A Girl like Phyl
A Girl like Phyl
A Girl like Phyl
Several reviewers cite Patricia Highsmith's "A Girl like Phyl" as one of the best stories in her collection, Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (2002). They applaud its taut construction and fascinating portrait of the troubled main character, forty-year-old engineer Jeff Cormack. Highsmith's documented interest in existentialism becomes apparent in this story of a man who struggles to find a clear sense of himself and a purpose for his life when confronted by the meaninglessness of the modern world. The story contains some of Highsmith's trademarks: the shock of the extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary world and the violence that lurks just beneath a calm surface. Here Highsmith explores the devastating consequences of shattered dreams and recognition of painful realities.
Patricia Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on January 19, 1921. Her parents, both commercial artists, separated before she was born, and she did not meet her father until she was twelve. She later took her stepfather's surname. Highsmith was raised by her maternal grandmother for several years until her mother remarried. Her relationship with her mother, who admitted to trying to abort her by swallowing turpentine, remained
troubled, and she ended her relationship with her father after he tried to seduce her during their first meeting. The tensions she experienced in her family during her childhood were recreated in many of her stories and novels. Highsmith's grandmother taught her to read when she was two, and by the age of eight, Highsmith was interested in Karl Menninger's The Human Mind, especially the parts that focused on mental disorders, such as pyromania and schizophrenia. In her teenaged years, she began writing short stories and showed a talent for painting and sculpture.
After she graduated from Columbia in 1942, Highsmith settled in New York City and began writing text for comic books, which included profiles of Einstein, Galileo, Oliver Cromwell, and Sir Isaac Newton, and the script for the Captain America character, among others. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, focuses on two men who meet on a train and plan to swap murders. While the novel did not gain much attention, a year later Alfred Hitchcock directed a film version, which became a commercial and critical success and sparked interest in Highsmith's works.
Highsmith had a long, successful literary career, authoring several volumes of short stories in the fantasy, horror, and comedy genres, including Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, published posthumously in 2002, which includes "A Girl like Phyl." She also wrote several novels, the most famous of which center on her series character, Tom Ripley, who has inspired several films, most notably Anthony Minghella's version of The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999.
Highsmith's personal life, however, was not as successful. She struggled with alcoholism during most of her life and never was able to establish lasting relationships. She had several lesbian relationships and formed short-term relationships with the novelist Marc Brandel in 1949 and in 1959 with Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pseudonym M. E. Kerr. Many acquaintances considered Highsmith to be misanthropic and often cruel although others insisted that her shyness made her appear withdrawn. Highsmith did admit, however, that she preferred the company of animals to humans and spent most of her life as a recluse. In 1963, she moved to Europe, living in England, France, and Switzerland where she died of leukemia on February 4, 1995.
Her awards include the O. Henry Award for best first story for "The Heroine" in Harper's Bazaar in 1946; the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel in 1951 for Strangers on a Train and in 1956 for The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also won the French Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere in 1957; the British Crime Writers Association Award in 1964; and the Grand Master Award by the Swedish Academy of Detection in 1979.
As "A Girl like Phyl" opens, Jeff Cormack, a forty-year-old American engineer, is waiting to board a plane at Kennedy Airport to take him to Paris. The fog has caused several delays. As he waits at the gate, he sees a woman who makes him "stop and stay motionless for a few seconds." He thinks it is Phyl, but then he immediately insists that it could not be her since the woman looks so young. He notes though that the resemblance to the woman he knows as Phyl is remarkable. When he finally looks away, his hands tremble and he feels "shattered." He tells himself that he cannot look at her again or try to find her if she is on the same flight. As he walks to the airport bar, he thinks about how late he will be arriving in Paris and that he will still try to reach Semyon Kyrogin that night to work on a deal with Jeff's oil rig company, Ander-Mack. Jeff is not sure, however, where the man will be staying.
The young woman's face takes him back twenty years to the time he had met Phyl, whom he has thought of repeatedly. For a few years after they broke up, Jeff thought about her constantly, a time he called the "Awful Years." After that, he pushed her out of his mind by working hard at his career and soon met and married Betty and had a son, Bernard, now a teenager.
Seeing a woman who looks so much like Phyl dazes him to the point that he does not realize that he has ordered coffee. As he looks around the bar, Jeff spots the young woman sitting at one of the tables. He realizes that she might be Phyl's daughter, remembering "with painful accuracy" that Phyl had gotten married nineteen years ago. He acknowledges that he is still in love with her, a fact he has had to live with for all these years and hopes he will not be seated next to the young woman on the plane.
Once the plane takes off, Jeff tries to relax and think about the upcoming meeting with Kyrogin. He wonders if there is anyone from a rival company on the flight preparing to meet with the man. Just as he is about to doze off, however, he hears Phyl's voice saying, "You haven't any time for me anymore." He thinks about how he lost her, that he was so consumed with making money and becoming successful that he did not spend enough time with her and so she drifted away from him.
After the plane lands, Jeff stands in the passport line and watches the young woman, who is just ahead of him, drop a stuffed panda. When Jeff hands it to her, he notices that she has Phyl's teeth. When he gets to his hotel, he tries to phone Kyrogin but has no luck. Later, he runs into the young woman downstairs at the bar. A mistake in her reservation has left her without a room, and she complains to Jeff that she has nowhere to stay for the night.
After Jeff confirms with the desk clerk that there are no more rooms, he suggests that the woman share his suite. While she freshens up in the bathroom, Jeff tries unsuccessfully to get hold of Kyrogin and imagines that some competitor got to him first. The woman tells him that her name is Eileen, and he offers her some scotch. The two chat about his business proposition to Kyrogin. When she tells him that he is "a very serious man," he notes that her voice is like Phyl's.
Eileen tells Jeff that she is in Paris to get married and that her mother will arrive the next day. In a few days, after her fiancé arrives, they will all go to Venice where the ceremony will be held. She admits though that she is not sure that her mother will come with them, insisting that "she's funny." Eileen then tells Jeff that she is not sure that she wants to get married since she is only eighteen and does not want to get tied down.
As she takes a shower, Jeff decides that Eileen's wanting to stop the marriage is a result of her need for rebellion, the same urge that caused Phyl to leave her fiancé for Jeff and then return to him a year later. The idea that she came to him only because of her need to rebel is "a horrible thought for him." Then he laughs when he notes that the only thing on his mind is breakfast, not the attractive young woman in his shower.
When Eileen comes out of the bathroom, she tells Jeff that her father, as well as her mother, Phyl, wants her to get married. The confirmation that Phyl is her mother stuns Jeff. Noticing his pale color, Eileen tries to comfort him, praising him for being "a man of the world." When she puts her arms around him, he holds her for a minute and then steps back. Eileen tells him that she wants to go to bed with him, insisting that she would not tell anyone. For a moment, Jeff considers her proposition, imagining what Phyl would think if she found out, but he decides that he does not feel vindictive.
He also decides that while he desires her, he does not want to lose his memory of Phyl as she had been when they were together, and Eileen would interfere with that memory. Jeff then becomes angry at Eileen, thinking that if she had the opportunity, she would cause him to fall in love with her and lead him "into misery" as Phyl had done.
A call from Kyrogin breaks the tension. Jeff makes arrangements to call him later that morning at ten a.m. When Eileen looks at him with admiration after his productive phone call, Jeff remembers how Phyl had encouraged him and helped him become successful. For a moment, he looks at Eileen with desire, but the feeling passes, and he decides to get some sleep after gaining a promise from her that she would not mention him to her mother.
After a few hours sleep, Jeff says goodbye to Eileen, wishing her luck, and leaves for his meeting with Kyrogin. Jeff seals the deal with him in less than half an hour and thinks again of Phyl and of how he would come home to her after clinching a similarly important deal.
When Jeff returns to the hotel to pick up his suitcase, he sees Eileen and Phyl in the lobby. As he watches Phyl scold Eileen, Jeff watches her, noting the face that had gotten fatter and her oddly colored hair. What upsets him, however, is her "ugliness of spirit" as she yells at Eileen, he assumes, for spending a night with a man in his hotel room. He sees her conventionality and her hypocrisy, railing against her daughter for doing the same thing she had done with him years ago. He also concludes that if he had married Phyl, she may have betrayed him just as she had her fiancé.
The recognition of Phyl's true character devastates Jeff as he picks up his suitcase and walks out of the hotel, feeling as if he has "been living on a dream" of Phyl and of his relationship with her. He reminds himself of his success with Kyrogin but then realizes that the deal does not matter to him, that nothing matters, not his business or his family or his life. At that moment, he looks up and, realizing that he is at a busy crossroads, he throws himself in front of a speeding truck.
Jeff is a forty-year-old engineer who seems to have made a successful life for himself and his family. He is part owner in an oil rig company and clinches an important deal during his trip to Paris. His confident exterior, however, hides his obsessive, tenuous vision of Phyl and their relationship. This vision has enabled him up to this point to have a clear sense of himself as a man of determination and purpose. He appears tireless in his pursuit of the deal that brings him to Paris, staying up most of the night in order to track Kyrogin down and get the man to agree to an early morning meeting. Jeff calls Kyrogin's hotel every fifteen minutes hoping to catch him as he arrives from the airport but before he goes up to his room. His tenacity with Kyrogin ensures that he will be the first to pitch a deal to the man and so get a jump on any competitors.
Jeff's ambition appears to have been triggered by Phyl who gave him enough confidence to strike out on his own in the business world. When his vision of her is shattered, his identity fades to the point where nothing has any meaning for him. Lacking the strength to face this emotional abyss, he kills himself.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Sartre's Nausea and write a compare and contrast essay on the hero of the Sartre novel and Jeff. Analyze each character's behavior and motivations and how each displays existential angst.
- Imagine what would happen if Jeff had survived the accident. What would it take for him to find the courage to live? What kind of life do you think he would have ten years after the story ends? Add a few pages to the end of the story, describing Jeff ten years later.
- Patricia Highsmith had a very troubled life, as documented in the biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. Read the biography and present a PowerPoint demonstration that traces the influences that her life had on her work.
- Investigate the causes of suicide and the treatment of suicidal tendencies and be ready to lead a class discussion on these topics.
Eileen is Phyl's eighteen-year-old daughter who has come to Paris to get married. She is sexually confident, which she proves by her repeated attempts to seduce Jeff. Jeff suggests that these attempts reveal her rebelliousness. They could also suggest her shallowness. She is easily impressed by Jeff's initial attempts to complete his business deal, which suggests her lack of worldliness. She is also too trusting of a man she has just met, agreeing to spend the night in his hotel room. She does appear to show some strength of character when she stands her ground as her mother verbally attacks her in public.
When Jeff sees Phyl in the hotel lobby, she is middle-aged and coldly berating her daughter. He accuses her of being a hypocrite and prudish, but these qualities cannot be proven since he can only assume what she is saying. Readers never get a chance to observe any other actions or hear her speak. She is present in the story as part of Jeff's comforting vision until the end when she represents his sense of betrayal and meaninglessness.
The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
Highsmith is known for her ability to juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary as she chronicles the uneventful lives of her seemingly average characters. Often the extraordinary elements that suddenly appear in those lives suggest a shocking unpredictability as well as a darkness and the danger of violence just beneath the surface. On the surface Jeff appears to be an ordinary business man arriving in Paris to complete a deal for his company. That morning he had said goodbye to his wife and teenaged son, assuming that he would return to them in three days. An extraordinary event occurs, however, that shakes up his seemingly normal world.
Only after he meets Elaine are readers given his vision of Phyl, her mother, who has been a consuming obsession for Jeff and will eventually destroy him when it is shattered. Jeff realizes that "if he only hadn't seen her this morning," he would have been able to continue living his ordinary life, secure in believing the sense of himself that his relationship with her had provided him. When he is forced to realize Phyl's true character, however, when he sees her berate her daughter in the hotel lobby, he self-destructs. Unable to face his loss of purpose and therefore his sense of self, he commits suicide. It is this collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary in Jeff's life that makes the story so suspenseful and disturbing to readers who are forced to realize that the world can be more dangerous than they have suspected.
One of the triggers for the destruction of Jeff's vision of Phyl and his relationship with her is his sense of betrayal. He slowly comes to realize Phyl's true character as he spends the evening with Eileen, who exhibits striking similarities to her mother. Initially, he feels flattered that Eileen wants to have sex with him, but then he realizes that she is betraying her fiancé in the same way that Phyl had betrayed Guy when she left him for Jeff. He recognizes that if he and Phyl had married, she might have eventually treated him the same way. This sense of her capacity for betrayal, coupled with the coldness, conventionality, and hypocrisy he sees in her behavior toward Eileen, destroys his vision of her and his concept of the world.
Selective omniscience is a type of third-person narration. Stories told from this point of view come from a nonparticipant in the action who focuses on the thoughts of one of the characters. Highsmith employs this device in "A Girl like Phyl" to help provide insight into Jeff's troubled psyche. The narrator does not need to spend time digging into Eileen's or Phyl's thoughts since the focus of the story is on the fictive world that Jeff has created and the devastating consequences when that world is shattered. This point of view also encourages readers to sympathize and identify with Jeff, which adds to the tension of the story.
The title of the story works on two levels: first, it relates to the main story line that involves Jeff meeting and spending time with Phyl's daughter who looks remarkably like her mother and reminds him in her actions and voice of her mother at that age; and second, it suggests the illusory nature of Jeff's vision of Phyl. Jeff has constructed his own version of Phyl, based on his memories of her as she was twenty years before. When he finally sees her again, she is an older woman and not much like the girl he remembers. The change in her leads to his grappling with a sudden revision of the world as he understands it, and this sudden change destroys him.
