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Patricia Highsmith: Ordinary Morality

“Mr. Greenleaf was such a decent fellow himself, he took it for granted that everybody else in the world was decent, too. Tom had almost forgotten such people existed.” (The Talented Mr. Ripley)

In his 1956 lecture called “A Plea for Excuses” J. L. Austin wrote:

The natural economy of language dictates that for the standard case covered by any normal verb – not, perhaps, a verb of omen such as ‘murder’, but a verb like ‘eat’ or ‘kick’ or ‘croquet’ – no modifying expression is required or even permissible. Only if we do the action named in some special way or circumstances, different from this in which such an action is normally done … is a modifying expression called for, or even in order. I sit in my chair, in the usual way – I am not in a daze or influenced by threats or the like: here it will not do to say either that I sat in it intentionally or that I did not sit in it intentionally, not yet that I sat in it automatically or from habit or what you will. It is bedtime, I am alone, I yawn: but I do not yawn involuntarily (or voluntarily!), nor yet deliberately. To yawn in any such peculiar way is just not to just yawn.[i]

To say that in the standard case a common verb referring to normal action does not permit any modifying expression (e.g., via adverbs like “voluntary”, “deliberately”, etc.) suggests some peculiarities of ordinary actions. In particular it suggests that normal actions are not – absent some particular reason which would provide the occasion for questioning the propriety of the action done in this way, just here – subject to moral assessment, and this is what characterizes the normalcy of the normal action. Qualifying expressions – adverbs like “intentionally,” “unintentionally,” “voluntarily,” “involuntarily,” “deliberately,” “accidently,” “thoughtlessly,” “negligently,” and so on – are used when the propriety of the action is for some reason in question, and to allocate personal responsibility for its consequences; if such qualifiers are not applicable to normal actions, then how can it be said that we are personally responsible for the unacknowledged, unremarkable actions that constitute the overwhelming portion of our ordinary lives? The normalcy of our normal behavior seems to depend on nothing more and nothing less than the inappropriateness of its being brought into question, and this inappropriateness is grounded not in any essential distinguishing feature of our behavior but in an apparent naturalness that, when seen from the outside (e.g., a foreigner, an alien or perhaps the hero of Shakespearean tragedy or comedy), can appear as the most fragile of social conventions or a mere prejudice.

One might take a step further and ponder whether the ordinariness of our ordinary world is even representable as such. Given that words written or spoken are meaningless unless the writing or speaking of them has a point or purpose on some particular occasion in order to direct someone’s attention to something in particular, such that the uttering of words counts as saying something and meaning it (e.g., asserting, questioning, commenting, describing, remarking, challenging, etc.) – is it even possible to speak meaningfully about what is utterly and essentially unremarkable? Can something strike us as perfectly ordinary?[ii] Perhaps what we think of as “the normal case” is only discernable indirectly by drawing attention to what deviates in some way, however marginally, from the normal and in that way brings the ordinariness of the ordinary into visibility. Such possibilities suggest what are less psychological than logical limitations of the human mind.

Slipping and Sliding

To my knowledge, no American fiction writer has more carefully explored the moral instability of ordinariness than Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995). Highsmith’s novels and stories pose the question: How are we to reach a viewpoint from which we might scrutinize and assess the moral significance of our own lives in their very ordinariness? The absence of such a transcendental perspective is shown in the ease and unobtrusiveness – call it casualness – with which Highsmith’s characters slip from the human to the monstrous and back again, all but seamlessly. This phenomenon of slippage is meant to put the reader in a position from which we are able to perceive the ordinariness of our own lives by noticing that the line separating what we accept as normal from what from what we reject as outrageous is never really secure. If as it turns out we accept unacknowledged brutalities and emotional blackmail as part of the warp and weave of our everyday lives, it is no less true that there is no compelling reason why things must be so. What is sometimes perceived by commenters as the “amoral” nature of Highsmith’s fiction is in fact her admirable refusal of moralism in dealing with the most fundamental moral issue: What is my own life really like? But even more striking than the failure of most commenters to notice the significance of what I have called moral “slippage” is their failure to draw attention to the specifically American nature of Highsmith’s achievement, a failure that is perhaps explained by the fact that she chose to live abroad for most of her life. I believe that Highsmith’s novels have something important to tell us about the ways in which and the lengths to which we Americans will go to avoid any honest assessment of our own very ordinary lives, an assessment based not on  what we say about ourselves and others but on what we actually do and say.

