Deft and merciless in her portrayal of humanity, Patricia Highsmith is little remembered for her short stories so much as her most famous character, Tom Ripley of the semi-eponymous The Talented Mr. Ripley and, more recently, The Price of Salt thanks to its film adaptation into Carol. But with the release of her taut short story collection, Little Tales of Misogyny, in 1977 (in Germany first, of course), Highsmith takes suspense to an entirely different level in showing her readers just how horrifying both genders can be. Over the course of seventeen tales, each one typically brief and to the point for optimal bitingness, Highsmith manages to use the worst elements of the female caricature–whorishness, hen-like demeanors, manipulation–to paint a nightmarish portrait of male-female relationships, and how so often each sex uses the other to the point of abuse.
Starting with the first story, “The Hand,” in which a man asks a woman’s father for her hand, and the patriarch very literally interprets the request, Highsmith establishes a tone of merciless satire that often ends in one or more of her characters entering into madness or dying a death steeped in tragedy. In “Oona, The Jolly Cave Woman,” Highsmith’s portrait of why women are ultimately desired is as follows: “…her sex appeal was apparent at a distance of two hundred yards or more, like an odor, which perhaps it was. She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.” Oona, in her daft jolliness, is happy to give any married caveman who wants a crack at her the opportunity. This, naturally, prompts one of the wives to kill her. Women hate competition and sharing, it’s true. What some hate even more, however, is having to deal with overly sniveling men, as Yvonne does in “The Coquette.” Preferring to keep her life filled with a rotating arsenal of suitors for the benefits of “presents, flattery, flowers, dinners and so forth,” Yvonne is vexed by the constant presence–the genuine love–of Bertrand, who she decides to get rid of by having another one of her suitors kill him in exchange for offering herself for marriage. She tells Bertrand the same thing about the suitor she enlists to kill him and during the duel, the two realize they’ve been duped, put in a haze by the expert coquetry. But coquettes always get their comeuppance in the end.
Feasibly the most misogynistic story, “The Female Novelist” speaks to the ways in which female writers are incapable of writing from the imagination, instead relying on their experiences of being jilted by men for constant inspiration. As Highsmith puts it, “She has total recall. It is all sex… Her cry is: ‘Listen to my past! It is more important than my present. Let me tell you what an absolute swine my last husband (or lover) was.’ Her past is like an undigested, perhaps indigestible meal which sits upon her stomach. One wishes she could simply vomit and forget it.”
But, of course, the female novelist can’t forget it, insists to her current husband, “I know my story is important!” It is not, least of all to men, who would rather not read or hear about all the ways in which they’ve failed “the fairer sex.” The depiction of women as overly dramatic, abhorrent beings persists in “The Dancer,” in which Claudette invokes the jealousy of her fellow dancer, Rodolphe, by “taking on two or three other men.” His contempt for her mounts as she “always pretended to suffer, to love Rodolphe and to suffer at the hands of his passion in the dance.”
Another horror story, “The Breeder,” delineates just how much tunnel vision a woman can have when it comes to fulfilling her so-called purpose in the form of Elaine, who had always believed “marriage meant children.” What other reason is there for this legal union? Hence, her obsession with getting pregnant to the point of literally standing on her head to ensure her husband’s seed will inseminate her. When it rains, it pours, and soon Elaine has gotten up to seventeen children, driving Douglas to the madhouse after their family becomes destitute from having so many mouths to feed.
“The Artist” pokes fun at women who have the spare time to pursue an artistic bent at a school like The School of the Arts, where “it seemed…there was no inspiration…, only a desire to imitate people who had been inspired, like Chopin, Beethoven and Bach.” Again, this story in particular accents how females are constantly viewed as the lesser of the genders when it comes to careers in the arts–their “careers” often looked on as hobbies they would do well to abandon.
And what short story collection called Little Tales of Misogyny would be complete without a narrative about a lady of the night? “The Mobile Bed-Object” sketches the image of disposable Mildred: “homeless, yet never without a roof–most of the time the ceiling of a hotel room…” She goes from man to man until each one is through with her, using her youth and feminine wiles to secure all the little luxuries she needs. Unfortunately, time is a killer of seductive abilities and Mildred begins to worry about the security of her future. When she has the good luck to encounter wealthy businessman Sam Zupp, Mildred is convinced this is at last her chance at a little stability. She, alas, doesn’t have the foresight to intuit that she’ll be “thrown away, as one might throw away a Cricket Lighter when it is used up, like a paperback one has read and which has become excess baggage.”
And so, all the worst things men see in women–generally, frivolity, connivingness and promiscuity–are accounted for in this underrated work of Highsmith’s, dexterously proving just how ill regarded women can be, and sometimes how much they deserve to be.