The Me Decade
By the end of the 1970s, Americans had become pessimistic. The disastrous losses and outcome of the Vietnam War and the criminal activities during the Watergate scandal had shaken their confidence in the U.S. government, and a distrust of human nature had grown after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Many Americans tried to relieve their pessimism through the acquisition of material goods.
In the 1980s, the government's political and economic agenda, with its championing of U.S. capitalism, triggered a surge in self-interest to such a degree that the age has been tagged, the "Me Decade." This period, which actually began in the late 1970s, was sanctioned and promoted by the election of Ronald Reagan as president. The presidential inauguration in 1981 cost eleven million dollars. Soon after, the First Lady continued the spending spree with expensive renovations at the White House, which included a new set of china that cost over two hundred thousand dollars. Initially, the Reagans' lavish spending was criticized, but soon, the entire country became caught up in the attraction of wealth.
The philosophy behind Reaganomics was that the encouragement of the free-market system, which depends on the individual pursuit of wealth, would strengthen the economy. This vision included the theory of trickle-down economics: As businesses were freed from governmental regulation, their profits would eventually trickle down through the creation of jobs and raises to ordinary middle-class Americans. Americans would then be able to spend more money, which would further strengthen the economy.
Republicans argued that the welfare programs implemented in the 1960s had turned many citizens into government dependents and that only the reality of poverty would inspire lower-class Americans to develop an independent spirit for free enterprise. This championing of the free market system focused the country's attention on the amassing of wealth and material possessions, fostering a dramatic escalation in consumerism and a new zeitgeist for the age.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
Late 1970s and Early 1980s: The phrase, Me Generation, comes to represent this period, an age when self-interests are encouraged above all else.
Today: The phrase, family values, has become the popular buzzword in an age when many Americans try to promote traditional social mores.
Late 1970s and Early 1980s: The dominant economic philosophy proposes that tax breaks for the wealthy eventually strengthen the economy.
Today: President Bush provides tax breaks and cuts for the wealthiest in the United States. While the stock market hits record highs in 2006, middle-class Americans do not see significant increases in their wages.
Late 1970s and Early 1980s: Political analysts conclude that democrat Jimmy Carter is elected president in 1977 because of a backlash against Republicans after the Watergate fiasco.
Today: Democrats regain control of Congress in 2006 because of public disapproval of President Bush's Iraq policies as well as incidents of Republican corruption.
As the gap between rich and poor Americans widened, those who did not enjoy the luxuries that wealth affords felt especially discontented. Unable to cash in on the promise of trickle-down economics, blue-collar workers resented their inability to attain the American dream, and as a result, they became increasingly frustrated with their lot.
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, American goods were more plentiful than ever, and Americans began to feel that they had the right to acquire them. This age of self-interest was promoted by the media through periodicals such as Money magazine that taught Americans how to dramatically increase their earnings and through the glorification of entrepreneurs such as Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, and real-estate tycoon, Donald Trump. One of the most popular television shows of the time was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which brought viewers into the lavish homes of the super-rich.
Shopping became Americans' favorite pastime during this period. The time spent in malls was surpassed only by time spent at work, school, and home. Consumers could also satisfy their shopping urges by accessing the mall from home. With the advent of the shopping television network, QVC, and catalogues and telemarketing from a wide range of mail-order companies, such as L. L. Bean and Lands End, consumers could purchase a variety of goods over the phone.
Most of the reviews for Nothing That Meets the Eye praise Highsmith's characterizations and originality of plot. A reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review insists that "the psychological complexity of these stories will satisfy Highsmith fans, as well as those discovering her for the first time," while Charlotte Innes in the Los Angeles Times describes them as "classic Highsmith fare." James Lasdun, in his review for The Washington Post, finds that "one of the exhilarating effects of reading Highsmith's stories … is the greatly enlarged sense of her range and energy as a writer" as she creates an "astounding" variety of characters. He argues, "Equally prodigious is her capacity for coming up with the wildly inventive plots that set these creatures in motion."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus, presents the author's absurdist view of the nature of existence as it focuses on Meursault, an amoral young man who is tried for murder. The existentialist theme of the novel suggests that one must find personal dignity in an indifferent world.
- In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Highsmith draws her readers into the world of seemingly ordinary Tom Ripley, who turns out to be a charming sociopath. The novel was made into a hit film in 1999.
- Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's 1950 thriller, focuses on another sociopath who passes as an ordinary man. This one tries to convince another man to exchange murders with him.
- Nausea (1938), by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an important existentialist text. The story chronicles the experience of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who catalogues in his diary his responses to his world and his struggle to comprehend and exist within it.
Some reviewers, however, found fault with Highsmith's plot construction in the collection. The Virginia Quarterly Review claims that "although these stories brilliantly dissect the darkest side of human nature, they are not as meticulously and masterfully crafted" as her other works, "and thus [are] less compelling from the point of view of plot." Also commenting on plot, Lasdun concludes that the stories' "machinery can clunk at times … especially as they accelerate toward their sometimes strained dramatic climaxes, but they are seldom less than entertaining, and often wonderful. "He adds that "they lack perhaps the singularity of tone and atmosphere that her best novels possess, but in their sure handedness, their amazing breadth and abundance, as well as the dark delight they convey in their own making, they compel attention, and they add significantly to her already formidable presence."
Innes claims that "not all of [the stories] succeed. Some of the narrative tricks are too obviously manipulative, and there are just too many stories that end abruptly and unconvincingly in suicide." She determines, however, that "whatever their flaws, they all have the Highsmith magical narrative pull" and often contain "a nugget of bitter truth." Innes concludes, "there's no doubt that this new collection, however uneven, reminds us that Highsmith was a literary artist who was so accomplished she could seduce the reader even with work that was less than her best."
Several reviewers cite "A Girl like Phyl" as one of the collection's best stories. Innes praises its characterizations while a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews concludes that the story crams "a life's worth of devastation into a few pages." James Campbell, in the New York Times Book Review, insists that its "nuances of desire and repulsion are expertly controlled." He adds that "almost every piece … contains touches that reveal what a subtle writer Highsmith was."
Perkins is a professor of American and British literature and film. In the following essay, she examines existential themes in the story.
Scholars have noted Patricia Highsmith's appreciation of John-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, especially their exploration of existentialism, a philosophical movement that had its beginnings in the writings of nineteenth-century, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. In the twentieth century, existentialism evolved into an influential movement through the work of Sartre (Nausea, 1938) and Camus (The Stranger, 1942). Existentialist philosophy, according to Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines human freedom "in terms of individual responsibility and authenticity." This dictionary explains the philosophy's main premise as the belief that "human beings have no given essence or nature but must forge [their] own values and meanings in an inherently meaningless or absurd world of existence." Russell Harrison notes in his biography of Highsmith (1997) that much of Highsmith's fiction contains existential elements. This observation is proved in her short story "A Girl like Phyl" in its exploration of the devastating consequences that result from one man's struggle to create inauthentic values in order to survive in a meaningless world.
Jeff Cormack, a forty-year-old engineer, found himself living an absurd existence twenty years earlier when Phyl, the woman he loves, left him. The years following the breakup were "Awful Years" for him as he struggled to find a sense of identity without her. He notes that Phyl had brought him luck; she had "launched him like a rocket … and had given him all the confidence in the world and all the happiness." She had given him the courage to quit his job and start a new company. He wanted to be a success, "to prove himself, in the way he thought would count with Phyl, by making money, solid, big money." Yet ironically, this prevented him from spending enough time with her and so she left.
After the breakup, he struggled to fill the emptiness in his life by working harder and by marrying and having a son. During this three to four year break, he had not thought of her with the same intensity. Yet his new life provided only the "outer trappings" of happiness, "solid, tangible … as a bullet that might penetrate his forehead and kill him." Jeff insists, though, that "a man didn't commit suicide, didn't ruin his career, just because he was in love with a girl he couldn't have." When his new life did not give him a sense of purpose or meaning, he returned to his obsession with Phyl, creating a vision of her that sustained him. He admits that he has learned to live with his love for her by being with her "in bed, out of bed, just existing with her" in his mind.
Unable to confront the anguish of living without Phyl, he returns to the same patterns he followed while he was with her. He puts all of his energy into becoming a financial success, staying up through the night in Paris so that he can seal an important deal for his company. His relives with Eileen, Phyl's daughter, the sense of accomplishment he felt when he gained similar successes when he was with Phyl. Since Eileen looks so much like her mother, he is able to perpetuate and intensify his vision of Phyl. He responds to "the girl's zest and pleasure in his success … as he had felt Phyl's in the old days," and so he feels toward Eileen the same stirrings of desire. Eileen strokes his ego as Phyl had done, telling him how much she admires him for "being a man of the world," for "doing something important." When he seals the deal with Kyrogin, Jeff understands that the time he has spent with Eileen has brought Phyl even closer to him, "Phyl with the twinkle in her eyes, her pride in his victory that was like a whole football stadium cheering." Jeff, however, cannot allow himself to be seduced by Eileen because "he didn't want to lose his memory of Phyl, Phyl as she had been with him."
During his night with Eileen in his hotel room, reality begins to encroach on the world that he has constructed in order to establish a sense of meaning and purpose. When Eileen tells him that she is not sure that she wants to get married, he understands that she is rebelling against convention and realizes for the first time that Phyl had acted in the same way when she left her fiancé for him. The thought that Phyl rebelled just for the sake of rebelling is "horrible" to Jeff because it interferes with his vision of their perfect time together. Later, when Eileen redoubles her efforts to seduce him, Jeff becomes angry, determining that she "would lead him on … exactly as Phyl had … into misery."
When he sees Phyl confronting Eileen in the lobby of the hotel, his dream crumbles. As he watches her scolding Eileen, most likely for spending the night with a strange man in his hotel room, the "prudishness, the conventionality, the phoniness … the hypocrisy" that he sees in her tirade against her daughter stuns him as he wonders, "Was this what he'd been in love with all this time?" He recognizes that "there was nothing lasting for girls like Phyl" who had a "certain coldness at the heart." This understanding of Phyl's true character shatters his vision of her and along with it the only thing that has sustained him, and so Jeff feels "about to die." Although he appears in a daze, he knows "that somehow nothing mattered any longer, where he went, what he did, where he was, even who he was." When Jeff thinks now of his future, of returning to his office where he will finish the deal with Kyrogin and to his family with its "phony outward appearance of a decent marriage," he realizes that his life no longer means anything to him. Not being able to think anymore, Jeff acts, by stepping in front of a speeding truck.
Twice Jeff has faced with a fading sense of identity in a world that has become meaningless to him. The first time, after Phyl left him, he coped with the angst he felt by creating an inauthentic vision of her and their time together in order to sustain him and provide him with purpose. However, when reality destroys his vision of her and along with it his sense of worth, he cannot find the strength to forge a new direction for himself. In her compelling portrait of Jeff in "A Girl like Phyl," Highsmith explores the existential emptiness of modern life and the difficulties inherent in the struggle to find meaning.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "A Girl like Phyl," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and English literature. In the following essay, he looks at Highsmith's limitations as a writer and finds that she uses her shortcomings to her advantage.
Throughout her long writing career, Patricia Highsmith garnered a legion of fans, a base that continued to grow after her death in 1995. Those who appreciate her work, however, frequently find themselves embittered about how limited her literary reputation is; many feel that Highsmith has been unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, dismissed as a mere genre writer. Some explain this slight with the belief that she was a victim of the prejudices of an unenlightened society, an audience that could not deal with the fact that Highsmith, a woman, wrote so often about the seamier aspects of modern life. Her supporters point to other writers who crossed over from the small category of mystery writer and gained a wider audience, from Georges Simenon to Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard, and note the absence of females on the list, which they attribute to narrow-minded assumptions about what was and was not considered proper subjects for female authors. Another common theory for Highsmith's long critical neglect is based on her sexual orientation, as fans presume that only a strong heterosexual bias on the part of the literary establishment could explain why her books and stories were relegated to the ghetto of genre fiction for so long.
There is something to each of these theories, of course: Highsmith was a woman, and she was gay, and each of these facts may have had some effect on the critics who read her. But there is a much easier explanation. Highsmith was in truth a genre writer with limited scope. Her characters are mostly two-dimensional, seldom motivated by anything more subtle than the extremes of anger, shame, or lust. The situations in which they find themselves often dramatize the programmatic dilemma of kill or be killed: such dramas are not instructive about coping with daily existence. Highsmith's characters inhabit their own world, which has its own set of rules. Readers who understand and accept those limits are her likely audience, but a wider audience may be less able to meet her on her own terms.
In itself, calling her work generic should not rankle Highsmith's fans, since it makes no claim about her overall effectiveness. Her novels and short stories are indeed highly effective, for the very reason that they are chiseled from a reality that only slightly resembles common life. More often than not, she keeps readers well aware of the differences between her world and theirs, and she is astute enough to use that awareness to make her point.
Take, for example, the story "A Girl like Phyl," a story based on stereotypes and propped up by the insinuation of a case of international espionage, with a surprise twist in the last line that seems to derive only from the paragraph that comes before it. Judging by its basic components, the story should be not only a failure, but a failure of the most miserable kind: one that makes implicit promises to its reader that are not fulfilled. But "A Girl like Phyl" is a success because Highsmith works within her limitations and makes the most of what she knows to be her audience's expectations.
