Patricia Highsmith | Critical Essay by Odette L'Henry Evans

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
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Critical Essay by Odette L'Henry Evans

SOURCE: "A Feminist Approach to Patricia Highsmith's Fiction," in American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, edited by Brian Docherty, St. Martin's, 1990, pp. 107-19.

In the following essay, Evans relates Highsmith's exploration of the unconscious in her novels and short stories to feminist critical theories.

A critical examination of the work of Patricia Highsmith from a feminist standpoint unavoidably presents a number of challenges, the first being the difficulty of ascertaining precisely to what genre her novels belong. To see her as a 'crime writer' would be inaccurate as well as limitative, since it would mean ignoring certain elements of her stories which are outside the usual crime-detection-arrest pattern. To call her a mystery writer may be more accurate, since she was once awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America, yet the nature of mystery in her novels differs greatly from what is usually expected, in so far as it never comes from wondering who the evildoer is; instead it is connected with what kind of person he is, or more accurately it enfolds the reasons which make him progressively deviate from the norm and become a murderer.

Patricia Highsmith herself stated that she was 'interested in the effect of guilt on [her] heroes' and her study of the invisible 'glass cell' which surrounds and isolates the criminal is one of the remarkable features of her work. It may well be that this is the key to understanding the precise nature of her work, and it will need to be examined in relation to feminist critical theories in order to establish accurately the status of the work defined as woman's writing.

It has been said that there are as many forms of feminism as there are women, and, while this can only be seen as a reduction to the absurd, the fact remains that a number of tendencies exist, some mainly concerned with everyday social issues, and others, more particularly among French women writers and critics, essentially involved in debating the intellectual aspects of feminism. One important element of this approach has been the redefinition of what is meant by women's writings, no longer in relation to male literature (for instance, being 'potentially as good as …' or 'indistinguishable from …'), but in relation to language itself as a means of expressing the inner consciousness of the female writer, proceeding, in other words, according to what Róisîn Battel calls the 'rejection of phallic discourse'.

This concern with language or, more precisely, with the creation of languages (discourse) can operate at the linguistic level of language, involving considerations of form, organisation, vocabulary, syntax which, in the discourse, reflect female identity, or it can explore the deeper layers of the text to search for a novel apprehension of the unconscious as expression of the female psyche—in other words, a writing of self. The corpus of literary analyses which has been produced during the past twenty years or so has amply demonstrated the value of textual deconstructions at linguistic and at psychoanalytical levels in establishing a formula able to define accurately the specificity of woman.

The advantage of this two-pronged investigation is that it not only covers the manner in which a woman writer expresses herself within a literary text, but also encompasses her selection of plots, and her presentation of episodes and characters, thus highlighting in turns the various strands of a complex pattern.

What criteria should then be considered in this quest for an 'authentic' feminine voice?

Traditionally, women writers have been seen as lacking the sense of logic, universality and objectivity which is commonly thought to characterise the production of male authors, so much so that, if a woman succeeded in that field, as, for example, George Eliot did, she was accused of 'committing atrocities with it that beggar description'. Women were, on the other hand, credited with a gift for immediate empathy with the world around them, as well as an appreciation of each of its separate elements. In that connection it may be interesting to hear Jan Morris, who before undergoing a sex-change was a man, explain that, as far as she is concerned, the most thrilling thing about being a woman is that she no longer feels remote and alienated from her urban surroundings, but is deeply conscious of being part of them.

No such empathy, however, is in evidence in the novels of Patricia Highsmith. At best, the surroundings are indifferent, and not infrequently they are hostile. The comfortable home of Vic and Melinda Van Allen, in Deep Water, is never described; there is mention of a 'nice' house, a 'good' phonograph and a 'favourite armchair', and also a dented metal vase, since Melinda is prone to throwing things when annoyed, but nothing more.

Similarly, in The Glass Celt, when Carter is released from the penitentiary, it is obvious that his wife has taken particular care to make their flat attractive for his return, yet there is only a brief reference to a rubber plant and to some 'gladioli in a large vase', without even, as one would have expected, a notation of colour. The only colour mentioned, in fact, is that of the 'two thick red books' on the chest of drawers, right in the bedroom. These crimson-coloured law books belong to Sullivan, the lawyer initially commissioned to establish Carter's innocence, who is now Hazel's lover and will eventually be killed by Carter.