Slippage in Highsmith’s novels tends to occur in two principal divergent directions, which often overlap. First, there are those characters who take on personal responsibility for another character’s murderous act, and are ultimately driven to murder themselves, as if a radical sense of shame inevitably produces the criminal act as a kind of self-fulfillment. Examples include Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train (1950), Walter Stackhouse in The Blunderer (1954), and Sidney Bartleby in A Suspension of Mercy (1965). For these characters, the feeling of shame is primary, and the crime is enacted for the sake of the shame, to make sense of it, where making sense of it means committing an act of which one is guilty – as if the primary shame is associated not with the commission of any particular sin or crime, but with merely existing, with having one life (my own) rather than another. Unable to declare and enact his own life, the character parasitically adopts another’s culpability as his own and slips into crime in order to make justify the overwhelming feeling of shame.

The second direction comprises cases in which the commission of murder seems not to involve feelings of guilt at all. Tom Ripley, the main character in Highsmith’s Ripley novels beginning with The Talented Mr. Ripley (1954) establishes the paradigm for this type of character, but other examples include Vic Van Allen in Deep Water (1957), David Kelsey in This Sweet Sickness (1960), Robert Forester in The Cry of the Owl (1964) and Howard Ingham in A Tremor of Forgery (1969). Each of these characters is a killer, but a reluctant killer lacking all of the usual motivations associated with “bad guys” in conventional crime fiction. In each case, the character’s passage from more or less normal middle class twenty-something American male into violent criminality is what might be described as an incremental and all but imperceptible passage, the act of killing being less the fruit of cold-blooded murderous calculation than unavoidable result of an increasingly unmanageable accumulation of circumstances, events and miscalculations and poor decisions.

Privacy and Secrets

The “hero” in these stories begins as an ordinary man (none of Highsmith’s main characters is female) with an ordinary life. He may be a little weird – Ripley impersonating an IRS agent forging tax collection letters addressed to taxpayers more for fun than for gain, Vic raising snails in his garage as a refuge from his failing marriage to an immature and promiscuous woman, Kelsey convinced that his indifferent ex-lover is still infatuated with him although she has clearly moved on, Forester prone to peeping into the window of an unknown woman at night, Ingham on a writing assignment in Tunisia, strangely passive, indifferent and ready to walk away from his life in New York and his girlfriend for reasons unknown even to himself – but not so weird that the reader’s ability to empathize with the character is lost, and certainly not the type of person who murders in cold blood. They are all bored – bored with the empty conformism of their own mid-20th century American lives, and their boredom perhaps expresses Highsmith’s own boredom with the conventions and stock characters of American crime fiction as she found it at mid-century.

The boring uneventful nature of her characters’ lives is enhanced by the peculiar flatness of Highsmith’s prose; rarely do we encounter florid metaphors, analogies or other “literary” devices in her descriptions of daily life that read more like journalistic reports than poetic expression. The author’s wit is sharper for being only occasionally unleashed, and her humor is subtle and dark. The characters go to work in offices or factories or department stores; chat with coworkers and neighbors about the weather or the latest gossip; get dressed and prepare lunch or dinner; attend boring cocktail parties at which a minor scandal may or may not erupt; walk the streets, gaze into store window displays, drive around, and go home to sleep. The characters who populate Highsmith’s fiction are in the grip of emotional pangs that are more or less and often only slightly exaggerated extensions of the emotional dramatics that are utterly common and mundane in modern civilized society – the twinge of resentment we feel for someone whose easy life seems to have been given rather than earned (Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley), the hint of contempt we can’t help but feel for someone seen as lazy and slothful or vulgar (Melinda’s suitors in Deep Water), the compulsion to view another from a position unseen (Forester in The Cry of the Owl), the frustration that gnaws when we allow feelings to remain unexpressed, when we cannot make ourselves understood, the social slights that escalate into cruel confrontation, the flights of daydream on the wings of regret, and so on. The very commonness of such every day brutalities  in turn expresses the extent to which our ordinary lives are filled with illusion, trance, confusion, self-defeat and spiritual violence – each of these being currency in the metaphysical economy of the ordinary, currency which we use to barter away our commonality for emptiness.

The empty conventionality of these characters’ ordinary lives deprives them of any sense of individuality. They seem unable to distinguish their own lives from those of others around them. The void is filled in each case by the unconventional and highly destructive enactment of a private fantasy, such that the character’s sense of self is restored only by his interpretation of personal privacy as the harboring of secrets, something that he alone knows. And when the secrets come to light, the man is cast out of society, as if his quest for personal salvation requires his public damnation – that he transform himself into a pariah, a monster, because the true or authentic self is found only in the loss of what society defines as sanity.  If personal privacy exists only as the harboring of secrets, which, when publically revealed shame and destroy the individual, it follows that neither individuals nor communities exist in our world except as illusions.