The main character of "A Girl like Phyl" is Jeff Cormack, a man who is as average as his name. He is a middle-aged Caucasian, an executive with an oil company who, as the story begins, is embarking on a business trip. He does not want adventure; he does not want romance. He simply wants business to go well—to be victorious, in a modestly aggressive business sense—so that he can return home to his wife, Betty, and his fifteen-year-old son, Bernard. Highsmith gives few details about the family. Readers are told that Bernard is going to Groton and that he does not know what he wants to do yet, and the very fact that the boy's indecision passes through Jeff's mind indicates that he disapproves of uncertainty. Nothing substantial is said about Betty. Jeff Cormack presumably is a standard corporation man of the postwar period, a functionary who knows and cares much about his business while being only marginally aware of the quality of his own life. He is a standard, familiar character, common in the literature, both high and low, of the late twentieth century.
But Highsmith adorns Jeff's story with two exciting, though unlikely, possibilities that serve to keep her audience's attention. For one thing, the business meeting is steeped in exoticism and the potential for international intrigue. He is flying to Paris to hunt down a Russian, Kyrogin, who is described as "an important man but not a Communist deputy." At the time, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union operated under such a blanket of secrecy that it would have been impossible to fully understand its involvement or intent. Readers can expect the unexpected under such circumstances, where there is serious money to be made or lost by trusting an operative from a foreign government. This is not a circumstance that most businessmen would encounter when traveling to a meeting, and Highsmith uses the situation's unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of the motives of all parties to raise the story's tension. Each unanswered telephone call hints that Kyrogin has abandoned Jeff or plans an even worse treachery. Fans of international intrigue read this story with their senses alert to the possibility that Jeff's trip could go terribly awry, sending his physical or financial health plummeting without a moment's notice.
But that is only one device. The other, more central to the story's plot, is Jeff's involvement with Eileen—the "girl like Phyl" of the story's title. It starts when he notices her at the airport in the story's third paragraph and is thunderstruck by how much she resembles Phyl, his lover of twenty years earlier. She is more than just a reminder of the most romantic episode of his life, however. As the story progresses, it turns out that she is staying at Jeff's hotel. Or, rather, she is supposed to, but her reservation is lost, which gives him the opportunity to come to her aid and offer her his room, where she can freshen up and have a drink. Coincidentally, this girl who triggers his memories and is with him from Kennedy Airport to the lobby of his hotel actually is the daughter of Phyl. The odds against such a thing happening in the real world are considerable.
As with Jeff's urgent, middle-of-the-night business with the Russian, the relationship with Eileen is implicitly fraught with danger. The fact that such things simply do not happen in the real world is used, in this sleepless night of Jeff Cormack's life, to indicate that there is some unseen hand pulling the strings. Readers have to wonder what is really behind these events that Jeff naively accepts as coincidence. A coincidence would be if the girl he noticed in New York ended up at his hotel, or if the girl he talked to at Orly Airport was stranded without a room when he went to the hotel bar or even, by some stretch of the imagination, if the girl who reminded him of Phyl actually turned out to be the daughter of Phyl. As presented, this situation implies that someone is keeping something back. If one of the characters asks readers to believe that these events happen this way, then they know that there is certainly a sinister plot against Jeff. The other option, though, is that Highsmith wants readers to believe in the possibility of such unlikely events.
A true mystery story would unravel the hidden elements of the plot. The mysterious Russian might show up offering the hand of friendship, but he would do so only to string Jeff along, to swindle him, to turn the tables. Or Eileen might turn out to have arranged their meeting from the start. A compact story would bring the two strands of the plot together, showing a relationship between Kyrogin and Eileen that Jeff was too distracted by greed and nostalgia to notice. Such a story would reach its climax with Jeff realizing that each thing that seemed to fall into place for him was actually arranged to give him a false sense of security.
But Highsmith drives this story in a different direction. In what amounts to an almost comical reversal of the traditional mystery, the protagonist is not victimized by a mysterious, malicious force: he is not even a victim of the oppressive weight of everyday life. Jeff Cormack, faced with potential disasters throughout the story, waltzes easily through them and comes out triumphant.
How he eventually finds Kyrogin and consummates the deal is handled by Highsmith in a way that defies any expectation of impending danger. The Russian turns out to have no ulterior motive; his chummy offer of a cigar and vodka is not a ruse to make Jeff lower his guard. It is even Kyrogin's idea for Jeff to phone New York and share the good news with his partner, a suggestion that, in a story about betrayal, would be used as a distraction. The deal that Jeff comes to Paris to pursue is resolved with unexpected good will.
Similarly, the relationship with Eileen, which could have turned sour at any point along the way, never does. She accepts Jeff's offer to come to his room and freshen up and then turns out to be sexually attracted to him, but she is willing to accept his rebuff with no hard feelings. Phyl does show up but never finds out that Jeff is in Paris or that he and her daughter came close to intimacy. In all, a situation that seemed to be ripe for turning terrible at each step actually turns out to be ideal for Jeff, as he has been given another chance with his lost love through her closest surrogate, her daughter, and has been able to walk away from it, this time on his own terms.
It is not until the end of the story, in its final paragraphs, that Highsmith reveals what this story has really been about all along. Jeff sees that his swoon for Phyl's image and the sense of impending danger in the high-stakes business deal only mask the terrible reality that there is no romance or danger in his life. His ultimate response to life's lack of drama is to throw himself in front of a truck, which is perhaps the most unnecessarily dramatic thing he could do. The reader is left in the end with a sense that his existential revelation must have been a powerful one to drive Jeff to such an extreme, but also with the feeling that his behavior in his moment of truth is, fittingly, the kind of decisive action that the story has promised all along.
It is an effective ending, but it would not be so if Highsmith were any more complex or subtle in her handling of her characters. The inherent drama of the situations in this story creates a sense that something harsh and unexpected is going to happen; then the situations all resolve themselves to Jeff Cormack's benefit. With his final realization that his mind has been driven throughout his adult life by a memory that has grown into a delusion, Jeff creates the powerful moment for himself. It is the sort of ending for his life that readers familiar with the twists of the mystery story expect the author to throw at him. This story would not work if the reader's appetite for the destruction of this oil company executive had not been whetted by the promise of startling revelations, or if Highsmith did not have the confidence to ignore those promises. Readers expect things of a genre story, and they recognize this to be a genre story, and so they expect the end to present a surprise. But the surprise they expect is in Jeff's circumstances: they do not anticipate the collapse of his world view.
It is no insult to Patricia Highsmith to say that she was a writer of limitations. It would, of course, be bad for her if she had lofty ambitions that she was too limited to reach, but a story such as "A Girl like Phyl" proves that she knew how to arrange her characters for maximum effect. Jeff Cormack is not an insightful person, and his revelation, at the end, that his life has been a meaningless sham does not make him any more insightful. Even so, Highsmith makes his experience a moving one by having him go through the situations of a mystery plot and come out of them unscathed. The events of this story might make Jeff realize that his life has been a delusion, but readers who have see the falseness of Jeff's character all along share his realization that life is made interesting by the anticipation of the double-cross, the unexpected romance, or the revelation of buried news. It takes a mystery writer like Patricia Highsmith to bring that truth to light.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "A Girl Like Phyl," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Karl L. Stenger
In the following essay, Stenger gives a critical analysis of Patricia Highsmith's work.
In his foreword to the 1972 edition of Eleven (1970), Patricia Highsmith's first collection of short stories, English novelist Graham Greene dubs her "the poet of apprehension rather than fear" and characterizes her achievement:
She is a writer who 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 going to experience, until … the frontier is closed behind us, we cannot retreat, we are doomed to live till the story's end with another of her long series of wanted men.
Highsmith has been acclaimed as a great writer by authors such as Brigid Brophy, Julian Symons, and Peter Handke and has long been widely read in England, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. European movie directors, including René Clément, Claude Miller, Claude Chabrol, Wim Wenders, and Hans W. Geissendorfer, have adapted Highsmith's books to the screen.
Having enjoyed a brief burst of fame in the United States when Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), in 1951, Highsmith during her life was largely ignored by the American reading public. Many of her books quickly fell out of print in the United States, and her popularity and reputation declined. Several reasons have been cited for the lengthy neglect Highsmith and her work suffered. One of them is the relentlessly negative depiction of the American middle class and of American politics in her works. Another reason mentioned is the fact that Highsmith was labeled a "suspense writer" at the outset of her career and that this label prevented serious consideration of her books. An additional reason given for the reluctance of the American public to embrace the writer is Highsmith's reclusive and prickly personality.
After Highsmith settled in Europe permanently in 1963, she only grudgingly promoted her books and avoided book signing tours and readings as much as possible. Even though she granted interviews, she ferociously protected her privacy and deliberately shocked her interviewers with such outrageous statements as her 1976 assertion to Peter Ruedi (collected in Patricia Highsmith: Leben und Werk , edited by Franz Cavigelli, Fritz Senn, and Anna von Planta): "If I saw a kitten and a little human baby starving in the street, I would feed the kitten provided no one saw me." Otto Penzler, one of Highsmith's American publishers, attested to her abrasive personality in Entertainment Weekly on 14 January 2000: "She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant." Gary Fisketjon, who published her late novels, added: "She was very rough, very difficult. But she was also plainspoken, dryly funny, and great fun to be around." It is difficult to assess to what extent Highsmith's misanthropy was genuine and to what extent it was a pose to safeguard her privacy. Since Highsmith's death in 1995 her reputation has risen in the United States. Her five novels featuring Tom Ripley have been republished, gaining the author an increasing readership. Anthony Minghella's 1999 movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) helped to solidify her growing popularity in the United States. In 2003 Liliana Cavani chose Ripley's Game (1974) as the starring vehicle for John Malkovich, whose assumption of the title role was described as "quintessential" by The New Yorker and "definitive" by London's New Statesman. Additional movies based on her novels are in development, and her out-of-print books are being republished. Interest in the author is further attested to by the 2003 publications of Marijane Meaker's memoir Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950's and Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. As Mark Harris stated in Entertainment Weekly (24-31 August 2001), "Highsmith is in the final lap of a posthumous victory mile that should cement her standing as a no-longer-neglected master of character-driven suspense fiction."
Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, on 19 January 1921, the only child of Jay Bernard Plangman, a graphic artist of German extraction, and Mary Coates Plangman, an illustrator and fashion designer. Patricia's parents were divorced five months before her birth, and she was raised together with her cousin Dan Coates, who was like a brother to her, by her maternal grandparents in Fort Worth until she was six years old. She did not meet her father until she was twelve years old, and even though she found him likable, they had nothing to say to each other. In 1925 Patricia's mother married Stanley Highsmith, an advertising illustrator, and the family moved to New York City two years later. Patricia Highsmith recalled in a 1979 interview with Noelle Loriot (published in Patricia Highsmith: Leben und Werk) the trauma she suffered because of the move: "Something went to pieces in me when I left my grandmother. I completely withdrew into myself." Stanley Highsmith did not officially adopt his stepdaughter, but her mother registered her as Patricia Highsmith when she enrolled her in elementary school. Patricia later decided to keep the name as a tribute to this extremely patient and upright man.
While she liked her stepfather, Highsmith did not love her mother and, as she revealed to Loriot, blamed the failure of her second marriage on her quarrelsomeness and selfishness: "Why don't I love my mother? First, because she turned my childhood into a little hell. Second, because she herself never loved anyone, neither my father, my stepfather, nor me." Her feeling that she was unloved and unwanted was confirmed when her mother confessed that, while she was pregnant with Highsmith, she had unsuccessfully tried to induce abortion by drinking turpentine.
In an attempt to escape the frequent quarrels that she was forced to witness in the cramped two room apartment in Greenwich Village, Highsmith immersed herself in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh Walpole, and T. S. Eliot. She was also fascinated by Karl Menninger's The Human Mind (1930), a book including case studies of kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, and serial killers, because she realized that the man, woman, or child next door could be strange even while appearing normal and that anybody one meets in the street could be a kleptomaniac, a sadist, or even a murderer.
Highsmith discovered the power of language when her composition about her trip to the Endless Caverns in Virginia, which had been discovered by two boys chasing a rabbit through a crevice, left her classmates spellbound. Her first short stories and poems appeared in The Bluebird, the Julia Richmond High School magazine, and the story "Mighty Nice Man" won first prize, which consisted of copies of Marcel Proust's Du côté de chez Swann (1913) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Having graduated from high school in 1938, Highsmith enrolled in Barnard College at Columbia University and studied English, Latin, and Greek. She published short stories in the Barnard Quarterly on a regular basis, eventually serving as editor of the periodical. "The Heroine," a story she wrote in 1941 about a governess who sets the house of her employers on fire so that she can save the children, was rejected by Barnard Quarterly but eventually published in 1944 by Harper's Bazaar and included in O. Henry's Best Short Stories of 1946.
Upon graduating from college in 1942, Highsmith moved into a room of her own on Sixtieth Street in Manhattan and eked out a living by composing text for comic strips such as Superman and Batman. She continued writing short stories and immersed herself in the bohemian life of Greenwich Village, meeting Truman Capote, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Carson McCullers. In 1943 she spent five months in Taxco, Mexico, where she worked on the unfinished novel titled "The Click of the Shutting" and considered becoming a professional painter. The novel revolves around the relationship between two New York boys, prefiguring the pattern Highsmith later followed in many of her works, namely "the meeting, the close friendship of two people who are unlike one another," as she stated in a 1987 speech quoted by Wilson.
Having moved to a cold-water flat on East Fifty-sixth Street in 1944, Highsmith began work on Strangers on a Train. After the first chapters of the novel had been rejected by six publishers, she was admitted to Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, based on recommendations by Capote, the composer David Diamond, and Mary Louise Aswell, the chief editor of Harper's Bazaar. Freed from external pressures and provided with an ideal working environment, Highsmith was able to rewrite the novel from scratch. While at Yaddo she also got engaged to Marc Brandel, a fellow writer, only to break off the engagement shortly before the wedding ostensibly because of her fear of being a mother: "I would not have had the patience to raise children," Highsmith admitted to Loriot.