Julia Kristeva, a radical feminist as well as a rigorous theorist, realised that there was no single feature that could identify or characterise all feminine texts, and that most texts can dissolve identities, as she illustrates with reference to avant-garde authors such as Joyce and Artaud. Indeed, while postulating a distinction between man's and woman's writing, she asserts that, to the extent that it is not a natural construct, the term 'woman' itself can not be defined: 'La femme ce n'est jamais ça' ('Woman is never what one supposes'). Criteria are therefore to be sought in the social rather than the individual context. Following this line, Kristeva argues that women, because of their social roles, tend to be more mindful of ethics and to create a 'maternal' climate of calm and tenderness, so that, when a woman novelist writes, she either reproduces a real family or, at least, creates a similar imaginary one.

This is rather less easy to identify, but, for all that, there is no evidence that Patricia Highsmith's own affective or moral values play a part in her novels. She does not write in the way, for instance, that Claudine Herrmann suggests: 'As soon as a woman speaks up, it is usually to reclaim the right to the present moment, to affirm the refusal of a life alienated in social time which is so hostile to interior time.' Little of what appears in the novels relates exclusively to the present, the general tendency being to anticipate future events. This is even more apparent in the short stories, where the first words prefigure the tragedies to come. The opening sentence of 'The Birds Poised to Fly'—'Every morning, Don looked into his mailbox, but there was never a letter for him'—takes the reader to the very centre of the drama, the awaited letter that his girlfriend Rosalind does not write. His frustration tempts him to look into the mailbox next to his own, where a fickle boy friend has left uncollected a love letter from another girl.

Similarly, the words 'Stanley Hubbell painted on Sundays', which open 'The Barbarians', identify the relaxing occupation so dreadfully spoilt by the raucous exclamations and shouts of the ball-players under Hubbell's window. He drops a stone from his window onto a player's head, nearly killing him.

By such means, time is made into a continuum. This contradicts also Virginia Woolf's contention that feminine writing explodes time into a series of 'moments', each complete in itself, in an effort to distance the text from the masculine tenets of logic and of strict temporal and causal perspective.

Undoubtedly Virginia Woolf insisted on using that disjointed form herself—in Mrs Dalloway for instance, where only one ordinary day in the life of a married woman is depicted. This proved a fitting demonstration of her belief that 'how one writes is more important than what one writes', but the fact remains that many women writers, past and present, have chosen to work within a logical context.

This, at least to some extent, is probably what led to a reappraisal of the question and prompted some radical feminists to wonder whether it made sense, intellectually as well as politically, for women to attempt to write in a 'new' language which, in order to be their own, would reject logic. Such a 'discourse that surpasses the regulated phallocentric system', as Hélène Cixous defines it, may distinguish a feminine text from a masculine one, but at the same time it may prove self-destructive.

It may be more fruitful to accept, as John Stuart Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft and more recently Simone de Beauvoir have maintained that women, like men, are part of the human race and therefore that their writing—meaning the terms they use, their style or the structure of their discourse—is not gender-oriented. The way would then be open to consider Patricia Highsmith's work as part of a feminine corpus of production, and to see whether a psychoanalytical investigation of her plot and character presentation yields elements which can be related to another aspect of feminine writing: that which consists in liberating and expressing the unconscious, as specifically shaped by a woman's perception of it.

A brief survey of Patricia Highsmith's novels shows that the great majority of her central characters—often psychopathic killers—are male. As statistics demonstrate mat most violent criminals are men, here selection can legitimately be seen as representative rather than sexually biased, although, to be fair, some of her killers, such as the snails which appear in two of her stories, can hardly be fitted into statistical realism.

In the novels dealing with male criminals, the distinctive function of women can, however, be observed either in gender-oriented social relations or in the woman's distinctive nature. The feminist standpoint, which here can be termed as 'feminine epistemology', goes beyond the appearance of women's function—love, motherhood, care of the home and of the outside world—in order to explore the systemic relations of a sex-gender universe. The Marxist view of gender-related functions sees these as derived from forms of labour, with men, traditionally, dominant in the fields of science and technology, and endowed with cognitive and objective rationality, while women are closer to nature and more subjective and emotional, so that for them labour and love become inextricably mixed.

