith attended Barnard College, where she edited the school literary magazine. There she met journalist Kate Kingsley Skattebol, who corresponded with Highsmith the rest of her life and remained a devoted friend. Skattebol recalls Highsmith as a droll, impish wit fond of practical jokes, scatological humor, and bawdy limericks. "Her writing talent was evident in college," she says. One of her earliest tales, "The Heroine," about a deranged nanny who sets fire to a house where she works, was rejected by the Barnard magazine, Skattebol says, because it was "too unpleasant." It later appeared in Harper's Bazaar and the short story collection Eleven, regaining notoriety decades later during the scandalous Swiss nanny murder trial. Some thought the alleged killer (later acquitted) might have been inspired by Highsmith's story.
An early friend, Truman Capote championed Highsmith, helping her to get into Yaddo, where she rewrote Strangers on a Train (it had been rejected by six publishers). Over the years, Highsmith also developed lasting friendships with writers Graham Greene. Gore Vidal, and Paul Bowles. When not writing fiction, Highsmith found odd jobs, writing scenarios for Superman comics or toiling at Bloomingdale's over Christmas. She used that stint as background for The Price of Salt: Therese, the main character, whose dark features and shy, dreamy demeanor bear more than a passing resemblance to the young Highsmith, meets her lover, Carol, at a New York department store.
"Every adult has secrets," writes Highsmith at the novel's end. And throughout her life she seemed to enjoy harboring her own. "Pat was nothing if not unobvious," says Gary Fisketjon, her editor at Knopf, her last American publisher. "She was not particularly troubled by the fact that she was gay. She couldn't give a shit—she was Texan until the fucking end. But she preferred leading a private life." Barbara Grier, who never met her in person but corresponded with her frequently, says Highsmith suffered acutely from "internalized homophobia." which was not surprising, she adds, considering the era in which she was raised. Highsmith's own attitude is put rather succinctly in a postscript to The Price of Salt, in which she states, "I like to avoid labels."
An expatriate, Highsmith traveled constantly, moving first from New York to Mexico, then to Italy, England, and France, before finally settling near Locarno, in Switzerland. Often cold and close-mouthed with reporters, Highsmith disliked publicity. "She hated to come out of her house," says her Swiss publisher Daniel Keel. On more than one occasion she walked out in the middle of interviews. But her sense of humor was well-known. Larry Ashmead, executive editor at HarperCollins, recalls Highsmith telling him how she once smuggled live snails into France by hiding them under her breasts.
At the end, Highsmith lived alone with her beloved cat, Charlotte. She was by most accounts, a loner who drank and smoked to excess. As a young woman, according to Fisketjon, Highsmith was a "staggeringly beautiful woman." But as she aged, her sturdy, masculine features became more exaggerated, almost forbidding. Duncan Hannah, a New York artist, recalls meeting Highsmith at a book-signing: "She was like a Mandarin, almost Buddha-like," he says, "with a dilapidated, very still quality. Being under her gaze was like being under a microscope. It was spooky."
Highsmith seems to have exorcised her demons with her final and most openly gay work, Small g: A Summer Idyll. Sweetly sentimental, with gothic undertones, this dark romance harks back to the young-adults-in-love theme of The Price of Salt, but lacks its focus. In fact, Small g was rejected by Knopf and poorly reviewed in England. But it has unmistakable Highsmith touches: a club-footed homophobe, a bisexual beauty, a dandy diagnosed as HIV positive, and a clever circus dog named Lulu who upstages everyone else. One wonders what Highsmith might have achieved had she brought her literary villains and herself "out" decades ago. But maybe, for her readers, it's better she didn't. For then we might not have experienced the full rewards of her strange, macabre genius.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309
Campbell, James. "Criminal Negligence." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4795 (February 24, 1995): 32.
Negative review of Small g: A Summer Idyll in which Campbell states that the work is repetitive and lacks suspense and sympathy.
Dowell, Pat. "Gentleman with a Past." The Washington Post Book World XXII, No. 42 (October 18, 1992): 9.
Positive review of Ripley under Water in which Dowell discusses Highsmith's depiction of the character Tom Ripley.
King, Frances. "Perverse and Foolish." The Spectator 274, No. 8697 (March 18, 1995): 34.
Mixed review of Small g: A Summer Idyll. King praises the empathy with which Highsmith writes about gay men but faults the work's "slowness and repetitiveness."
Pamuk, Orhan. "A Taste for Death: Patricia Highsmith's Crime Time." The Village Voice XXXVII, No. 46 (November 17, 1992): 107-08.
Mixed assessment of Ripley under Water in which Pamuk states that the work lacks "any forceful character to balance the charm of [Tom] Ripley." The critic also provides a brief overview of Highsmith's career.
Peary, Gerald. "Highsmith." Sight and Sound 57, No. 2 (Spring 1988): 104-05.
Feature article written on the occasion of Highsmith's participation in the 1988 Toronto International Festival of Authors. Peary discusses film adaptations of Highsmith's works.
Symons, Julian. "Life with a Likable Killer." The New York Times Book Review (October 18, 1992): 41.
Negative review of Ripley under Water; Symons concludes that "this is the least good of the Ripley books."
Tolkin, Michael. "In Memory of Patricia Highsmith." Los Angeles Times Book Review (February 12, 1995): 8.
Overview of Highsmith's career written on the occasion of her death in 1995.
Wheelwright, Julie. "Fashion Victim." New Statesman and Society 8, No. 344 (March 1995): 38.
Negative review of Small g: A Summer Idyll in which Wheelwright calls Highsmith's last book "a disappointment."