Example: This Sweet Sickness

In This Sweet Sickness (1961), the narrative begins after scientist David Kelsey has had his heart broken by his former fiancée Annabelle, who has married a man named Gerald and lives a quiet life in Hartford, Connecticut. Unable to let her go, David lives a double life in nearby New York, living in a boarding house and working at a factory in New York during the work week, while on weekends he assumes the made-up identity of “William Neumeister” and travels to an isolated and well-appointed country home about one hour’s drive distant, where he cooks fine dinners for two (himself and Annabelle), listens to classical music and samples fine wine, fanaticizing that Annabelle is at his side. David Kelsey is frustrated, bored and conventional; “Neumeister”, being a fantasy, always gets what he wants.

One weekend two of his acquaintances including Effie Brennan secretly follow him and, unbeknownst to Kelsey, watch him enter the house without realizing that it is his own. Effie is in love with Kelsey but Kelsey has no interest in her – as if the fact that she is in love with him implies that she is not worth his time. When Kelsey delivers a letter urging Annabelle to leave Delaney, Delaney reads and becomes enraged. He travels to the boarding house (packing a borrowed pistol) to confront Kelsey, and is given directions by Effie to Kelsey’s secret house; when Delaney arrives there, Kelsey is appalled that Delaney has tracked him down, and confronts Delaney. A fight breaks out, in the course of which Delaney is knocked down and falls on the steps of Kelsey’s house, fatally breaking his neck.

Is Kelsey crazy? Certainly by the end he’s insane, but Highsmith takes great care to describe his descent into madness in incremental shadings so that it is impossible to pinpoint exactly the moment at which he passes from merely eccentric into deranged. Who has not had the experience of being convinced, at moments at least beyond any doubt and all evidence, that a former love-interest still belongs to one’s own heart alone such that only the passage of time allows one to acknowledge the blatantly obvious fact that the former lover is now actually with someone else? Of course it’s absurd, but the pretense that in affairs of the heart I somehow know – really know – another’s unexpressed feelings or thoughts better than that person him-or herself knows – this pretense expresses a deeply familiar commonplace experience.  And underlying this experience is an even more familiar assumption, touched on above in connection with what has happened to our concept of privacy in a world where anything and everything is potentially a tabloid headline: the assumption that one’s personal integrity consists in the harboring of secrets, so that knowing another means knowing what the other knows but cannot or will not publically express. Kelsey’s dreary day-to-day public existence at the factory and in the rooming house is for him unreal while his secret weekend life as Neumeister embodies his true self.[iii] Kelsey assumes that Annabelle lives a double life mirroring his own, one with her husband – false – and another in her heart with him – true then, now and always. He sets his task as that of delivering Annabelle’s inner truth from its illusory obfuscation in conventional marriage into his embrace – a wonderfully romantic quest but for the fact that “his” embrace is that of Neumeister, a fictional character who is incapable of loving the non-fictional Annabelle.

Following the killing of Delaney, Kelsey must re-establish at least the appearance of normalcy in order to cover up the crime. This entails the construction of a mind-boggling improvised edifice of lies, deceptions, betrayals and denials. Ultimately there are simply too many balls to juggle in the air and the entire construction collapses, producing another murder and Kelsey’s suicide at the end of the novel. The reader’s attention is drawn to the ordinariness of the ordinary by the extraordinariness of Kelsey’s efforts to preserve it, to defend his identity as a “regular guy.” This ordinariness amounts to certain ways of speaking, walking, sitting, eating, dressing, etc. – ways that, under pressure, can be adopted or cast off at a moment’s notice. What is revealed is the radical contingency of the mutual understandings and attunements that constitute the normal for human society generally and for mid-20th century American society in particular.