Soon after its completion Strangers on a Train was acquired by Harper and Sons and published in 1950. Hitchcock purchased the movie and stage rights for $6,800 and put Raymond Chandler in charge of writing the screenplay. The collaboration between the opinionated men, however, was strained, and Chandler was eventually replaced by Czenzi Ormonde, an associate of Ben Hecht's. When the movie was released in 1951, it was a great success, and Highsmith became famous overnight.
Strangers on a Train established a pattern that recurs, with variations, in many of Highsmith's works. In her book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), which offers a fascinating glimpse into the writer's work, Highsmith describes this motif: "The theme I have used over and over again in my novels is the relationship between two men, usually quite different in make-up, sometimes an obvious contrast in good and evil, sometimes merely ill-matched friends." In Strangers on a Train the two men are Guy Daniel Haines, a twenty-nine-year-old aspiring architect, who is traveling by rail to Texas in order to pressure his estranged wife into agreeing to a divorce so that he can marry his new girlfriend, and Charles Anthony Bruno, a young ne'er-do-well who lives off his rich parents. The aimless Bruno immediately latches on to the initially reserved and aloof Guy, being attracted by his apparent seriousness of purpose. Guy is repelled by Bruno's appearance, effete mannerisms, and "the desperate boredom of the wealthy"; yet, he is also fascinated by Bruno's bold suggestion to commit perfect murders by exchanging victims: "We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis!"
Even though Guy himself had once thought of murdering his wife's lover, he rejects Bruno's assertion that any person is capable of murder: "I'm not that kind of person." In spite of Guy's clear rejection of the murderous plan, Bruno travels to Texas several weeks later and strangles Guy's wife in an amusement park. He then pressures and eventually blackmails an initially resisting Guy into killing Bruno's hated father. The plan to commit perfect murders, however, gradually unravels when Guy is racked by guilt and pestered by Bruno, who has developed a homoerotic attachment to his involuntary fellow conspirator. Bruno subsequently invites himself to Guy's wedding as well as to a housewarming party and showers Guy with gifts, which causes Guy to reflect: "He might have been Bruno's lover … to whom Bruno had brought a present, a peace offering." Because of Bruno's obsessive behavior a detective is able to establish a connection between the two murderers, and they eventually receive their just deserts. At the end of the novel Guy accepts the inevitable punishment. His last words to the detective are "Take me."
When one compares Highsmith's novel and Hitchock's movie, the differences in focus and plot are readily apparent, as MaryKay Mahoney has shown in her essay "A Train Running on Two Sets of Tracks: Highsmith's and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train" (1994). Whereas Hitchcock clearly contrasts Bruno, the psychopath, with Guy, the innocent hero who "will eventually emerge uncorrupted from the world of darkness into which Bruno has temporarily plunged him," Highsmith focuses on the two men as "inextricably linked doubles." Guy becomes the author's mouthpiece when he declares, having murdered Bruno's father, that "love and hate, … good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface."
Highsmith's second published novel, The Price of Salt (1952), was a considerable departure from her first. In the afterword to the 1993 edition of the novel, which she originally published pseudonymously as Claire Morgan, Highsmith writes of how, to her surprise, she became a "suspense writer" overnight when Strangers on a Train was published as "A Harper Novel of Suspense," even though the novel was not categorized in her mind as such. For her it was "simply a novel with an interesting story." Highsmith's publisher and agent urged her to write another book of the same type in order to strengthen her reputation as a suspense writer. Highsmith, having just completed a novel about a lesbian relationship, decided to publish her new work under a pseudonym partly to escape the label of "lesbian-book writer": "I like to avoid labels. It is American publishers who love them."
Highsmith goes on in her afterword to detail the genesis of The Price of Salt. Before Strangers on a Train was published, Highsmith had taken a temporary job in the toy department of Bloomingdale's in Manhattan during the 1948 Christmas rush. There she was fascinated one day by a blonde woman in a mink coat who "seemed to give off light." The woman bought a doll from Highsmith, providing her name and address because the doll was to be delivered out of state. While the encounter was a routine transaction, Highsmith "felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision." Even though the odd feeling revealed itself the next day as the beginning of a chicken pox infection, the germ for the novel was born. Highsmith immediately wrote down the entire story line of the novel in less than two hours: "It flowed from my pen as if from nowhere—beginning, middle and end." Because of Highsmith's predilection for letting ideas simmer for a while, the novel was not completed until 1951.
The Price of Salt tells the story of Therese Belivet, a nineteen-year-old stage designer who has taken temporary work as a salesgirl at Frankenberg's department store. Her inability to find a permanent position in her chosen field is aggravated by the confusion she is experiencing in her personal life. Her boyfriend of ten months, a painter with whom she has been intimate on several occasions, has proposed marriage to her, but she has rejected his proposal because her feeling toward him bears no resemblance to what she had read about love: "Love was supposed to be a kind of blissful insanity." Therese suddenly and unexpectedly experiences such a passion when she meets customer Carol Aird, a married woman and a mother. Carol eventually relinquishes all rights to her daughter in order to be with Therese, and Therese in turn realizes after an unsuccessful attempt to be with a lesbian actress that "it was Carol she loved and would always love."
As Highsmith acknowledges in her afterword, The Price of Salt was most likely the first novel about homosexuals that ended on a happy note. When the book was published in hardcover in 1952 and as a paperback in nearly a million copies a year later, Highsmith received many fan letters addressed to Claire Morgan from women as well as men thanking her for her positive portrayal of a loving relationship among well- adjusted lesbians. After Highsmith had acknowledged her authorship of the novel in 1991, she admitted in an interview with Janet Watts, collected in Patricia Highsmith: Leben und Werk, that she had fallen in love with the woman—identified by Wilson as Kathleen Senn—who had served as the prototype for Therese, though she stopped short of declaring her lesbianism.
The financial success of her first two novels enabled Highsmith—who had visited England, France, and Italy briefly in 1949—to begin a European sojourn in 1952 that lasted more than two years. She traveled in the footsteps of her literary idol, James, from London to Paris, Munich, Salzburg, Trieste, and Florence. In the southern Italian town of Positano she rented a house and, watching a young, possibly American man walk along the deserted beach one morning lost in thought, she was inspired to invent a story about a young American vagabond who is sent to Europe with the mission to convince another American to return to the States. Having returned to the United States at the beginning of 1954, Highsmith moved into a cottage near Lenox, Massachusetts, where she began writing the first in a series of five adventures featuring her best-known creation, Tom Ripley.
Before Ripley made his appearance, however, Highsmith published another novel, The Blunderer (1954), that involves another perfect murder as well as a pair of murderers, one an ice-cold psychopath, the other a bumbling blunderer. Melchior Kimmel, a pornographic book dealer, has murdered his wife by assaulting her at a rest stop on a bus trip, having arranged a secure alibi. Although police assume that Kimmel's wife was killed by a stranger, Walter Stackhouse, a lawyer who is locked in a miserable marriage with "a pint-size Medusa," is able to piece together the true circumstances of the murder based on newspaper reports and his empathy with the murderer. When Stackhouse's wife commits suicide before Stackhouse can emulate Kimmel's crime, the lawyer's feeling of guilt at having planned her murder causes him to act suspiciously. Because of his obsessive urge to seek out Kimmel, he unwittingly directs suspicion toward the source of his inspiration. Stackhouse eventually does turn into a murderer, and Kimmel is arrested after a policeman witnesses him stab Stackhouse, his "enemy number one," to death, calling him "murderer, idiot, blunderer, until the meaning of the words became a solid fact like a mountain sitting on top of him, and he no longer had the will to fight against it."
James Sandoe, reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, accorded Highsmith underhanded praise when he stated that she "manages so well with the understandable if mussy Stackhouse that she can trample plausibility and drag us along in spite of it. Her fancy is at once extravagant and acute." He preferred The Blunderer to Highsmith's first novel: "She has written a remarkable tale and a far more telling one (for me, at least) than its celebrated predecessor, Strangers on a Train." Symons, in The New York Times Book Review, proclaimed The Blunderer one of the one hundred best detective novels of all time.
In Highsmith's best-known and arguably most accomplished novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the "criminal-hero," as she calls him in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, receives no punishment for his misdeeds and escapes scot-free. Tom Phelps Ripley, a twenty-five-year-old unsettled and unemployed aspiring actor who has an amazing gift for mimicry, is asked by Herbert Greenleaf, the well-to-do owner of a small shipbuilding company, to convince his son, Dickie, who has been living in Southern Italy for two years dabbling in painting, to return to the States and to take over the family firm. Tom, whose life is based on the philosophy that "something always turned up," accepts the mission because it provides him with a clean slate: "He was starting a new life. Goodbye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. He felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America."
When Tom meets Dickie and his girlfriend, writer Marge Sherwood, in Mongibello, he is immediately fascinated by their carefree and luxurious way of life, their independence, and their air of sophistication. Tom insinuates himself into Dickie's life: he confesses the true reason for his trip and switches sides by supporting Dickie's plan to remain in Italy. Their friendship, which includes an ever-increasing element of homoeroticism, grows until Dickie witnesses Tom impersonating him in front of a mirror and pretending that he is strangling Marge. Tom eventually kills Dickie and assumes his identity. He later kills Dickie's friend Freddie Miles to protect his secret. Whereas Tom regrets having murdered Dickie, he feels no qualms about Freddie's murder: "He hadn't wanted to murder, it had been a necessity." When he seems about to be caught, Tom slips back into his old identity and eventually manages to convince Dickie's father that his son committed suicide. Dickie's will, which has been forged by Tom to his advantage, is accepted as authentic, and Tom is assured the life of luxury he had yearned for.
The positive ending of the novel has drawn comparisons with André Gide's Les Caves du Vatican (1914; translated as The Vatican Swindle, 1925) in which, according to Anthony Channell Hilfer in The Crime Novel: A Deviant Genre (1990), "by a chain of extraordinary coincidence Lafcadio escapes the consequences of the gratuitous murder he has committed." Consequently, Highsmith, like Gide, was accused by some of promoting an amoral and even immoral worldview. The New Yorker (7 January 1956), for example, called the novel "remarkably immoral" and its protagonist "one of the most repellent and fascinating characters," and Craig Brown stated in The Times Literary Supplement (TLS): "it is a rare villain or psychopath whom the reader does not find himself willing toward freedom, a rare investigator or victim (sometimes the one becomes the other) whom the reader is unhappy to see dead." The following 1942 entry from Highsmith's notebook, quoted by Wilson, shows that her accusers were not far off the mark:
The abnormal point of view is always the best for depicting twentieth-century life, not only because so many of us are abnormal, realizing it or not, but because twentieth-century life is established and maintained through abnormality. I should love to do a novel with all the literary virtues of Red Badge of Courage about one abnormal character seeing present day life, very ordinary life, yet arresting through it, abnormality, until at the end, the reader sees, and with little reluctance, that he is not abnormal at all, and that the main character might well be himself.
German critic Michael Dunker has shown that Highsmith masterfully employs the literary device of the third-person narrator who provides the reader with an insight into the criminal-hero's state of mind and his motivations, subtly manipulating the reader's sympathies toward the protagonists in all her novels.
Highsmith publicly responded to the accusations of promoting amorality in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction with characteristic bluntness. She stressed that "art essentially has nothing to do with morality, convention or moralizing" and threw back a charge of hypocrisy: "I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature care if justice is ever done or not. The public wants to see the law triumph, or at least the general public does, though at the same time the public likes brutality." Tellingly, in Clément's movie adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein Soleil (1959), the ending of the novel is changed and Ripley is caught. Even in Anthony Minghella's 1999 version, Tom does not entirely escape punishment. Although he is not caught by the police, he suffers a retribution of his own making: he is forced to kill the man he really loves in order to safeguard his future. Highsmith's first Ripley novel was given a special award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1956 and the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere and the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll of the Mystery Writers of America the following year.
Highsmith followed up her masterful Ripley novel with another masterpiece. Deep Water (1957), the exploration of a hellish marriage and its deadly consequences, is considered by Russell Harrison, author of Patricia Highsmith (1997), as one of the writer's most accomplished novels and characterized by Anthony Boucher in the 6 October 1957 issue of The New York Times Book Review as a "full-fleshed novel of pity and irony." Victor Van Allen, the independently rich publisher of limited luxury books, is chained to a "wild horse" of a wife who, as a sign of her "constitutional rebelliousness," has many extramarital affairs while refusing to agree to a divorce. Victor does not object to Melinda's affairs per se but rather to the fact that she picks "idiotic, spineless characters" and that she is not discreet, flaunting her affairs in their small, conservative Berkshire town. During a pool party Victor manages to drown one of his wife's lovers without being observed and without experiencing any guilt. Melinda suspects that her husband is guilty of the murder but is unable to prove it. When Melinda later threatens to leave Victor to marry a building contractor, Victor throws the new lover down a cliff and submerges the body in a deserted quarry. When he is drawn back to the scene of the crime to check on the status of the corpse, he is discovered by Don Wilson, a hack writer who has suspected him of murder for some time. In an explosion of violence Victor strangles the woman who has made his life a living hell: "Medea. Mangler of children and castrator of husbands. Fate had overtaken her at last." He accepts his punishment defiantly:
… it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson's grim, resentful, the-world-owes- me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small, dull mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.
Boucher called the novel Highsmith's "coming of age as a novelist; less startling than Strangers, it is incomparably stronger in subtlety and depth of characterization."
