The Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith Themes

The Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith Themes


The engine that drives the narratives of the bulk of Highsmith’s short stories is what many academics and critics have termed the interpenetration of her characters. Or, more simply, the way complete strangers routinely seem to collide into each other in a way that inevitably changes everything for at least one of them. Consequently, one of the themes that shows up most often in Highsmith’s work is how the lives of strangers suddenly become entangled beyond their control and often impact others as well. A consequence for many characters is directly expressed in the thoughts of the protagonist of “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” who muses upon his mother’s sad realization that she was no longer the star of her own story being played out before an audience, but merely a supporting player in a tragedy.

The Psychological Consequences of Crime

Most crime fiction is narrative-driven; pretty much everything else is secondary to the plot. Highsmith’s crime fiction is remarkable for being far less concerned with who done it or the how they get caught than it is with the psychological state of mind of a killer beyond the singular incidence of murder. Her single-minded obsession to place theme above plot is what really separates Highsmith from almost all her worthy peers in the craft of murder fiction. Unlike most authors, her interest in the killer does not climax with the murder. For Highsmith, the crime itself is usually just a means to an end. That end is the attempt to understand the mind of not just someone capable of murder, but capable of living with being a murderer.

The Fragile Nature of Self-Identity

The bulk of Highsmith’s fiction is concerned not with matters of justice or law and order, but rather with the psychological behavior of those who have come to discover that not only are they capable of committing acts would guarantee them a role as the “bad guy” in the story of their life, but that they pushed beyond those seemingly impenetrable barriers of guilt, fear and decency to actually go through with it. What makes Highsmith’s impressive volume of short stories especially impressive is this essential theme applies not just to straight-up murder stories, but nearly every work of short fiction she wrote. The underlying thematic foundation that links such diverse content together is the delicate nature of one’s self-identity. Almost every story in her body of work features a character who is introduced to a situation which forces them into an action that defies their sense of identity they carried into that particular conflict. After all, what could provide a greater stress upon one’s self-image than being forced to admit they are actually a good deal more than simply being capable of murder?

The Perversion of Good Intentions

Many of the complications that Highsmith’s character experience—including her murderers—are not necessarily the result of evil intentions. In fact, the profoundly morally ambiguous universe inhabited by these characters is one where very often bad things happen to people who acted upon the best intentions while those driven by their darkest impulses often fully reap the benefits of those consequences. The snail watcher can hardly be termed a malevolent soul deserving of his truly grotesque fate whereas this theme is utterly inapplicable to the budding serial killer inspired by the house of horror waxworks since good intentions never enter into play in his story.

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