Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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Summary

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith begins with Guy Haines's journey to Texas to divorce his wife, Miriam. He begins a conversation with Charles Bruno, a wealthy man who invites him to his private train car. Over dinner, Guy tells Bruno of Miriam's infidelity and their impending divorce. Bruno responds by telling Guy of his detestable father. He proposes the two men murder the other's transgressor: Bruno would murder Miriam, and Guy would murder Bruno's father. Guy takes this as a joke and leaves Bruno's car.

When Guy meets with Miriam, she tells him she no longer wants a divorce and would rather reap the financial benefits of his career as an architect. When Bruno hears of this, he travels to Texas and stalks Miriam before strangling her. When Guy hears of the murder, he remembers the conversation he had with Bruno, and his gut tells him that Bruno is the murderer. Eventually, he receives a call from Bruno, who confesses to killing Miriam and expects Guy to honor their deal.

Guy refuses. Bruno begins to stalk and harass him, threatening to frame him for Miriam's murder if he does not kill Bruno's father. The strain causes Guy to lose his job, his friends, and his fiancée before falling into total isolation. Desiring to reclaim his life and success, Guy agrees to kill Bruno's father. However, the guilt he feels leads to further isolation, and Bruno continues to harass him.

Guy and Bruno meet for a sailing expedition off the coast of Long Island. Here, Bruno drowns, and Guy finds himself without the opposite man who helped define him. The novel ends with Guy's surrender to his guilt. He travels back to Texas and confesses the scheme to Miriam's lover. This confession is overheard by a private investigator, who reports Guy to the police.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first published work, written primarily while living at the Yaddo Artists’ Colony. This novel introduces key themes in Highsmith’s canon: duality, performativity, and alienation in postwar America.

The novel opens with Guy Haines traveling by train to grant his unfaithful wife, Miriam, a divorce. Guy sits near Charles Bruno, a wealthy and crass man who strikes up a conversation and invites Guy to dine in his private car. Guy is unsettled by Bruno, who manages to draw out both the story of Miriam’s betrayals and Guy’s reason for traveling. Bruno likens Guy’s wife to his father, arguing that both typify the corruption of America. After so doing, Bruno proposes they swap murders—Bruno could murder Miriam, and then Guy could murder Bruno’s father. Guy, ever socially conscious, thinks Bruno is joking, laughs, and leaves, assuming the two of them will never meet again. The conversation characterizes Guy and Bruno as seeming opposites: whereas Guy is refined, soft-spoken, intellectual, and industrious, Bruno is coarse, verbally explosive, juvenile, and lazy.

Guy fails to get the divorce because Miriam decides she would rather benefit from his new financial and social success as an architect. Bruno learns of Miriam’s newest betrayal and decides to act, feeling he has a “purpose” for the first time in his life. In a plan ripped from a pulp-fiction plot, Bruno travels to Texas, follows Miriam, and strangles her. Pleased with his perfect execution, he returns home and waits for the right time to contact Guy for phase two.

Guy’s reaction to Miriam’s murder illustrates the alienation caused by postwar codes dictating how one must perform in order to be socially acceptable. Guy convinces himself that Miriam’s murder was a random act of violence, yet part of him knows Bruno committed the crime, and Guy drifts through the subsequent months in a daze, forcing himself to perform the roles of fiancé, son, and architect as expected. Just as Guy starts to feel “normal” again, Bruno calls, claims responsibility for the crime, and demands that Guy keep up his end of the bargain. Bruno haunts Guy, constantly following, writing, and calling him,...

(The entire section is 1,602 words.)