After collaborating with Doris Sanders on a children's book, Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (1958), Highsmith published A Game for the Living (1958), a novel that even after four rewrites she considered her "one really dull book." In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction she blames its failure on her own weakness in constructing a whodunit: "I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, the stretching of the reader's credulity, and above all that intimacy with the murderer himself. I am not an inventor of puzzles, nor do I like secrets."
Despite its shortcomings, the novel is of interest because of its exotic location and the portrayal of the relationship of two mismatched friends. Theodore Schiebelhut, a rich German painter who has adopted Mexican citizenship, and his friend Ramon Otero, a professor and devout Catholic, are suspected of brutally raping, murdering, and mutilating Lelia, a woman who had an intimate relationship with both. While the two men initially suspect each other, they gradually learn to appreciate each other's similarities and differences. As Noel Dorman Mawer shows in her 1991 essay "From Villain to Vigilante," Highsmith is no longer confining herself "to the mutually destructive effects of complementary pathologies, but rather is portraying the mutual misunderstandings of two essentially rational, humane people who have contrasting cultural backgrounds." Because the novel focuses on the relationship between the friends, the solution of the murder mystery—a marginal figure is revealed as the perpetrator—seems tacked on and unsatisfactory.
Highsmith moved to a house in the Catskills near Palisades, New York, in 1958, and two years later she shared an old farmhouse outside New Hope, Pennsylvania, with the lesbian author Meaker. Highsmith's next two novels, This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Cry of the Owl (1962), complete what Harrison calls her "exurban trilogy," which she had begun with Deep Water. Both books are set in claustrophobic and narrow-minded small-town America, and both describe a character's obsessive fixation on an inappropriate object of desire and the clash between fantasy and reality.
In This Sweet Sickness, David Kelsey, the chief engineer of a fabrics manufacturing plant, is not able to adjust to the fact that Annabelle, a former girlfriend of his, has married another man. He creates a fantasy world in which Annabelle and his alter ego, "William Neumeister," can live happily together. While residing in a dingy boardinghouse during the week, he spends the weekends in a house that he has furnished in preparation for his reunion with Annabelle. Even though she keeps rejecting his persistent overtures, David blames "the Situation" on the fact that Annabelle is not herself and that she is not able to see anything in perspective: "she was immersed, drowned now in what she considered reality."
David himself is being romantically pursued by Effie Brennan, a secretary who lives in the same boardinghouse. When Annabelle's husband, Gerald, pays a surprise visit to David in his dream house one Sunday in order to warn him off, David kills him accidentally during a scuffle. He takes the body to the police and, in the guise of William Neumeister, reports the accident. Since David's fantasy world has been breached, he sells the house, gives up his job, and moves to another city. The tables are turned on him when an obsessed Effie pursues him to his new residence and sullies the bed that was meant solely for Annabelle: "He was through with the house. Effie had ruined it. There was nothing in it that he wanted any longer…. he would never come back. Never." Having killed Effie accidentally while dragging her from the bed and throwing her to the floor, David flees to New York City and, being pursued by the police, throws himself off an apartment building. In his last moments he desperately clings to his fantasy: "Thinking no more about it, he stepped off into that cool space, the fast descent to her, with nothing in his mind but a memory of a curve of her shoulder, naked, as he had never seen it."
Highsmith explored the theme of obsession with an unresponsive love object again two years later in The Cry of the Owl. Robert Forester, a lonely and depressed aeronautics engineer whose marriage has collapsed, starts spying on Jenny Thierolf, a young woman who lives alone in a secluded house. Robert's peeping serves as a palliative to the fiasco of his marriage and allows him to create, in Harrison's phrase, a "fantasy of perfect domesticity."
When Robert is discovered by Jenny and invited into the house, reality does not match up with the fantasy he has created. Although he enters into a nonsexual relationship with Jenny, he does so without much enthusiasm. Greg Wyncoop, Jenny's former fiancé, eventually provokes a fight with Robert, who saves Greg from drowning when he falls into a river. Greg and Robert's vindictive former wife, Nickie, hatch an involved plot to frame Robert for Greg's faked death, which in the end results in Jenny committing suicide and Greg being arrested for attempted murder. While out on bail Greg stabs Nickie to death when she tries to break up a fight he is having with Robert. The wary Robert makes sure that he is not implicated in the stabbing: "The knife was at his feet, not a bloodstain on it that he could see. He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it." Hitchcock purchased the rights to the novel in 1961 and used it as the basis for an hour-long segment of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, titling it "Annabelle."
In both novels Highsmith portrays the protagonists' community as a vengeful and unreasonable mob. A suicidal David Kelsey is urged on by a heckling crowd to jump off the building, and Robert Forester is immediately suspected by his community of a murder that may or may not have taken place. Harrison makes a convincing case that by portraying the community "as a collection of prejudiced, irrational, witch-hunting individuals … Highsmith has constructed something like an allegorical tale of the witch-hunt, of the blacklist, in short, of McCarthyism." The writer, whose political sympathies rested with the Left, alluded to political developments in the United States increasingly in subsequent novels. The political and cultural changes the country experienced in the early 1960s may have been one of the reasons why Highsmith moved to Europe permanently. After a third extended trip to Rome and Positano in 1961-1962 she settled in the south of England in 1963 to be with her lover, Barbara, the wife of a London businessman.
The first novel to be published after Highsmith's permanent move to Europe was The Two Faces of January (1964). Like several of her works the novel features an exotic locale—in this case Greece—and two men chained to each other in a love-hate relationship. Rydal Keener, a young American with an air of melancholy, has a chance encounter in an Athens hotel with Chester MacFarland, a crook who has fled the United States, where he has committed stock fraud, and his wife, Colette. Rydal is attracted to Chester, because he strongly resembles his recently deceased father, and to Colette, who reminds him of his first love, Agnes. Rydal is soon caught up in Chester's criminal activities and becomes a suspect when Chester kills a police official. When Rydal's attraction to Colette intensifies, Chester attempts to murder his rival but kills his own wife by mistake. Faced with exposure, the two men close ranks against the police and protect each other. Chester's false deathbed confession absolves Rydal from any guilt. Whereas Rydal had deliberately missed his own father's funeral, his decision to attend Chester's signals his reconciliation with the past. Highsmith was highly gratified when the novel, which had been rejected twice by Harper and Row, was awarded the Silver Dagger for best foreign novel by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain.
Highsmith also had difficulty finding a publisher for The Glass Cell (1964). In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction she describes the genesis of the novel in great detail, including its rejections and revisions. The book is based on the theory of "the deleterious effect of exposure to brutality in prison, and how this can lead to anti-social behavior after release." Philip Carter, an engineer, is made the fall guy for his employer's illegal scheme to overcharge customers for inferior building materials. In prison he is exposed to constant brutality, injustice, and degradation. When Max, a forger who has befriended Philip, is brutally killed during a prison riot, Philip avenges the murder by killing the likely perpetrator. Eventually his ten-year sentence is reduced by three years for good conduct, and Philip is released into a hostile world. Unable to find suitable employment because of his prison record, he gradually discovers that his wife, Hazel, is having an affair with his lawyer, David Sullivan. Philip kills David, "the lily-livered swine," in a fit of uncontrollable rage and subsequently a blackmailer who has knowledge of the murder. Having been punished for a crime he did not commit, a hardened Philip escapes punishment for the murders he has committed. Highsmith explains, "because Carter has been through so much in prison, I wanted to have him cleared of his post-prison murder. A double miscarriage of justice, if you like. I wanted him by some quirk to go free."
Highsmith followed up the grim depiction of prison life and its effects with A Suspension of Mercy (1965), a novel of black humor in which she examines the theme of fantasy versus reality through another portrayal of an unhappy marriage. Sydney Smith Bartleby, the American protagonist, is the creator of a British television adventure show titled The Whip, about a charming criminal who is never caught. Bartleby loathes his wife, Alicia, and frequently thinks of killing her. Instead of realizing his fantasies, however, he writes them down in his notebook with the plan to use them in his fiction. When she disappears, the notebook leads the police to suspect Sydney of murder. His elderly neighbor is convinced of his guilt because "Americans are violent. Everyone knows that." After Sydney discovers that Alicia has assumed a new identity to protect her affair with Edward Tilbury, a London lawyer, she commits suicide, and Sydney exacts revenge on Alicia's lover by forcing him to swallow an overdose of sleeping pills. When the police accept the lawyer's death as a suicide, Sydney feels invincible: "As he touched the notebook, Sydney thought that he would write a description of the Tilbury murder in it, while his recollection was still very clear, because the notebook was now, after all, the safest place in which to write it."
Bored with England and mourning the demise of her four-year relationship with Barbara, Highsmith moved to France in 1967 and purchased a house in Samois-sur-Seine, where she lived with her close friend Elizabeth Lyne. In her next two novels she featured some of the exotic and picturesque locales she had visited during her frequent trips. Those Who Walk Away (1967) is set in Venice and describes yet another cat-and-mouse game between two men. The American painter Ed Coleman blames his son-in-law, Ray, for the death of his daughter, who has committed suicide during her honeymoon. He pursues Ray through the canals and piazzas of Venice and makes several attempts on his life. Ray, like Greg in The Cry of the Owl, hides after one attack, and Coleman is suspected of his murder. Coleman eventually ceases the assaults, and Ray begins to understand his father-in-law's grief: "he wasn't on the defensive or angry with Coleman any longer, and he could afford to feel sorry for him, even sympathize."
The Tremor of Forgery (1969), set in Tunisia, was Highsmith's (as well as Greene's) favorite of her novels and, in Harrison's view, marks a watershed in her career because it and subsequent works are less concerned with crime and more focused on political and social issues. Howard Ingham, an American writer, is sent to Tunis, where he is supposed to write the script for a movie to be directed by his friend John Castlewood. While waiting for the director to arrive, Ingham is bewildered by the strange country and its customs and befriends Anders Jensen, a homosexual Danish painter who feels comfortable in the alien land. When Ina Pallant, Ingham's fiancée and script supervisor for the movie, arrives, Ingham learns that Castlewood has committed suicide because Ina, with whom he has had an affair, was unwilling to leave Ingham. One night Ingham surprises a burglar trying to break into his bungalow, and he throws his heavy typewriter at the intruder, wounding him. Hotel employees remove the burglar's body as well as any signs of the attack; thus, the only act of violence in the novel is one of self-defense, and Highsmith leaves open the question of whether it has serious consequences.
Initially Ingham feels guilty about the incident and considers informing the police, but eventually he adopts the fatalistic attitude of the natives. He decides to stay on in Tunisia in spite of the fact that the movie has been canceled, and he immerses himself in the local customs, with Jensen as his expert guide. One sign of Ingham's learning process is his changing attitude toward homosexuality. Early in the novel he is propositioned by Jensen and refuses the offer. Throughout the novel the two men get closer and Ingham's reluctance to have sex with a man is less pronounced:
… Ingham recalled one night when he'd gone along to the coffee-house called Les Arcades, and had come near to taking home a young Arab. The Arab had sat at the table with him, and Ingham had stood him a couple of beers. Ingham had been both sexually excited and lonely that evening, and the only thing that had deterred him, he thought, was that he hadn't been sure what to do in bed with a boy, and he hadn't wanted to feel silly. Hardly a moral reason for chastity.
Harrison points out in Patricia Highsmith that the gradual loosening of sexual barriers and the break with Western conventions is reminiscent of Gide's novel L'Immoraliste (1902; translated as The Immoralist, 1930). The novel also shows the influence of Albert Camus's L'Etranger (1942; translated as The Stranger, 1946). Harrison argues that "the treatment of the political issues … reflects Highsmith's position as a representative of a formally noncolonialist power suffering internal divisions over its neoimperialist project in Vietnam."
From 1970 to 1991 Highsmith published not only eight novels, including four featuring Tom Ripley, but also seven collections of short stories. These stories attest to the wide range of the author's interests and talent and include a variety of genres, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tale. Only a few of the stories deal primarily with crime. The first collection, Eleven, gathers some of her best stories, including "The Heroine," the short story that had been published in O. Henry's Best Short Stories of 1946, and Greene's favorite story, "When the Fleet Was in at Mobile," the portrait of a young woman who unwittingly exchanges a life of prostitution for an abusive marriage. "The Cries of Love" details the disturbing relationship between two elderly women who torture each other by destroying each other's favorite possessions. In "The Snail Watcher" and "The Quest for Blank Claveringi," animals take revenge on humans, and in the memorable story "The Terrapin" a young boy avenges the cruel killing and dismemberment of a soup turtle by subjecting his mother to a similar treatment.
At the beginning of Ripley under Ground (1970) the criminal-hero has settled down in Villeperce-sur-Seine near Paris, where he and his wife, Heloise, a rich, cultured, and amoral Frenchwoman, enjoy a life of luxury in their villa, called "Belle Ombre." Ripley collects paintings by such artists as Vincent Van Gogh, René Magritte, and Chaim Soutine; enjoys good food and drink, classical music, and traveling; tends his garden; and commits occasional crimes in order to supplement his income. He has devised a scheme with friends in London to sell fake paintings, pretending they are the work of Derwatt, a famous painter who is supposedly leading the life of a recluse in Mexico but who actually committed suicide in Greece three years before.
When Thomas Murchison, a rich and knowledgeable American art collector, suspects the fraud, Ripley impersonates the dead painter in an attempt to allay Murchison's suspicions. Failing to do so, he kills the collector in his wine cellar with a bottle of his best Margaux while feeling no remorse: "Tom didn't feel that it was a crime." Although Ripley is able to deflect the suspicions of the police, the situation becomes precarious when Bernard Tufts, the young painter who produces the fake Derwatt paintings, threatens to expose the scheme. After Tufts attacks Ripley and leaves him for dead, Ripley is able to haunt the painter like a ghost, causing his suicide. The police are suspicious of Ripley but are unable to connect him to either of the deaths. He has gotten away with murder once more.