Women's traditional work primarily involves the bearing and bringing-up of children, and in that connection it can be noted that in Patricia Highsmith's novels children often appear as part of the family unit. The 'care' they receive from their mothers varies greatly, although it never appears as loving and tender. It seems to range from bland duty or indifference to sheer brutality.

In The Glass Cell, there is no doubt that the little boy Timmie is reasonably well looked after by his mother, but, for instance, despite the boy's obvious distress at having a father in prison (Carter has been imprisoned for embezzlement, although he is in fact innocent), she writes calmly to her husband that 'Timmie is bearing up pretty well. I lecture him daily, though I try not to make it sound like a lecture. The kids are picking on him at school of course….' When Carter has been released, she does not bother to come home from work on her birthday, but goes straight on to a party, despite the fact that Timmie is waiting expectantly to give her his present: 'Timmie had bought a white slip with brown embroidery … quite an expensive item.' By contrast, he is shown real affection by his father, who makes various gifts for him while he is in prison, including 'a good sized chest of oak with [his] initials carved in its lid'.

When the boy accidentally cuts his hand, it is again his father who shows concern, while, on another occasion, he is shown companionably washing the dishes with Timmie drying and putting them away. Obviously, when we compare Carter's attitude towards the boy to that of his wife, who is secretly conducting her longstanding love affair, we have to conclude that Patricia Highsmith depicts the behaviour of the couple towards their child in a non-stereotyped way.

It could be argued, of course, that Carter's caring attitude is meant to stress how fundamentally honest and decent he is, since his arrest has been due to a false testimony. However, if we consider another novel, Deep Water, we find a similar contrast between mother and father. The mother, Melinda Van Allen, is indifferent to her daughter Beatrice, known as Trixie: 'She had not wanted to have a child, then she had, then she hadn't, and finally, after four years, she had wanted one again, and finally produced one.' It is left to her father to care for her: 'Just then Trixie's pyjama clad form appeared in the doorway. "Mommie!" Trixie screamed, but Mommie neither heard nor saw her. Vic got up and went to her. "S'matter, Trix?" he asked, stooping by her. "I can't sleep.'" The tragedy here is, of course, that the father is a psychopath, and that the story as it develops takes him from the faintest stirring of an unbalanced mind to the full-blown horrors of successive murders, culminating in the strangling of his wife.

Through all this, Trixie is ignored by her mother, but an object of concern for her father. He is sorry for what will happen to her, and at the very end, when he walks out of the house with the police officer who has just arrested him, his befuddled mind conjures a vision of the child: 'He saw Trixie romping up the lawn and stopping in surprise as she saw him with the policeman, but frowning at the lawn, Vic could see that she wasn't really there. The sun was shining and Trixie was alive somewhere.'

We should certainly search in vain for an expression of 'woman's writing' in this novel, if we mean by that writing expressive, even if only subconsciously, of women's feelings of love and tenderness, of role-playing. What is more, in 'The Terrapin' there is a little boy, Victor, whose mother is even more devoid of understanding and affection. She never pays attention to anything he may have to say, never even listens to him, and, despite the fact that she is a professional illustrator of children's books, she has no understanding of his longing to look 'grown up', to wear long trousers and sturdy manly shoes. All she can say, in her stiff foreign accent, is 'Veector, you are seeck. And retarded. You know that?' She makes fun of him, slaps him, and when, one day, she brings a terrapin to cook for the 'ragoût', the boy's show of affection for the poor animal only seems 'seeck' to her and she refuses even to let him take it downstairs to show to his friend. When she cuts up the creature to cook it, his latent hatred for her crystallises:

He thought of the terrapin, in little pieces now, all mixed up in the sauce of cream and egg yolks and sherry in the pot in the refrigerator. His mother's cry was not silent [like the terrapin's had been], it seemed to tear his ears off. His second blow was in her body, and then he stabbed her throat again. Only tiredness made him stop.

Giving up the search for maternal care, we might look instead for qualifiers of sexual difference, taking as our point of departure the traditional association of female sexuality with passivity, the opposite of masculine thrusting aggressiveness. Freud, in The Disappearance of the Oedipus Complex (1933), equates 'feminine' with vagina and 'virile' with penis, concluding that 'anatomy is destiny'. Feminist theorists usually contradict him by insisting upon a valorisation of individuality, perhaps through refusing marriage: Simone de Beauvoir, for example, remarked that she could have married Sartre, but would thereby have ceased to be herself. Other feminists have sought to assert control of their lives by selecting a variety of lovers and partners, or by aggressively preserving their virginity, or by becoming part of a familial community, as Germaine Greer suggested, or an all-female group, like the women of Greenham Common—in other words, as Dale Spender expressed it, by altering the pattern of relations with men, making the woman an autonomous subject revelling in her regained freedom from sexual bondage; 'Men is an issue over which feminists agonise.'

