The Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith Character List
These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community.
We are thankful for their contributions and encourage you to make your own.
Written by Timothy Sexton
Clive Wilkes is the serial killer in the story “Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie” who haunts the house of horrors exhibit at the local wax museum. Inspired by the fame—or infamy to the normal mind—of killers endowed with a hint of immortality through starring in tableau, Clive aspires to mayhem primarily for the purpose of attaining celebrity.
Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman
She’s hairy, is missing one prominent tooth, and simple-minded. Despite all this, she exudes a certain definite sex appeal that likely goes a long way toward explaining why she’s seemingly always pregnant. Ultimately, this cave woman falls victim to murder like so many other Highsmith characters, but the circumstances of death are truly unique. She is murdered by the “wife” of the very first cave man to ever fall in love.
In a volume dedicated to making animals the stars of the psychological examination of the effects and consequences of committing murder, the story of “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance” kicks off the menagerie. Chorus Girl is an elephant in a rundown zoo who recently lost her loving caretaker after thirty years. The story of her revenge upon his cruel and unworthy successor is just the first of many similar tales of the animal world getting even with the humans that exploit and terrorize them.
A story not unlike that which takes places in Melville’s masterpiece, but obviously not of that time. Told in the third person from the whale’s point of view, the enormous mammal not only must outwit and out-swim sailing ships with harpooners, but ships powered by engines as well. The confrontation between whale and those seeing to kill him actually fits in surprisingly well amongst the author’s tale of human strangers colliding into each other.
While wandering aimlessly through Mexico, Andrew Spatz hears “A Shot from Nowhere” and instantly becomes a prime representative of that most existential prevalent character in the short stories of Highsmith: the man whose collision with strangers (and these examples are truly strange) results in the mundane security of his go-nowhere life suddenly being transformed into a living nightmare. Even more to the point, the story ends on exactly the kind of note of unresolved ambiguity which pepper the stories of other men like Andrew.
Porter is another of Highsmith’s weak, somewhat ineffectual male protagonists. His collision with strangers involves the title structure in the story “The Black House” and his almost inexorable fate becomes an abject lesson in the danger of treading upon long-held, cherished local mythologies. What he finds inside the creepy abandoned house hardly matches up with the much more exciting and celebrated legends that are casually passed around inside the one bar in the world he should not have tried to exhibit his superior education.
Diane is one of the most fascinating figures in Highsmith’s fictional universe and not just because she stands out for not being involved in a murder plot. Diane is the woman who comes upon a damaged wicker basket while walking on the beach, discovers an innate latent talent for repairing wicker. She is fascinating because this talent also leads to her discovery of “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving.”
The title character of "A Girl Like Phyl" is a particularly interesting case. The story is driven by her memory and takes a typical Highsmith left turn as a result of her reality in the present which conflicts so sharply with that memory. Phyl is as vital to the story as the man and woman who are in reality the two main characters, yet she is physically absent for most of it and the reader never actually gets to meet this girl named Phyl. When she finally does show up, she is still presented entirely through the subjective lens of the protagonist.
Update this section!
You can help us out by revising, improving and updating