Morality and Normalcy

If the criteria of normalcy in This Sweet Sickness seem inherently unstable, so do the standards of moral culpability and criminality. The moral and legal status of Delaney’s killing is carefully poised on the point of a needle of ambiguity: Because Delaney had drawn his gun during the encounter (although it is in his pocket at the crucial moment), Kelsey’s punch/push can be seen as self-defense; on the other hand, to the extent the entire encounter is the predictable result of Kelsey’s relentless, obsessive, escalating and entirely unwelcome intrusion into the Delaneys’ marriage, the death can equally be viewed as the logical conclusion of Kelsey’s obsessive aggression – manslaughter if not murder. The moral ambiguity of the killing is characteristic of Highsmith’s work beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950) in which Guy Haines reluctantly succumbs to Bruno’s insidious campaign to pressure Guy into performing his end of the secret contract made on the train by killing Bruno’s father. In other works (Cry of the Owl), The Two Faces of January (1964), and The Tremor of Forgery) the lethal act is (as in This Sweet Sickness) more or less accidental – the “more or less” being crucial to the ambiguous nature of the act.

In the Ripley novels there is nothing accidental about the murders, but as in other works Tom Ripley’s motives are not those of a typical murderer. Ripley kills not because he hates his victims or loses control in the heat of passion but because circumstances have become so inconvenient that they demand elimination of the troublemaker. Ripley’s victims threaten his sense of the normalcy of the globe-trotting life he has constructed for himself in the first novel (The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)) by taking on Dickie Greenleaf’s identity. Tom must eliminate Dickie because there is no other way for him to go beyond merely imitating Dickie to literally taking over Dickie’s life; he is compelled to end Dickie Greenleaf’s life in order to make that life his own, so that in eliminating Dickie, Tom’s real motive is to eliminate boring and conventional “Tom Ripley” in order that he may be the fascinating jet-setter “Dickie Greenleaf”. Ripley’s subsequent murders are really killings of convenience, unpleasant tasks, like taking out the garbage, that are necessary in order to eliminate ever-mounting threats to the everyday routine which has come to constitute his new life as a wealthy and cultivated young gentleman ex patriot. In Ripley’s mind, honorable intentions and purposes are what matters. The killings are justified by the transcendent nature of his overall project, which is to overcome the shame of his dreary everyday existence; given that in our fallen world, our exercise of free will in the name of high ideals invariably crashes on the hard shoals of empirical fact, the facts – beginning with the most basic fact that I am I and you are you – must be rearranged so that the ideal may be realized. Like the violent obliteration of wedding parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan by missiles from silent barely visible drones circling high in the sky, Highsmith’s heroes kill always with the best of intentions for reasons that are entirely civilized if not above reproach from the perspective of the individual doing the killing. Highsmith is America’s poet of collateral damage. 

Two Dimensions of Convention

The normalcy of any action consists in its very ordinariness – the fact that this is what we do. Recall Austin’s remark about normal actions quoted at the outset of this essay. Standard verbs for normal actions do not allow for any qualifying expression (“voluntary” or “involuntary”, etc.) because the performance of a normal action (like yawning or brushing one’s teeth) does not provide the occasion for questioning its propriety, and therefore does not require or allow justification. However, the normalcy of an action is not a necessary but a contingent fact because we might well and often do (and say) something quite different and what is acceptable one day may become scandalous the next. Although human behavior is normative (which is why there is such a thing as “normal” behavior), the norms upon which human society rests are not in the nature of rules that can be known in advance; they can be and are repudiated, and nothing is more characteristic of human action than its going wrong, unleashing a chain of unintended effects in the world. Revealing the radical contingency of the normal is central to Highsmith’s authorial project, and there are two principal dimensions along which that contingency can be revealed.

First, a horizontal dimension. Highsmith’s central characters (like Highsmith herself) tend to be eccentrics for whom the conventions of middle class America seem artificial. Men like Tom Ripley, David Kelsey, Vic Van Allen (Deep Water) and Sidney Bartleby (A Suspension of Mercy) are all borderline snobs who regard the bourgeois customs of their fellow citizens as ugly, mean and vulgar. They see no reason to comply with norms of behavior that they view as little more than prejudices; this theme becomes explicit in The Tremor of Forgery, in which Ingham’s odd decision to remain in Tunisia seems grounded in his attraction to cultural norms that are foreign to his own as an American, such as the Arabs’ acceptance of homosexuality, their lack of hypocrisy regarding the (non) value of individual human lives, and their resigned attitude toward fate[iv]. The conventions of any social organization can be exposed as contingent along the horizontal dimension because other societies adopt different conventions. But rebellion against prejudice is only half the story, and Highsmith’s characters are much closer to Poe’s Imp of the Perverse than they are to Emerson’s heroes of self-reliance.          

