Identity Theft: The Amoral Vision of Patricia Highsmith

By Targan, Eric | The Midwest Quarterly, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Identity Theft: The Amoral Vision of Patricia Highsmith


Targan, Eric, The Midwest Quarterly


IF YOU WERE to ask most literary critics about Patricia Highsmith, it is likely that some would not know who she was, and some would dismiss her as a "crime writer." A growing number would acknowledge what the writer of this paper believes and will try to prove: that she was a writer of major importance, and one who has at times been underrated by some in the literary community. As stated by Karl Stenger in his article "Patricia Highsmith," "Highsmith was labeled a suspense writer at the outset of her career, and ... this label prevented serious consideration of her books" (145). In his article "Some Torture That Perversely Eased: Patricia Highsmith and the Everyday Schizophrenia of American Life," David Cochran notes that "after Strangers on a Train, she found herself labeled a suspense writer" (116). In his article "Sentimental Perversion: The Canonized Nonconformists of the Fifties," Leonard Cassuto observes that "Patricia Highsmith was known in her time as a talented genre writer, a ... crime novelist" (134). One aim of this study is to examine some previously undiscovered territory: to contend that Highsmith was unique to the extent that she was a Modernist mystery writer. A close reading of her work, and the psychological approach to her life and work which I have taken, will bear this out. To define Modernism, we might look to Daniel Joseph Singals article "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," in which he notes: "The [modernist] universe is characterized by incessant flux, and human beings unable to know its workings with anything approaching certainty.... The only lasting closure ... comes with death" (15).

In another critical article on Modernism, "Hyper in 20th Century Culture: The Dialectics of Modernism," Mikhail Epstein explains that a Modernist work is often a "quest for and reconstruction of an authentic, higher essential reality, to be found beyond ... conventional systems of culture" (69). This quest is part of the Modernist, existential angst resulting from attempts to make sense of the modern world. Existentialism bears many similarities to Modernism, and to some the two are interchangeable. In his book Existentialism, Robert C. Solomon refers to this philosophy as "a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world" (1-2).

I will be examining what sets Highsmith apart from so many in the so-called "noir" or crime genre. In most mysteries, the primary focus is on who did it. In Highsmith's best-known works (Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley) there is no question as to who did it. The question is why they did it, which brings in a more existential viewpoint.

The Shattering of Identity and Stability/Existential Emptiness

Highsmith was a very prolific writer, but this study will focus on two books from the five-part Ripley series, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and Ripley's Game (1974), the first and third books in the series, with short mention of one of the other books. The Talented Mr. Ripley is most likely Highsmiths greatest work, and it was the 1999 Anthony Minghella film version which reignited posthumous interest in Highsmith s writing (she died in 1995) in this country after a long hiatus. In the first book, Highsmith introduces the reader to her most famous creation, Tom Ripley. Ripley, a lonely loser and fledgeling criminal, is "hired" by Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy New York businessman, to travel to Italy and bring back his son, Dickie, who has strayed from the fold, living a bohemian life. Mr. Greenleaf wants Dickie to take over the family business, which Dickie has no interest in doing. Tom travels to Italy, where he finds and becomes infatuated with Dickie, and with Dickie's lifestyle. He dreams of somehow forming a life with Dickie (although Highsmith was gay, Toms bisexuality was only implied), but his dream is shattered by Dickies romance with Marge, a fellow expatriate. Tom murders Dickie and temporarily steals his identity, and ultimately steals his fortune. …

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