Patricia Highsmith's Queer Disruption: Subverting Gay Tragedy in the 1950s
Published in a time when tragedy was pervasive in gay literature, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, published later as Carol, was the first lesbian novel with a happy ending. It was unusual for depicting lesbians as sympathetic, ordinary women, whose sexuality did not consign them to a life of misery. The novel criticises how 1950s American society worked to suppress lesbianism and women’s agency. It also refuses to let that suppression succeed by giving its lesbian couple a future together. My thesis assesses the extent to which the novel broke the conventions of gay literature, and how Highsmith was able to publish such a radical text in the conservative 1950s. The Talented Mr Ripley, a crime novel published in 1955, is more representative of both Highsmith’s work and 1950s homophobia. Tom Ripley is coded as gay through a number of often pejorative stereotypes, though the novel never confirms his sexuality. This makes it appear far more conventional than The Price of Salt. And yet, it treats Tom sympathetically and gives him a happy ending. Underneath the surface level homophobia is a story of gay survival and success, and once again Highsmith subverts the tradition of gay tragedy. However, because homophobic tropes are central to its narrative, it remains difficult to call Ripley a radical text. In placing the two novels side by side, my thesis draws out the complexity of Highsmith’s relationship with the gay canon. I find commonalities in the novels based on Highsmith’s interest in disrupting conventional morality. She achieves this disruption by humanising outsiders such as gays and lesbians, and constructing narratives in which they are able to find the freedom and happiness that the literature of the period usually denied them.