If the horizontal dimension of normality distinguishes one society’s customs from another’s, the vertical dimension distinguishes human life from other life forms – the lives of Gods and non-human animals. To introduce what I am calling the vertical dimension, and its relationship to the horizontal dimension, here is a well-known passage from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859):

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves, what do I prefer? Or, what would suit my character and disposition? Or what would allow the best and the highest in me to have fair play and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? What is usually done by persons of a station and circumstance superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done; peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct are shunned equally with crime, until by dint of not following their own nature they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved; they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?[v]

The vertical dimension emerges in Mill’s observation that a person’s compulsion to conform ultimately results in a loss of that person’s essential nature. What does this mean?

Mill’s conception of the “customary” refers to social conventions, but not simply those customs that (as in the horizontal dimension) distinguish one society from another. The reference to “what people do for pleasure” indicates that the conventions at issue are less a matter of agreement than of attunement between human beings: the fact that for the most part humans find pleasure in the same or similar things, share a sense of what is humorous, pleasurable, uncomfortable, outrageous, sad, regrettable, interesting, boring, worth saying, and so on – what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as “life forms”.                  

Like social customs, life forms are conventional in the sense that things might be otherwise. It is not inevitable that we laugh at, take pleasure, or feel sad at the same things, and we can imagine beings whose “inclinations” differ from ours, who respond differently to the world. But can we imagine such beings – for example, a being that laughs at another’s suffering and is cast into despair in the face of a joyous occasion – as human? The difficulty of imagining here is brought to the surface when we consider what would count as “another’s suffering”, or as a “joyous occasion” for such a being.  We can also imagine human beings suppressing their inclinations, for example by not expressing anger when anger is an appropriate and natural response. The person doesn’t yell or curse but remains silent, red-faced and shaking. In this case, however, we are tempted to say that the suppression of anger is itself a way of expressing anger, and unless the suppression is manifested in some way, then some explanation is owed for the fact that he or she is not angry at all. These considerations suggest that our shared inclinations are crucially unlike social customs in that it matters less what we are inclined to do or say on any occasion than that some particular I is inclined to do or say it. It is part of the criteria for my finding something pleasurable that I express pleasure in some way that others make sense of and respond to as an expression of pleasure. The importance of inclinations being expressed is registered in the asymmetry between the first and third persons in sentences about (for example) enjoyment: While “I enjoy X” seems grammatically similar to “She enjoys X”, in the second sentence the word “she” refers to a specific person whereas in the first sentence the word “I” does not, and this implies that the word “enjoy” means something different in each sentence depending on whether it is used to report or to express.


When Mill remarks that “[i]n our times … it does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary”, he implies that human inclinations have come to be viewed as social customs, similar to a manner of dressing. When that happens, the “I” (as in “I enjoy…”) has dropped out, as if we report on our own inclinations rather than express them. This in turn means that my natural responses are no longer my own and if not my own, then no longer natural. I know, more or less, what it means to adopt the opinion of another as my own (e.g., I am persuaded that he or she is right); but if my desires are not my own, do they count as desires at all, and who or what am I? My privacy, hence my sense of personal identity, has evaporated. Mill suggests that in the ethos of Victorian England, which is also the ethos of 20th Century America, our life forms (referred to as “inclinations”) are no longer fully natural – we have allowed the power of conformity to become so strong that any assertion of privacy has become a source of shame, and what is shameful must be concealed, like a secret.[vi] We no longer know how to claim our desires and pleasures as our own, and this means that our native inclinations have become merely conventional tastes, that our lives are no longer our lives.

This is the world described in Highsmith’s fiction. It is characteristically expressed in the theme of parasitism between one person and another, as when one takes on or takes over the personal identity of another. In Strangers on a Train, Guy swaps his idle wish to expunge his wife from his life for Bruno’s desire to kill his own father; although Guy doesn’t explicitly agree to this bargain, his silence is interpreted by the vampirish Bruno as assent. Guy slowly submits to the logic of the contract under which each has agreed to insert himself into the place of the other in fulfilling the other’s wish. In This Sweet Sickness it’s not enough for Kelsey to enact the Neumeister fantasy in the privacy of his imagination; he is irresistibly driven to leverage the fiction into the empirical world as he invites Annabelle into his weekend Neumeister home but receives her husband Delaney instead. Kelsey requires Annabelle’s love to prove that he exists at all, but only “Neumeister” is worthy of expressing his desire and winning Annabelle’s love – and Neumeister doesn’t exist. And so at the end after the Neumeister identity has been killed off, Kelsey, who was never more than a ghost haunting his own life, must end that life.