In 1971 Highsmith moved to Montmachoux and later to Moncourt, both situated near Fontainebleau. In his article "The Woman Who Was Ripley" (The Independent on Sunday Magazine, 13 January 2000), Wilson suggests a possible explanation for the writer's restlessness: "her romantic attachments were far from settled—she lived with a handful of women, none for longer than a couple of years at a time, often moving countries in a bid to escape the emotional fall-out that accompanied the breakdown of a relationship." Frequent trips to the United States provided Highsmith with the inspiration for four non-Ripley novels that include unflattering portrayals of her former homeland.
A Dog's Ransom (1972) depicts New York City as a dangerous urban jungle, torn apart by class and ethnic hatred, in which muggings, burglaries, kidnappings, and blackmail are the order of the day. Kenneth Rowajinski, a former construction worker of Polish extraction who is living on disability, kills a dog belonging to Ed and Greta Reynolds and extorts a ransom from the couple, pretending that the dog has been kidnapped. The Reynoldses, who lost their daughter in a drug-related shooting, are devastated by the loss of their beloved pet: "A dog, a daughter—there should be a great difference, yet the feeling was much the same." Clarence Duhamell, a young policeman who has been assigned to the case, quickly becomes obsessed with tracking down the dognapper in order to win the couple's approbation and gratitude. When the policeman discovers the perpetrator, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. Rowajinski, "the Pole," taunts Duhamell and harasses his girlfriend, Marilyn. When the policeman finds Rowajinski lurking around Marilyn's apartment, he beats him to death with his revolver. Having taken the law into his own hands, Duhamell is shot by one of his colleagues. The novel was savaged by TLS on 12 May 1972: "Patricia Highsmith's new novel belongs in what is becoming a depressingly substantial sector of her total output—it is a mechanical exercise in self-pastiche, employing all her familiar devices and rehearsing most of her familiar obsessions, but with none of the vigor, inventiveness or intensity which in her best work makes those devices and obsessions seem so riveting." In contrast, Harrison has shown that A Dog's Ransom "reveals social and economic conflict more clearly than any of the author's other novels. But at the same time, the author's inability to resolve successfully any of these conflicts makes A Dog's Ransom both an authentic expression of its times and an unusually moving, if flawed, novel."
Ripley's Game, which takes place six months after Ripley under Ground, is the darkest of all the Ripley novels. When Ripley is commissioned to assassinate two mafiosi who threaten illegal gambling activities in Hamburg, Germany, he rejects the offer because the Derwatt episode has not blown over yet and because he "detested murder unless it was absolutely necessary." He hatches, however, a fiendish plan in order to punish Jonathan Trevanny, an Englishman who owns a small picture-framing shop, for "sneering" at him once at a party. Ripley, knowing that Trevanny suffers from leukemia, spreads the false rumor that Trevanny is dying and manages to falsify medical reports to that effect. He hopes to make Trevanny receptive to the murder scheme in order to provide for his family, a challenge made especially attractive by the fact that Trevanny "looks the picture of decency and innocence." Trevanny initially rejects the plan but, believing that he is about to die, eventually agrees to it and travels to Hamburg, where he shoots one of the mafiosi. When Ripley realizes that his experiment to corrupt an innocent has succeeded, he helps Trevanny murder the second mafioso. Several mafiosi track the assassins to France, and Ripley has to join forces with Trevanny in order to eliminate them. Trevanny is killed in a shootout, and his wife, Simone, who hates Ripley for having corrupted her husband, cannot resist the lure of the blood money: "Simone was just a trifle ashamed of herself, Tom thought. In that, she joined much of the rest of the world. Tom felt, in fact, that her conscience would be more at rest than that of her husband, if he were still alive."
Highsmith, a fervent animal lover who was surrounded by cats and snails throughout her life, allows such diverse animals as elephants, camels, dogs, cats, pigs, horses, chickens, hamsters, and ferrets to avenge the cruel treatment they have been subjected to by humans in the appropriately titled collection The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder (1975). In the same year Highsmith, who had frequently been accused of promoting misogyny in her novels, deliberately poured gasoline on the fire when she published Kleine Geschichten für Weiberfeinde, translated two years later as Little Tales of Misogyny. The stories, with such telling titles as "The Coquette," "The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife," "The Breeder," "The Mobile Bed-Object," and "The Perfect Little Lady," are clearly written tongue in cheek, and Highsmith was obviously thumbing her nose at the critics while trying to épater le bourgeois (to shock the middle classes). She was no doubt highly gratified when she and Roland Topor, illustrator for the book, received the French Grand Prix de l'Humour Noir in 1977.
Edith's Diary (1977), another novel in Highsmith's American cycle, is one of her most accomplished novels. Since the writer did not acknowledge authorship of her lesbian novel The Price of Salt until 1991, Edith's Diary was the first Highsmith book to provide the readers with a positive depiction of a strong female protagonist. The fact that Highsmith's novel revolves around an intelligent, educated, and accomplished woman who is destroyed by an oppressive patriarchal society helped to allay somewhat the charge that her novels promoted misogyny. Edith Howland, a freelance writer and housewife, tries "to organize and analyze her life-in-progress" by keeping a diary. Slowly but inextricably her life becomes a living nightmare when her husband, Brett, unexpectedly demands a divorce so that he can marry a younger woman. He leaves Edith caring for his bedridden and sickly Uncle George, who refuses to move to a nursing home even though he requires constant care. Edith is also left in charge of their son, Cliffie, a good-for-nothing who drops out of school, moves from one part-time job to the next, gets hooked on alcohol and drugs, injures a man in a drunken driving accident, and eventually kills Uncle George by administering an overdose of codeine. Edith's diary increasingly serves as her means to escape an unbearable reality. She invents an imaginary son who, having graduated from Princeton University, works as a successful and well-paid engineer in Kuwait. While the real Cliffie is reduced to masturbating into socks at night, Edith's imaginary Cliffie has married a beautiful wife and fathered two adorable children. Edith is aware of the fictional and therapeutic character of her diary entries, but those around her start questioning her sanity. When two doctors, hired by her former husband, insist on having her examined by a psychiatrist, Edith accidentally slips on the stairs and falls to her death. In her final moments the fantasy of a beautiful son is replaced by Edith's "personal sense of injustice."
Highsmith's collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1979) includes two of her strongest stories, "The Network" and "Broken Glass." Both stories reflect, according to Harrison, "socioeconomic changes as they affect that free-floating urban middle class … with remarkably unsettling results for the reader." In "The Network" middle-class New Yorkers, who feel that they have been disfranchised in favor of minorities, bond together in the attempt to deal with an increasingly threatening environment. In "Broken Glass" Andrew Cooperman, an eighty-one-year-old retired newspaper typesetter who is living on a meager pension, is mugged by a young black man. Cooperman refuses to become a prisoner in his own apartment—as have many of his elderly neighbors—and fights the same mugger the next time he encounters him, stabbing him in the stomach with a pane of glass. His action, however, leads to his death when he is attacked by the injured mugger's friends.
Ripley the corrupter undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), as he turns into the compassionate protector of a young man. When Frank Pierson, a sixteen-year-old American who has pushed his wealthy, wheelchair-bound father off a cliff and who has been on the run since the murder, shows up on Ripley's doorstep, Ripley offers him shelter. Frank is racked with guilt and hopes to gain absolution by confessing his deed: "Frank felt guilt, which was why he had looked up Tom Ripley, and curiously Tom had never felt such guilt, never let it seriously trouble him." Ripley and Frank quickly develop an intense friendship with a strong homoerotic undercurrent. While spending a weekend in Berlin they find themselves accidentally in a gay bar called "Glad Ass," where Ripley enjoys the attention he and his friend attract: "Tom himself was an object of envy for having a nice looking boy of sixteen in his company. Tom could in fact see that now, and it made him smile." When Frank is kidnapped, Ripley delivers the ransom money and frees the boy. He eventually convinces Frank to return to the United States and to face his family. Although he prevents Frank from jumping off a cliff at one point, he is ultimately unable to prevent the young man's redemptive suicide.
Highsmith presents a blackly humorous view of old age in "Old Folks at Home," one of the best stories in her collection The Black House (1981). When Lois and Herbert McIntyre, a couple of young, successful professionals, decide to "adopt" an elderly couple from an old-age home, their good deed turns into a nightmare. The elderly couple turns out to be argumentative, demanding, and incontinent. An attempt to return the adoptees to the old-age home fails, and the young couple has to rent offices outside their own home in order to be able to work. When their house catches on fire, the McIntyres save their books and papers but leave the old folks to their fate.
In the last ten years of Highsmith's life her literary output dwindled considerably, and the writer isolated herself more and more. In 1982 she moved from France to Switzerland, first settling in Aurigeno and then in Tegna, where she withdrew into a house that she had built according to her own designs. The home resembled a bunker: situated at the foot of the Alps, it kept the world at bay.
In People Who Knock on the Door (1983), a "mordant indictment of contemporary middle America" according to Holly Eley in TLS (4 February 1983), Highsmith savagely attacks fundamentalist religion, moral hypocrisy, and the right-wing government of Ronald Reagan. Richard Alderman, an insurance salesman in a small Indiana town, embraces fundamentalist Christianity when Robbie, his younger son who has become seriously ill, is seemingly saved through the power of prayer. Richard is transformed into a rigid and uncompromising moralist overnight, and he turns his eldest son, Arthur, out of the house when he discovers that Arthur has helped his pregnant girlfriend to obtain an abortion. Richard, however, does not practice what he preaches and is caught having an extramarital affair with Irene, a former prostitute whom he has taken under his wing. When Robbie, who has become a reborn Christian as well, discovers that his father is responsible for Irene's baby, he shoots him in a fit of righteous indignation, claiming "Dad deserved it!"
Highsmith's last two collections of short stories, Mermaids on the Golf Course (1985) and Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (1987), reveal the writer's growing fascination with an apparently decaying American society and her desire to explore current political and social concerns. Such a desire is also evident in her last novel set in her homeland, Found in the Street (1986). Like People Who Knock on the Door, it also features an obsessed moralist who believes it is his mission to protect the innocent in what he considers the debauched cesspool of New York City. Ralph Linderman, an eccentric security guard who has named his dog "God," latches on to naive and innocent Elsie Tyler, who has just moved to New York. He tries to protect her from such seemingly predatory men as Jack Sutherland, a book illustrator who has befriended the woman. Linderman harasses and badgers Sutherland and blames him for Elsie's death when she is murdered. In fact, he is so blinded by his moral outrage that he does not realize that Elsie is a lesbian and that she has been murdered by the jealous partner of one of her former girlfriends. While Highsmith in most respects paints a positive picture of the gay world in the novel, Harrison suggests that her use of a highly unrealistic gay-on-gay murder points to some ambivalence on her part: "This misrepresentation of reality would seem to suggest a mild antipathy or unease toward the milieu that Highsmith has—at least ostensibly—been painting in such ‘normal,’ even flattering colors."
In 1990 Highsmith was honored by the French government when she was named Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters), and in 1991 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. The same year she published Ripley under Water (1991), the last novel of the cycle, in which Ripley is the victim of a meddlesome American couple, David and Janice Pritchard, who have moved into the French village to torture him with their knowledge of some of his youthful offenses. First they call Ripley, pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf; then they follow him and his wife to Tangier, Morocco. They eventually succeed in recovering the remains of Thomas Murchison, the art collector Ripley killed in Ripley under Ground, which they leave on Ripley's doorstep. Ripley's response to the constant harassment is unusually restrained. Even though he considers killing Pritchard on several occasions, he does not give in to this urge. The Pritchards get their just deserts, though, when they drown in their own pond while trying to recover Murchison's remains after Ripley has deposited the "bag of bones" there. Ripley disposes of the last incriminating object, one of Murchison's rings, in the nearby river, ensuring his unencumbered future. Some critics have considered the later Ripley books less successful than the first ones; Symons, for example, in the third edition of Bloody Murder (1993), blames the fact that Highsmith "has been self-indulgent" in relation to her favorite character for the preposterousness of Ripley's later exploits. Tellingly, the Ripley omnibus published by Knopf as part of the Everyman's Library in 1999 only includes the first three novels of the series.
Highsmith died in a Locarno hospital on 4 February 1995 of cancer, and her ashes were interred in Tegna on 11 March. She bequeathed her $3,000,000 estate to Yaddo, the Upstate New York artists' colony that had been instrumental in launching her career. Shortly after her death her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll (1995), was published in London. This book hearkens back to The Price of Salt and features a large cast of gay, bisexual, and heterosexual characters whose goal is to live peacefully side by side. They mingle in a Zurich saloon called Jakobs Bierstube, the clientele of which is predominantly straight during the week. On weekends the bar is known as "Small g," a reference to its mixed clientele of gays and straights. The tranquil atmosphere is threatened when Renate Hagenauer, a prudish and homophobic fashion designer, incites violence in an attempt to break up relationships. Renate eventually dies in an accident, and the balance is restored. While the lovers in The Price of Salt form a monogamous relationship that mirrors a heterosexual marriage, the protagonists in Small g have to be satisfied with nonexclusive relationships: Rickie Markwalder is content sharing his boyfriend, Fredy Schimmelmann, a married policeman, with his wife; and bisexual Luisa Zimmermann forms a ménage à trois with the lesbian Dorrie Wyss and the heterosexual Teddie Stevenson.
