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Identity-Shopping and Postwar Self-Improvement in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train


Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), is part of a lineage of American novels that depict the perils of aestheticizing class difference, interclass contact and social mobility. Highsmith’s protagonist, idealistic architect Guy Haines, is, like Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, a rural naïf who imagines entering a world of beauty that transcends labor and exchange; he is also, like Nathanael West’s Tod Hackett, a creative artist with a highly-developed feeling of disgust for mass culture and its admirers. But Guy is a product of post-World War II pressures on the professional-managerial class, pressures that tied that class’s self-image to U.S. policy goals and severed its connection to the popular and proletarian. Guy’s commitment to social climbing is sublimated into his beliefs in his classlessness and his investment in aesthetic purity. But the conviction with which he adheres to those beliefs makes him easy for a sociopathic killer to manipulate.

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