As with the others, the source of Tom Ripley’s shame is that he exists at all. As if to provide proof of his existence, he must live as another, which he does by killing off not only Greenleaf’s body (transferring the Greenleaf soul into the Ripley body) but anyone who threatens to expose his metaphysical shell game. The lead character in The Talented Mr. Ripley could almost serve as a concrete example of Mill’s conformist, who is incapable of expressing his own desires and their pleasures, whose human capacities are “withered and starved”, so that “by dint of not following [his] own nature [he has] no nature to follow.”

He definitely wanted to see Greece as Dickie Geenleaf with Dickie’s money. Dickie’s clothes. Dickie’s way of behaving with strangers. But would it happen if he couldn’t see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf? Would one thing after another come up to thwart him – murder, suspicion, people? He hadn’t wanted to murder, it had been a necessity. The idea of going to Greece, trudging over the Acropolis as Tom Ripley, American tourist, held no charm for him at all.[vii]

Is Highsmith describing our world in its ordinariness? –Yes and no. Although Tom Ripley is anyone we might see on the street, not everyone is Tom Ripley, and that’s why he is interesting to us. But we don’t really know how or why he’s interesting. Consider the adverbs that J. L. Austin cites in “A Plea for Excuses”, quoted at the beginning of this essay. Normal actions do cannot be qualified by adverbs such as “voluntarily,” “involuntarily,” “intentionally,” “unintentionally,” “deliberately,” “accidentally,” and so on, which are used to allocate personal responsibility when someone must be held responsible. To say that an action is normal is to say that we do not find occasion to question its propriety in the ordinary course; our ordinary everyday actions are neither morally virtuous nor deplorable (and to assume that every action must be assigned moral value is to engage in moralism).

It seems to me that in Highsmith’s best work – meaning those works in which the moral character of the killing is at its most ambiguous – Austin’s list of qualifying adverbs has no clear application. Although there is something deeply unsettling about the killings, it doesn’t seem precisely accurate to describe them as “intentional” or “accidental”, deliberate or automatic, as if we lack the proper adverb; we don’t quite know how to dispose of the matter and this suggests that we don’t quite know how to distinguish the world described in Highsmith’s work from our own world and how to distinguish her lead characters from ourselves. As a consequence, the reader is left to ask him- or herself exactly what we accept as normal and what we exclude as unacceptable, and why. After all, in the early part of the 21st century in America, where brutal violence is all but completely normalized, do we even know how, or more significantly, does it even occur to us to ask whether the latest incineration of a wedding party in the distant backwaters of Yemen or Afghanistan is “voluntarily” or “involuntary”, “accidental” or “deliberate”?  Patricia Highsmith began her writing career roughly with the advent of the Cold War, a time when the demands of conformity were especially unbending and when the mere existence of the Bomb had confirmed the real capability of humans to obliterate humanity. Do we know how to ask if this has already happened?

by Carl E. Kandutsch

Carl Kandutsch operates the Kandutsch Law Office ( in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

[i] J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers (ed. J.O. Urmson and G.J. Warnock, Oxford 1979), p. 190.

 [ii] “That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our bodies, etc., etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred toward its edges. It doesn’t strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it’s impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks (ed. Rush Rees, trans. Raymond Hargreaves and Roger White, Chicago and Oxford, 1975), p. 80 (emphasis in original).

[iii] After circumstances force him to dump the “Dickie Greenleaf” identity, Tom Ripley expresses the same sense that his conventional identity is false, an act, whereas his assumed identity as Greenleaf allows him to be himself: “This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Tom Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.” Patricia Highsmith, The Mysterious Mr. Ripley (Penguin Books 1985), p. 143.

[iv] In The Tremor of Forgery, Ingram kills an Arab intruder by throwing a typewriter at his head. There is no police investigation and no scandal; the entire episode is forgotten as quickly as the body is disposed of. The narrative unfolds during Israel’s Six Day War against several Arab countries in 1967, as America’s war in Vietnam reached its heights. The novel implicitly contrasts the Arabs’ honest indifference toward an individual human life with America’s compulsion to invent stories of heroism and sacrifice to obfuscate an attitude toward death that is every bit as indifferent as the Arabs’. America’s compulsion to tell itself self-aggrandizing stories is ridiculed in the figure of radio propagandist Adams, who is referred to as “OWL” or “Our Way of Life.”

[v] John Stuart Mill, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (New York 1961), p. 255 – 56.

[vi] Before Mill, Highsmith’s predecessor is Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially in his essay on conformity and shame called “Self Reliance” (first published in 1841), which includes this: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston 1957), p. 157.

[vii] Highsmith, op. cit. at p. 136.


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