Whereas Small g rapidly sold almost forty-six thousand copies in French translation, the novel was not published in the United States until almost 10 years later. Its fate is indicative of the reception of most of Patricia Highsmith's books, as is noted by Harrison in his study: "for the American author who expatriated herself to Europe for most of her adult life, whose novels often dealt in evasions of various sorts, this last European success and American failure seem a not altogether unfitting conclusion." A boom in interest in Highsmith's life and art in the United States, however, may be righting this imbalance. Her out-of-print books are being republished by Norton; The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (2001), which includes all her previously published short-story collections except for Eleven, became a best-seller; and Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith was published in 2002. Even The New Yorker, the magazine in which Highsmith had most fervently hoped to be published during her lifetime, helped renew interest in her work by printing her short story "The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn" in 2002. Not only is the American reading public taking note of this seminal writer who had previously been relegated to marginality, but also the academy is following suit. In his essay "Reality Catches Up to Highsmith's Hard-Boiled Fiction" from the Chronicle of Higher Education (20 February 2004), Leonard Cassuto expains why the author, who was once belittled as a "dime-store Dostoyevsky," is more popular than ever in the United States, and why she is being canonized as a major American artist:
Never at home in her own context, she fits perfectly into ours…. it's clear that the politics—sexual and otherwise—of her dangerously unstable fictional world are a lot like our own. Homosexuals are out, but still the center of political and cultural (to say nothing of religious) debate. And life in today's age of terrorism creates the kind of anxious foreboding that Highsmith evoked again and again. People never know whether something (or someone) might explode next to them. We also live in an era where surveillance is everywhere, and where people live at risk of being turned in and taken away. These times are the closest we've ever come to the '50s, when anxiety boiled beneath the surface of the prosperous facade of American living. We've moved to the creepy neighborhood where Patricia Highsmith lived all her life.
Ed Siegel, writing in the Boston Globe (27 January 2002), also believes that changes in American society have contributed to the reassessment of Highsmith's importance: "In the wake of September 11, Highsmith's world is not only more like ours, where crime and punishment or cause and effect don't necessarily go hand in hand, she seems a more important writer than ever."
Source: Karl L. Stenger, "Patricia Highsmith," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 306, American Mystery and Detective Writers, edited by George Parker Anderson, Thomson Gale, 2005, pp. 144-61.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Patricia Highsmith's work.
As the author of numerous short story collections and novels, including the well-known Strangers on a Train, American-born Patricia Highsmith enjoyed greater critical and commercial success in England, France, and Germany than in her native country. As Jeff Weinstein speculated in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, the reason for this is that Highsmith's books have been "misplaced"—relegated to the mystery and suspense shelves instead of being allowed to take their rightful place in the literature section. As far as her ardent admirers in the United States and abroad are concerned, Highsmith was more than just a superb crime novelist. In fact, declared Brigid Brophy in Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews, "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."
The art in Highsmith's work springs from her skillful fusion of plot, characterization, and style, with the crime story serving primarily "as a means of revealing and examining her own deepest interests and obsessions," according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Among her most common themes are the nature of guilt and the often symbiotic relationship that develops between two people (almost always men) who are at the same time fascinated and repelled by each other. Highsmith's works therefore "dig down very deeply into the roots of personality," wrote Julian Symons in the London Magazine, exposing the dark side of people regarded by society as normal and good. Or, as Thomas Sutcliffe explained in the Times Literary Supplement, Highsmith wrote "not about what it feels like to be mad, but what it feels like to remain sane while committing the actions of a madman."
Also in the Times Literary Supplement, James Campbell stated that "the conflict of good and evil—or rather, simple decency and ordinary badness—is at the heart of all Highsmith's novels, dramatized in the encounters between two characters, often in an exotic locale, where it is easier to lose one's moral bearings. Usually, we see events from the point of view of the innocent, the blind, as they stumble towards doom."
Highsmith's preoccupations with guilt and contrasting personalities surfaced as early as her very first novel. Strangers on a Train chronicles the relationship between Guy Haines, a successful young architect, and Charles Bruno, a charming but unstable man slightly younger than Haines. The two men first meet on a train journey when Bruno repeatedly tries to engage his traveling companion in conversation. He eventually persuades Haines to open up and talk about feelings he usually keeps to himself, including the feelings of resentment he harbors toward his wife. Bruno, who has long fantasized about killing his much-hated father, then suggests to Haines that they rid themselves of the "problems" once and for all: Bruno will kill Haines's wife for him, and Haines in turn will kill Bruno's father. Since there is no connection between the victims and their killers, Bruno theorizes, the police will be at a loss to solve the murders. With more than a hint of reluctance, Haines rejects the plan, but to no avail; Bruno remains intrigued by it and proceeds to carry out his part.
As Paul Binding observed in a Books and Bookmen article, "the relation of abnormal Bruno to normal [Haines] is an exceedingly complex one which is to reverberate throughout Patricia Highsmith's output. On the one hand Bruno is a doppelgänger figure; he embodies in repulsive flesh and blood form what [Haines's] subconscious has long been whispering to him…. On the other hand Bruno exists in his own perverse right, and [Haines] can have no control over him…. As a result of [Bruno's] existence, and of its coincidence with [Haines's] own, the rational, moral [Haines] becomes entangled in a mesh which threatens to destroy his entire security of identity…. [Haines is a man] tormented by guilt—guilt originally inspired by interior elements. Yet [he becomes], in society's eyes, guilty for exterior reasons." With the exception of the Ripley books—The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, and Ripley under Water—which focus on the activities of the opportunistic and amoral Tom Ripley, a man incapable of feeling guilt, these themes are at the heart of Highsmith's fiction.
According to Symons, Highsmith typically launched her stories with the kind of "trickily ingenious plot devices often used by very inferior writers." He hastened to add, however, that these serve only as starting points for the "profound and subtle studies of character that follow." As Burt Supree observed in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, most of Highsmith's characters, none of whom are "heroes" in the conventional sense, are likely to be "obsessive, unquestioning, humdrum men with no self-knowledge, no curiosity, and Byzantine fantasy-lives—respectable or criminal middle-class, middle-brow people of incredible shallowness. Nowhere else will you find so many characters you'd want to smack." Supree added, "Like lab animals, [they] come under careful scrutiny, but [Highsmith] doesn't care to analyze them or beg sympathy for them. They go their independent ways with the illusion of freedom. Contact seems only to sharpen their edges, to irk and enrage." Yet as Craig Brown pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement, "it is a rare villain or psychopath [in Highsmith's fiction] whom the reader does not find himself willing toward freedom, a rare investigator whom the reader is unhappy to see dead. Those she terms her ‘murderer-heroes’ or ‘heropsychopaths’ are usually people whose protective shells are not thick enough to deaden the pain as the world hammers at their emotions…. Some live, some die, some kill, some crack up."
Sutcliffe echoed this assessment of Highsmith's characters as basically sane people who commit apparently insane acts, usually while under considerable strain. "What she observes so truthfully is not the collapse of reason but its persistence in what it suits us to think of as inappropriate conditions," Sutcliffe assessed. He continued: "Even Ripley, the least scrupulous and likeable of her central characters, has motives for his actions, and though they are venal and vicious they are not irrational. Her suburban killers remain calculatingly evasive until the end…. They don't hear voices and they don't have fun. Indeed in the act of killing their attitude is one of dispassionate detachment, of a sustained attempt to rationalize the intolerable…. In all the books death is contingent and unsought, almost never meticulously planned and very rarely the focus for our moral indignation."
In the eyes of most critics, it is Highsmith's skill at depicting a character's slide into derangement or death that distinguishes her "in a field where imitative hacks and dull formula-mongers abound," remarked a Times Literary Supplement reviewer. Symons declared, "The quality that takes her books beyond the run of intelligent fiction is not [the] professional ability to order a plot and create a significant environment, but rather the intensity of feeling that she brings to the problems of her central figures…. From original ideas that are sometimes far-fetched or even trivial she proceeds with an imaginative power that makes the whole thing terrifyingly real." The world she creates for her characters has a "relentless, compulsive, mutedly ominous quality," asserted Hermione Lee in the Observer, one that leaves the reader "in a perpetual state of anxiety and wariness."
The prose Highsmith uses to communicate a sense of chilling dread and almost claustrophobic desperation is flat and plain, devoid of jargon, cliché, and padding. Some find it reminiscent of a psychological case history, a detailed and dispassionate account of a life moving out of control. According to Reg Gadney in London Magazine, "It is a characteristic skill of Miss Highsmith to convey unease and apprehension with an understated narrative style and painstaking description of domestic practicalities. Her characters often seem to counterbalance their expectation of fear by entrenching themselves in domestic routines…. [Their] tenacious efforts … to keep hold of everyday reality and logic serve to heighten the menace and chaos." New Statesman reviewer Blake Morrison, in fact, believed Highsmith is "at her most macabre when most mundane."
In Brown's opinion, "her style, on the surface so smooth and calm, underneath so powerful and merciless," is precisely what "entices the reader in and then sends him, alongside the ‘psychopath-hero,’ tumbling against the rocks." Weinstein agreed that "the reader has no choice but to follow the work, nothing could go another way. You are trapped in the very ease of the reading. The result is like suffocation, losing breath or will." Orhan Pamuk, reviewing the "Ripley" books in the Village Voice, described the fascination: "To know that people really will be hurt bonds the reader, with an almost self-destructive joy, to Highsmith's novels. For the reader has already discovered that the banality and pettiness, which spread like an epidemic in every one of her books, are those of his own life. He might as well begin to loathe himself. We rediscover, in each novel, the vulnerability of our existence."
Symons identified several qualities in Highsmith's work that make her, in his words, "such an interesting and unusual novelist." He had particular praise for "the power with which her male characters are realized," as well as for her ability to portray "what would seem to most people abnormal states of minds and ways of behavior." Symons continued: "The way in which all this is presented can be masterly in its choice of tone and phrase. [Highsmith's] opening sentences make a statement that is symbolically meaningful in relation to the whole book…. The setting is also chosen with great care…. [She seems to be making the point that] in surroundings that are sufficiently strange, men become uncertain of their personalities and question the reason for their own conduct in society." In short, remarked Symons, Highsmith's work is "as serious in its implications and as subtle in its approach as anything being done in the novel today."
Curiously, Highsmith's final novel before her death in 1995 departed from her successful formula of suspense. Small g: A Summer Idyll features almost no mystery, death, or intrigue. Set in Zurich, Switzerland, the novel revolves around a group of characters who frequent Jacob's Bierstube-Restaurant, known in gay travel-book parlance as a "small g": a place frequented by both straight and gay patrons. Rickie is a middle-aged gay man who is mourning his dead lover and coping with recent news that he is HIV-positive. He becomes friends with Luisa, a young woman stuck in the unpleasant employ of Renate, a crippled fashion designer who controls Luisa's life and actions. Eventually, Luisa inherits a fortune and gets away from Renate, while Rickie finds out that he is not HIV-positive after all. Many critics expressed disappointment with the novel, noting that Highsmith's trademark strengths were simply missing in this work. New Statesman & Society reviewer Julie Wheelwright, for instance, noted that "the plot moves along pleasantly enough; but for a writer so skilled in creating suspense and insightful portraits, these qualities seem distinctly lacking in Small g. One wishes that, for her final novel, Highsmith had left a more lasting work than this light ‘summer idyll.’" While praising the author's "limpid prose" and "deft characterization," Times Literary Supplement contributor James Campbell remarked that "if [Small g] can be read as a final utterance, Patricia Highsmith died having made peace with her demons. Good triumphed over bad. Too bad for her readers."
Homosexuality had been one of Highsmith's themes since the beginning of her career. Her second novel, The Price of Salt, was published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan in 1952 because of its overt and unapologetic lesbianism. Despite the conservatism of the times, and the fact that the book had a relatively happy ending—not the usual conversion to heterosexuality or death of the gay character—the novel sold almost a million copies. In 1991 The Price of Salt was reissued under Highsmith's real name, and some critics began to see similarities between the lesbian relationship of Carol and Therese and that of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf which the author explored a few years later in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Sixty-four of Highsmith's stories appear in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, published posthumously in 2001. The book, along with the 1999 film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the announcement of two new biographies in the works, prompted a new appreciation for Highsmith's oeuvre among American critics, who have taken to eulogizing her as one of the literary world's more astute observers of human psychology. The Selected Stories is the first of fifteen books that publisher W.W. Norton will issue in order to bring many of her novels back into print after a long absence. Many of the stories feature animals or other nonhuman forms of life that often exact retribution on cruel and unthinking people. Neil Gordon of the Nation explained how the animals' actions are perfectly suited to Highsmith's fiction: They "are the perfect murderers, killing with neither malice nor, really, violence, in that their use of their physicality is instinctual and they are, after all, only protecting themselves." And Richard Davenport-Hines commented in the New York Times Book Review, "Human beings are inconvenient in many Highsmith stories," adding, "there is relief when they disappear or fall into delusions that leave them utterly isolated." In "The Stuff of Madness," a woman keeps the stuffed bodies of her dead pets in her garden, and in "Hamsters vs. Websters," a maniacal hamster bites the neck of a salesman and kills him.
"Highsmith's protagonists are never heroic," wrote Davenport-Hines in assessing The Selected Short Stories, because "heroes have free will and exercise brave choices; Highsmith's characters act on impulse and cannot control what they do." Many of the stories take place in a seemingly soothing middle-class world, where the lives of average people are disrupted catastrophically by murder or suicide. Some critics noted an uneven quality in the writing; Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly surmised that this is because Highsmith's genius depends on a "gradualness" of suspense developed over the course of a novel, and the stories are too short to impart the same quality. Nevertheless, "the best of these pieces have a startling quality that may be likened to getting a shove near the edge of a train platform," wrote Penelope Mesic in Book, "even if we emerge physically unscathed, the daily routine can never seem so harmless again."
