The Glass Cell

An innocent man imprisoned. Beaten down (literally) by the authorities, addicted to painkillers, helplessly watching his wife create a life on her own—and then freed, to do what?

Philip Carter, the main character in Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel, is in an impossible situation. This book, which traces both his years in prison and the months after his release, shows just how a terrible situation can turn a basically good man bad—and it takes the reader right along.

The first half of the novel is focused on Philip’s time in prison, which goes badly from the start. He gets in trouble constantly because he doesn’t know the rules. When the guards punish him by stringing him up by his thumbs, the result is a crippling injury that causes him to become addicted to morphine. The years of physical separation from his wife, Helen, bring with them a mental and emotional separation that may be impossible to breach. Philip becomes suspicious of Helen’s friendship with a lawyer who’s been helping with his case, and there’s no denying that the two have a bond. When Philip is released, at about the midpoint of the book, this feeling of distance and suspicion continues to imprison him.

Highsmith was inspired to write this book by a fan who wrote to her from prison, and the book does feel at times like an expose, not merely of poor prison conditions (though these come into play) but of the psychological trauma that prison can inflict and the impossibility of getting past it. Prison life changes Philip—it causes him to doubt human nature in a way he never had before. (Indeed, his earlier tendency to trust is what landed him there.) It also causes him to doubt the system, as it obviously didn’t work for him. Authorities, promises, relationships—none of it means what it did. And without that grounding, how can he get along in the world? Upon his release from prison, he has every financial and material advantage one might want in his situation, but the psychological damage has been done. Can he be healed?

One of the obvious literary touchstones for this book is The Count of Monte Cristo, another tale of false imprisonment and loss of trust in the system. When I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I got extremely frustrated with Dantès’s obsessive pursuit of revenge. What fascinated me about my own reaction to this book is that when Philip starts down a similar path, I rooted for him in a way I didn’t for Dantès. Some of this had to do with the less calculated nature of what Philip did, but I was surprised that I wanted him to get away with terrible acts—some against innocent people. Such is the beauty of Highsmith’s characterization and her framing of the situation. Philip does plenty of things that are clearly wrong, but he’s been pushed to a point where he can’t operate logically anymore. I had to take pity and want his suffering to end.

This is only the second of Highsmith’s novels that I’ve read. I read and enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley many years ago, but she quickly fell off my radar even though these kinds of dark psychological suspense novels are precisely my kind of thing. I’d love to hear recommendations for other Highsmith novels to try. I have People Who Knock on the Door, and I’m game to try more Ripley books, but are there others that I must keep my eye out for?

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13 Responses to The Glass Cell

  1. Deb says:

    I’d recommend STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (different from and much more ambiguous than the movie) and EDITH’S DIARY (about a woman who begins to believe the glamorous life she’s fantasized about in her diary), but you probably wouldn’t go wrong with any of the novels she wrote in the 1950s & 60s (there was a definite decline of quality as she grew older–possibly due to her encroaching alcoholism). I also liked some of Highsmith’s short stories in the “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” collection (but forget about the collections of short stories written about animals from the animals’ points of view, they are completely off-putting).

    I would also recommend BEAUTIFUL SHADOW, a very good biography of Patricia Highsmith. In addition to being an alcoholic, she probably suffered from a form of high-fuctioning autism, like Asperger’s Syndrome. She never really learned how to relate to others in life, but–perhaps because of that–her ability to write about human psychology was incredibly sharp.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for those suggestions, Deb. I’ll add them to my list! I’ve also heard that her life is worth reading about, so I’ll keep the biography in mind as well.

  2. bybee says:

    I love Patricia Highsmith! There’s a book of short stories by her…I forget the title, but in each one, someone tries to do something mean to an animal and they end up paying for it. Cool.

  3. Emily says:

    The only Highsmith I’ve read is The Price of Salt, which is by all accounts very different from most of her work, although I found the psychology astute as promised. Will check back with this comments thread since I too am interested in recommendations for branching out further…Strangers on a Train is high on my list thus far.

    • Teresa says:

      Strangers on a Train has been high on my list since I watched the excellent documentary on my DVD of the movie, so I’m glad to see Deb’s endorsement of it.

  4. Christy says:

    This sounds intriguing. I had heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley before and Strangers on a Train before, but haven’t read Highsmith’s work or seen film adaptations of them either.

    The premise of this book reminds me of the short-lived tv show, Life, although their only similarity is that an innocent man is released from prison after many years and is a different person now that he’s out.

    • Teresa says:

      The film adaptations are great. I loved The Talented Mr Ripley so much that I saw it twice in two days when it was in the theaters. And I own Strangers on a Train on DVD. I can’t believe I haven’t read more of her books!

  5. Jenny says:

    I have Patricia Highsmith on my TBR, but nothing specific. Maybe we should read one together! This sounds great.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re read the Ripley books, haven’t you? Or some of them? I’m game to read one together!

      • Jenny says:

        Yes, I actually read all the Ripley books, I think. They are so dark and creepy, like a lot of Ruth Rendell’s stuff, and wonderfully written.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I must read Highsmith! I have The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train on my TBR and now will add this one too.

    • Teresa says:

      Looks like there are lots of us who’ve been meaning to try some Highsmith (or more Highsmith). She’s so highly regarded, but I think not much read.

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