In Patricia Highsmith's novels, relationship patterns involving women mostly involve married women who indulge in extramarital affairs. One such woman is Hazel in The Glass Cell, who, however, writes to her imprisoned husband every day, being supporting, cheering him up through his various unsuccessful appeals and eventually welcoming him home: 'Hazel kissed him on the cheeks, then on the lips. She was crying. She was also laughing. Carter blinked awkwardly at the lights that seemed so bright, at the dazzling colour everywhere.' She retains this fondness to the end, even to the extent of forgiving him for having killed her lover.

Her lover is the lawyer, Sullivan, who seems to hover in the background from the start, offering assistance and organising holiday outings; but, when asked by her husband, she repeatedly denies that they have an adulterous relationship: "'I hear you are seeing Sullivan a lot," he said, and saw in her face that he had hurt her. "I see him as often as I tell you I see him…."' She goes on denying it until caught, when she has recourse to the old traditional formula: 'You don't understand women.' Whether this affair was deliberately initiated by her, or whether she drifted into it because she enjoyed the lawyer's protective presence, felt attracted to him, or could not resist his advances is certainly never made clear; all she will say is 'it happened while you were in prison'.

Initially, one may feel that she was fond of her lover, since she appears 'ravaged with grief' when she hears that he has been killed; she wants his murderer found and punished, and yet, when she realises that her husband is the killer, she only tells him, 'Everything is going to be all right!' The level of natural determinism in her attitude must be seen as rather limited.

Melinda, in High Water, is unfaithful on a grander scale and makes clear her evident desire to attract men. She smiles 'a gay catch-me-if-you-can smile' over her shoulder whenever someone she fancies comes near, and, as a result, jealousy will be the motive for a whole series of murders, although the first lover is disposed of simply by a threat. Melinda does not miss him, as she is already having an affair with a not-too-bright instructor at a riding-academy, who is succeeded by a very young record salesman, and others. So, on the surface, there seems to be evidence of feminist self-assertion, in the form of a determination to live to the full. Life for Melinda is 'the pursuit of a good time'.

Her husband's jealously would then present a dreadful, murderous but totally logical reaction. This is, however, not the case, and again the opacity of the character's mind makes a definite judgement impossible. Melinda's husband is unbalanced from the outset, as his passion for bedbugs and snails shows; his soft even voice and his fixed smile ought to give him away, and so should some of his odd statements, such as 'I have an evil side too, but I keep it well hidden', which cause further distortion to the portrait.

There remains, however, the possible argument that, by destroying the masculine image and altering the powerful emotion of jealousy to make it into the pathetic blubberings of a monster, another form of feminist writing is realised, akin to that suggested by a radical French feminist, Annie Leclerc: 'One must not wage war on man. That is his way of attaining value…. One must simply deflate his values with the needle of ridicule.' This might also account for the presentation of other male 'heroes' in what seems the same 'destructional' perspective, where apparent logic turns to aberration. Could it be that Patricia Highsmith, as an Observer critic once suggested, 'writes about men like a spider writing about flies'?

This is a tempting approach; indeed Peter Knoppert, in the story 'The Snail-Watcher', shares Vic Van Allen's sick fascination for snails. He watches and breeds them until they fill the living-room, cover the walls and eventually suffocate him: 'There were snails crawling over his eyes. Then just as he staggered to his feet, something else hit him…. He was fainting. His arms felt like leaden weights as he tried to reach his nostrils, his eyes, to free them from the sealing, murderous snail bodies.' Snails in fact appear again as deadly animals, this time in giant form, in the story titled 'The Quest for Blank Claveringi', where they deliberately set out to kill the distinguished, but far too arrogant, professor of zoology.

What makes it difficult, nevertheless, to see such effects as a 'destructional' feminist expression is the presence in the novels of female criminals, some of them just as subject to psychopathic disorders as Highsmith's males. Perhaps the most haunting example is that pretty young woman Lucille Smith in 'The Heroine', so determined to make good and to lead a happy life, to forget her own mad, wild-eyed mother. Having secured an ideal job as a nursemaid in a beautiful and happy household with two lovely children, she none the less eventually turns pyromaniac and sets fire to the house.

