Reviewed by Gill Davies
This collection of stories, in the Virago Modern Classics series, was first published in German in 1975 (in English in 1977). The stories thus emanate from the period when second-wave feminism was gathering strength. That context might suggest – along with the title – that we are going to read some instructive tales about the awfulness of men. So it’s quite a shock to discover that it is the women who are the monsters and that apparently these are tales by a misogynist. Highsmith of course has form in this area. Critics have often remarked on her fascination with male criminality, her clever manipulation of point of view that draws her readers on to the murderer’s side (notably in the Ripley novels but also to an extent in Strangers on a Train). And her female characters are often correspondingly unsympathetic – think of Marge in The Talented Mr Ripley. So it’s no great surprise to find she isn’t writing feminist tracts. What is surprising is the sheer venom and enthusiasm with which she nails her female victims.
There are 17 (very) short stories in this collection – each focuses on a female type found in misogynistic caricatures: her titles include the mother in law, the housewife, the breeder, the prude, and the victim. The characters are all examples of the women that society has despised or feared, the stereotypes that misogynistic society has cultivated. They include a promiscuous wife, an egotistical would-be artist/novelist, a selfish mother, a professional invalid, even a ‘jolly cave woman’ who is hideously treated but deserves what she gets. I was puzzling over the disjunction between the period in which Highsmith was writing and the strangely old-fashioned stereotypes that she was creating. It occurred to me that they are really cultural throwbacks – monsters of 1950s and 1960s American femininity rather than figures we would expect to find emerging in the 1970s. They are certainly not feminists but, rather, women on the make, using their sexuality and innate deviousness to manipulate and entrap men. What is going on, then?
The original German title calls them tales for misogynists – Kleine Geschichte für Weiberfeinde. This points to Highsmith’s underlying irony. Her method could be seen as deploying the conventions of misogyny to make us see it more clearly . Indeed, might it be possible to read most of them as the tales men tell about the horrors of women, thus revealing their own hatred and fear? Take “The Mobile Bed-Object”:
There are lots of girls like Mildred… bed-objects, the kind of thing one acquires like a hot-water bottle, a travelling iron, an electric shoe-shiner, any little luxury of life. It is an advantage to them if they can cook a bit, but they certainly don’t have to talk….
Pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen, as the slogan went! And what happens to Mildred makes this a tale about misogyny, of an extreme kind. Then there is Pamela in “The Middle-Class Housewife” who ‘considered Women’s Lib one of those silly protest movements that journalists liked to write about.’ So we know whose side we’re on, don’t we? But if Pamela is shallow and prejudiced, then the ‘feminists’ in the story – led by her student daughter – are also idiotic. A ‘rally’ held at the local church ends in the finest products of American consumerism and symbols of domesticity flying through the air – with a fatality caused by a two-pound tin of baked beans.
It should be clear by now that these tales are blackly comic. They are deliberately offensive and often very funny. Take the title “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife”. This is what feminists have been saying about traditional heterosexual marriage for generations but Highsmith makes it literally the case. Sarah marries, two months pregnant by another man, she is now ‘a professional, with protection of the law, approval of society, blessing of the clergy, and financial support guaranteed by her husband.’ Readers who only know Highsmith’s novels may be surprised by the tone of these stories. They aren’t crime stories, even though they often end in death and are frequently violent; there’s no mystery, no puzzle; just matter of fact accounts of horrible women told in an unemotional voice. The combination of the simple voice and the brevity of the stories creates the effect of a folk tale or a moral story. And this leads me back to the title, “Little Tales”. What we have are modern stories in a fairy-tale setting. This creates an unsettling and satirical effect. Some of the stories parody the simplicity of the tale:
‘A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand’
‘There was once a coquette’
‘At the time Jane got married, one would have thought there was nothing unusual about her.’
‘Theodora was the perfect little lady born’
What follows is a huge ‘but’ or a complete reversal of fortune. In the end, I think these stories are satirical without adopting a political position – they are more like inverted moral tales or fables, the work of a misanthropist rather than a misogynist. The characters she skewers are American types on whom we feel the author is avenging herself. The world her characters inhabit is that of middle class suburban America still trapped in the 1950s with its shallow materialism, adverts for home-making and hypocrisy about sex. I can’t say I enjoyed the stories as much as I do her novels, but they entertain and they make you think. She’s a slippery writer!
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