This Woman Is Dangerous

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Association Rondeau
Patricia Highsmith at her house in Aurigeno, Switzerland, April 1984; photograph by Gérard Rondeau from his ‘One Hundred Portraits of Famous Authors and Artists,’ a recent exhibition at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York City

The essential American soul,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in a celebrated description, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Of course, he was talking about Natty Bumppo and similar rough-and-tumble frontier spirits. By contrast, the amoral Tom Ripley—novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character—is easygoing, devoted to his wife and friends, epicurean, and a killer only by necessity. By my count, necessity leads this polite aesthete to bludgeon or strangle eight people and watch with satisfaction while two others drown. He also sets in motion the successful suicides of three friends he actually, in his way, cares about. Yet aside from an occasional twinge about his first murder, Ripley feels no long-term guilt over these deaths. (Tellingly, he can never quite remember the actual number of his victims.) He was simply protecting himself, his friends and business partners, his home. Any man would, or at least might, do the same.

Tom, as his indulgent creator tends to call him, first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). This was Highsmith’s fourth published book, preceded by three highly original novels. In Strangers on a Train (1950)—later filmed (and softened) by Alfred Hitchcock—two men, hitherto unknown to each other, “exchange” murders, Bruno agreeing to kill Guy’s estranged wife in return for Guy doing away with Bruno’s hated father. Each will consequently possess a perfect alibi. In The Price of Salt (1953, published under the name Claire Morgan) the nineteen-year-old Therese falls in love with the married Carol—and perhaps for the first time a novel about lesbians ends happily. In paperback this story of “a love that society forbids” sold over a million copies. In The Blunderer (1954) Highsmith fully established what would become her trademark theme: the blurring of fantasy and reality, usually reinforced by some sort of folie à deux, in which two very different people, almost always men, grow symbiotically obsessed with each other, ultimately to the point of madness and mutual destruction. In this case, a successful murderer is undone because a blundering fool hopes to emulate him.

By the time Highsmith (1921–1995) came to write The Talented Mr. Ripley, she was just entering her thirties. Born in Texas to an overbearing mother whom she grew to loathe, Highsmith attended Barnard College during World War II, where she studied Latin and modern languages, edited the school newspaper, and read widely in American and European literature. From an early age, she drank hard, fell in and out of love with various women (and one or two men), and rather quickly came to understand her own severe and private nature. Far more than Tom Ripley, she fits that Lawrentian description of being hard, isolate, and stoic, especially in her later years, when …

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