There is also, in 'When the Fleet Was in in Mobile', which Graham Greene called his favourite story, the haunting portrait of Geraldine, who reveals in the disconnected form of an interior monologue what seems to be the cruel and obsessive character of her husband, so that her action in killing him seems fully justified. Slowly, however, her own underlying irrationality emerges, together with the echoes of some past nymphomania which drove her to meet the sailors 'when the fleet was in'. In the end, as Graham Greene so pithily put it, 'what seemed at first a simple little case of murder' becomes an unbearably claustrophobic experience.

The fascination of Patricia Highsmith's characters lies precisely in the way their twilight world is painted, in small impressionistic touches. They see themselves as normal and may appear so to casual onlookers, yet, when details of their speech or behaviour are sifted carefully, the flaws in their make-up come to light, and one can foresee the horrors to come.

Similarly, in Those Who Walk Away, what begins as the natural grief of a father whose daughter had committed suicide, and his unjustified but understandable anger against his son-in-law, develops progressively into an obsessive stalking of the tragic young husband through the narrow passages and the piazzas of Venice:

Ray [the young man] had started suddenly, but he had slopped walking. In the shadows ahead emerging from a triangular shadow that clung to a small church like a dark pyramid, he saw Coleman [his father-in-law] looking over both shoulders, obviously looking for something, someone.

'What is it?' Antonio asked.

'Nothing. I thought I saw someone.'

'Who?'

Coleman was still in sight. Then in another second he wasn't. He had vanished in the slit on an alley on the left of the church square.

And it may well be that it is at that level, when the extraordinary accuracy of Highsmith's observation is realised, and when her gift for psychoanalysis is recognised, that one can legitimately re-examine the possibility of a feminine form of writing. It has been said that it is an oppression to force women to adhere to 'the stereotype of a passive powerless and sexually masochistic femininity', yet, as Deborah Cameron states,

It seems to offer us through its account of the construction of the self in family relations and the unconscious mind, an understanding of how subordination can be internalised deep in our personalities. Moreover it is centrally concerned with the forging of sexual identity and with the extreme importance of the sexual in all aspects of mental life.

In that light, the stories of Geraldine and of Ray's father-in-law, for instance, have all the concepts posited first by Freud and renewed by Lacan in a purely masculine context, and eventually enlarged and 'feminised' by women such as Hélène Cixous, a lecturer in psychology, in The Laugh of the Medusa, and Luce Irigaray, initially a member of the Lacanian school. Irigaray, realising how Lacan's theories were limited by their exclusion of women, attempted a reappraisal of women's relation to their unconscious, which she sees as radically different from men's—a belief which leads her to wonder whether women are not in fact the unconscious which their writing reveals.

It is certainly true that in Patricia Highsmith's novels the unconscious is reconstructed through language, to the extent that Coleman, for example, in Those Who Walk Away, 'recognises' his dead daughter's scarf in the different, newly bought scarf that he pulls out of his hated son-in-law's pocket, and that Geraldine, in 'When the Fleet Was in in Mobile', can 'hear' the words spoken by her father when she was a child, by her friend Marianne when she was young, or, more recently, by her now supposedly dead husband, just as clearly as she hears the woman speaking to her on the bus, or the man that she meets during the ride on the merry-go-round.

Past and present are fused in her mind in such a way that submerged memories partly resurface and she 'recognises' an old boyfriend, far more real to her, in the unknown state policeman who comes to take her back. At the end, her madness taking over, she screams while holding her fists in front of her eyes to blot out reality: 'Then his face [the policeman's] and the lights and the park went out, though she knew as well as she knew she still screamed that her eyes were open under her hands.'

It would seem fair to accept that the wealth of details given to express in terms of language a range of emotions which escape the mould of logical reality, and the empathy which emerges from Patricia Highsmith's pages for the characters who, despite their desire or their illusion, cannot come to terms with others or cope with the outside world, bring her work within the scope of feminine writing—not at the superficial level that some feminist propagandists have surmised, but in the deeper realm of psychoanalysis where the act of writing is an exploration of the unconscious and where women have excelled from time immemorial, in a way which makes them enthralling tellers of tales.

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