Highsmith's reputation as a top-notch suspense writer remains secure. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer reflected on the dilemma facing those who attempt to evaluate Highsmith's work, explaining that, in essence, "it is difficult to find ways of praising [her] that do not at the same time do something to diminish her…. With each new book, she is ritually congratulated for outstripping the limitations of her genre, for being as much concerned with people and ideas as with manipulated incident, for attempting a more than superficial exploration of the psychopathology of her unpleasant heroes—for, in short, exhibiting some of the gifts and preoccupations which are elementarily demanded of competent straight novelists." According to the same reviewer, Highsmith can best be described in the following terms: "She is the crime writer who comes closest to giving crime writing a good name." And J.M. Edelstein in a New Republic article summed up: "Low-key is the word for Patricia Highsmith…. Low-key, subtle, and profound. It is amazing to me that she is not better known for she is superb and is a master of the suspense novel…. [The body of her work] should be among the classics of the genre."
Source: Thomson Gale, "(Mary) Patricia Highsmith," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
In the following review, Innes comments on Highsmith's use of noir themes, which explore humanity's desires and disappointments.
A sculptor is sick of his wife's being the perfect wife and mother. She's given up her art for him. She cooks. She takes care of their baby. She's happy. Despite his urging, she won't even have an affair. So he kills her. For being too nice. And then he kills himself. By bashing his head against his jail cell wall.
This melodramatic reversal of the usual man-threatened-by-wife's-career theme is as contrived as it sounds. And yet, somewhere in the midst of the contrivance, one gets a little chill. One starts to think about love and all its delusions, about marriage and how hard it can be, about the way love can die slowly, almost imperceptibly, and how life is filled with losses—until one is just about ready to do oneself in.
That's the Patricia Highsmith effect, as demonstrated in "Things Had Gone Badly," one of 26 stories in Nothing That Meets the Eye, a posthumous collection of Highsmith's short stories. Not previously collected (or in some cases never before published) and spanning 1938 to 1982 (she died in 1995), these stories are classic Highsmith fare.
Not all of them succeed. Some of the narrative tricks are too obviously manipulative, and there are just too many stories that end abruptly and unconvincingly in suicide. Perhaps that's why Highsmith held some of them back from publication. Nevertheless, whatever their flaws, they all have the Highsmith magical narrative pull. One wants to keep reading, even when the payoff isn't as strong as it could be, because, however artificial the plot, there is usually a nugget of bitter truth at its heart. Highsmith understood the psychology of people's darker urges.
It's startling to realize that some of these stories were written while she was still at Barnard College at New York and, though they may lack the fluency and the light sardonic humor of some of her later work, they are nevertheless extraordinarily accomplished. All the noir themes that characterize her great novels, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, are here. There are stories about bad marriages, loneliness, madness, murder, the emptiness of modern life, told with typical Highsmith wit or, occasionally, with a kind of spare, unsentimental lyricism, proving yet again the long-standing critical mantra that Highsmith is Not Just A Genre Writer.
One reason for the critical acclaim is that Highsmith doesn't write typical murder mystery stories. Her heroes often get away with their dastardly deeds and manage to be simultaneously appalling and likable (Mr. Ripley being the most famous and perhaps most convincing example). In contrast to the feel-good narratives of lesser literary thrillers in which good triumphs over evil, Highsmith's novels are vehicles to explore the dark side of the human psyche—the urge to do violence that most people occasionally think about but never pursue. And the murders in her books are the logical outcome of the kind of contorted thinking that hampers everyone from time to time, prompting people to make odd choices that in saner moments they might reject.
There are similar psychologically truthful murder stories in Nothing That Meets the Eye, even though, along with most of her previously published short stories, they lack the complexity of her novels. Usually, the stories' originality comes in the form of a clever twist. In "It's a Deal," a man kills his wife, who's already been beaten nearly to death by her lover. The husband just finishes her off, then frames the lover. In "The Second Cigarette," a man's subconscious self materializes to taunt him. When the man tries to throw the annoying shadow off a balcony, the shadow throws him off instead, suggesting that, in fact, the man wants to kill himself.
These murder stories are tinged with the kind of irony that is Highsmith's trademark in story collections such as "The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder," in which animals get their revenge on humans. In "Music to Die By," a story in this new collection, a post office employee fantasizes about murdering his colleagues. When he confesses to the bombing of a post office where he used to work, he is imprisoned (even though he didn't do it) because people believe he is crazy enough to have committed the crime.
What's different about Nothing That Meets the Eye, however, is that the majority of the stories do not involve a murder. Suicide and accidental death, yes, but not murder. In the book's afterword, German critic Paul Ingendaay suggests that Highsmith may not have attempted to publish some of her earlier work because it didn't have the commercial allure of a suspense story. And it's true that these stories focus more on ordinary yearnings and disappointments, such as the loneliness of a working woman in New York City in "Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out" or a woman's depression and alienation when she marries a Mexican hotel manager in "The Car." (Though Highsmith was an American who lived most of her life in England and Switzerland, she took many trips to Mexico. A sense of displacement is a common theme in her work.) Many of these stories also feature female protagonists, which is unusual for Highsmith.
In interviews, she said she preferred writing about men because they were more active and therefore more interesting than women. And she has been criticized for her negative portrayals of women in, for example, her collection of short stories, Little Tales of Misogyny, in which each heroine represents a female stereotype—although, as some critics have pointed out, these stories may also be seen as satire. Highsmith also was a product of the conservative 1940s and '50s. But she didn't always fall in with traditional views. The one early book with sympathetic heroines and a happy ending was "The Price of Salt," about a lesbian relationship, which she published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Highsmith was a lesbian who didn't want to be typecast as a lesbian writer. But in 1991, the novel was reprinted in England under her own name with the title "Carol."
In contrast to the women in "The Price of Salt," career women who found love and happiness, most of the women in Nothing That Meets the Eye are victims, reflecting Highsmith's belief that women are "pushed by people and circumstances instead of pushing," as she put it in her nonfiction work Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). Her heroines in the short stories are bitter, unhappy women, including the nagging mother in "A Girl Like Phyl" or the childlike hypochondriac Agnes in "The Pianos of the Steinachs" whose only happiness comes from a fantasy that a visiting music student is in love with her.
At best, the women in these stories are bored housewives cheating on their husbands. The overtly good women are locked into classic sacrificial female gestures. Dying Mrs. Palmer in "The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble With the World" selflessly decides to give her treasured amethyst pin to the mean-spirited nurse who covets it, in protest against life's "flaw," the "long, mistaken shutting of the heart." Or they are given the traditional reward for stereotypical female virtues. The working woman in "Doorbell for Louisa" stays home from work to take care of some sick neighbors and is subsequently asked out on a date by her boss, who misses her presence at work.
To be fair, the men in Nothing That Meets the Eye don't hold up too well either. Many also suffer loneliness and disappointment. Many cheat and lie. And there's at least one child molester, possibly two, if one reads between the lines. But when men are rewarded in these stories, they, unlike the women, undergo an affirmation of self. In "Man's Best Friend," a man who idolizes a woman who's not quite the goddess he thought learns that he can live happily alone with his dog. And men's kindnesses are not quite so saintly as the women's. In "A Bird in Hand," a man makes his living off reward money for returning missing birds to their owners—not the actual birds but similar-looking ones he has bought at a pet store. Yet he is seen by his victims as a sort of Santa Claus, spreading kindness throughout the world, even though they are on to his game.
Whatever one makes of Highsmith's biases—and I confess I have a built-in antipathy for writers who see the world in such a lopsided, cynical fashion, as a dark place where meanness and manipulation are the dominant emotions—there's no doubt that this new collection, however uneven, reminds us that Highsmith was a literary artist who was so accomplished she could seduce the reader even with work that was less than her best.
Source: Charlotte Innes, "When the Milk of Human Kindness Sours: Nothing That Meets the Eye," in Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2002, p. R4.
In the following review, Lasdun comments on the broad range of styles and techniques, the "astounding" variety of characters and the dark themes Highsmith employs in her short stories.
Most readers know Patricia Highsmith primarily as the creator of the affable sociopath Tom Ripley. But one of the exhilarating effects of reading Highsmith's stories—the 700-page Selected Stories that came out last year and now another 400-plus pages of "uncollected" ones in Nothing That Meets the Eye—is the greatly enlarged sense of her range and energy as a writer that they impart. The sheer variety of beings (human and otherwise) whose skin she slips in and out of from story to story is astounding—a Mexican street hustler one moment, a pair of quarrelsome pigeons the next, with a compendious assortment of white-collar, blue-collar, American, English, German, canine, sane and insane individuals in between.
Equally prodigious is her capacity for coming up with the wildly inventive plots that set these creatures in motion. Like the plots in Maupassant's stories, which she particularly admired, Highsmith's tend to turn more on action and external circumstance than on interior states, offering the pleasures of vivid detail and brilliant contrivance over those of emotional nuance and poetic intensity. Their machinery can clunk at times—as Maupassant's also could—especially as they accelerate toward their sometimes strained dramatic climaxes, but they are seldom less than entertaining, and often wonderful.
"Short stories are absolutely essential to me," Highsmith said in an interview. Under the cool perfection of her novels was a broad and antic imagination that clearly needed other, quicker, perhaps less exacting vehicles for the overflow of its productivity. The stories also exhibit a greater freedom—risking silliness, implausibility, even an otherwise most uncharacteristic sentimentality, for the sake of whatever ingenious notion caught her fancy. Highsmith generally manages to make something charming or droll or briefly chilling of even the slightest of them—e.g., a man who collects parakeets of every color in order to be able to claim rewards when pet birds go missing, by "returning" a matching bird of his own ("A Bird in Hand"). She tries out all sorts of different styles and techniques: turn-of-the-century high polish in "The Pianos of the Steinachs" ("Languid fingers of the weeping willow, their chartreuse just beginning to turn with autumn"); a folktale-like simplicity in "Uncertain Treasure," in which two low-lifes squabble over a mysterious abandoned bag; the hilarious knockabout comedy of "Two Disagreeable Pigeons"; gritty urban plainspokenness (her vignettes of '40s New York with its grime and hustle and noisy isolation, are superb); and Gothic melodrama. She also, occasionally, employs a delicate psychological realism without any overt artifice at all, as in "The Returnees," which beautifully and painfully chronicles the breakdown of a marriage when a refugee couple return to post-war Germany.
Loneliness, stoical melancholy, a sense of emotional or physical inadequacy, frustration that turns either outward to murder or inward to self-destruction characterize most of the individuals in these pages. Fraudulence also figures prominently, as it does in the novels. "The Great Cardhouse" features a collector of forgeries ("bona fide masterpieces were too natural, too easy, too boring") who, in one gloriously macabre scene, reveals his own body to be almost entirely fake, dismantling himself—toupee, artificial hand, glass eye—before a startled acquaintance. A crazed postal worker in "Music to Die By" keeps a diary in which he records murders he hasn't actually committed. And in "A Dangerous Hobby," a vacuum salesman, impotent and misogynistic, impersonates researchers in order to set up meetings with women so that he can indulge his hobby of robbing them of small possessions.
Over these figures you feel the presence of Tom Ripley, deadliest of all impostors, hovering like a ghostly amalgam: In their respective traits of boredom, playful whimsy, inchoate rage and sexual confusion, you sense something of the multitude of different psychological sources that must have fed into that inspired creation. The stories gathered here cover a long period, from 1938 to 1982. Highsmith never collected them in her lifetime, but neither did she destroy them as she did other writings. One or two of the earlier pieces are lame or else rather blandly diagrammatic. Some repeat ideas she may have felt she handled better elsewhere. Quite a few conclude with a disconcertingly abrupt suicide, and as the fifth or sixth protagonist plunges over a balcony or leaps in front of a truck, you might start to wonder if this is really a satisfactory way to end an otherwise absorbing narrative, and whether Highsmith herself might not have been wondering that too, as she put the piece on ice.
Would the stories by themselves have secured Highsmith a lasting reputation? They lack perhaps the singularity of tone and atmosphere that her best novels possess, but in their surehandedness, their amazing breadth and abundance, as well as the dark delight they convey in their own making, they compel attention, and they add significantly to her already formidable presence.
Source: James Lasdun, "Little Terrors," in Washington Post, October 13, 2002, p. T13.
Baldick, Chris, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 89.
Campbell, James, "Murder, She (Usually) Wrote," in New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2002, p. 30.
Highsmith, Patricia, "A Girl like Phyl," in Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, Norton, 2002, pp. 359-80.
Innes, Charlotte, "When the Milk of Human Kindness Sours; Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, in Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2002, p. R4.
Lasdun, James, "Little Terrors," in Washington Post, October 13, 2002, p. T13.
Review of Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 70, No. 17, September 1, 2002, http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu/ehost/delivery?vid=36&hid=120&sid=51ad4 (accessed September 12, 2006).
Review of Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 79, No. 3, Summer 2003, p. 92.
Durkheim, Emile, and John Al Spaulding, Suicide, Free Press, 1997.
The authors present the subject from a sociological perspective, offering a statistical analysis of the types of people who commit suicide.
Jamison, Kay Redfield, Night Falls: Understanding Suicide, Vintage, 2000.
Redfield, a Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor, focuses on the reasons for and the methods used in committing suicide and the treatment of suicidal tendencies.
Marino, Gordon, ed., Basic Writings of Existentialism, Modern Library, 2004.
Marino collected instructive essays on the subject from the most important philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus.
Wilson, Andrew, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Bloomsbury, 2003.
Wilson draws from Highsmith's journals and letters as well as interviews with those who knew her in his account of her complex personality and her life.