The Motto of the Mollusc: Patricia Highsmith and the Semiotics of Snails
AbstractPatricia Highsmith, who generally preferred animals to people, was particularly fascinated by snails. In her novels and short stories, Highsmith uses snails, and her characters’ attitudes towards them, to register a range of responses to American capitalist culture in the mid twentieth century. In Deep Water, Vic Van Allen is horrified when it is suggested that his pet snails should be eaten, rejecting the commodification of the creatures as things to be consumed. ‘The Snail Watcher’ concludes with its ‘vicious’ protagonist, Peter Knoppert, consumed by his pet gastropods; Avery Clavering in ‘The Quest for Blank Claveringi’ meets a similarly unfortunate end, eaten by the giant snail through which he had hoped to establish his own posterity. Gaston Bachelard regards the snail as a symbol of reciprocity between self and environment; the motto of the mollusc, he says, is that ‘one must live to build one’s house, and not build one’s house to live in’. In Highsmith’s fiction, the crimes committed by her characters are frequently driven by a repressed fury with a capitalist culture which severs the link between self and social habitat; in Bachelard’s terms, her characters aspire to ‘the motto of the mollusc’. This chapter will argue that a significant and recurring site for this conflict is Highsmith’s juxtaposition of human behaviours with those of the non-human animal, in particular, the snail. In doing so, it seeks to read this aspect of Highsmith’s work as part of a continuum in detective fiction’s treatment of animals and to demonstrate how far her ‘suspense fiction’ can be situated within that genre. In Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ for instance, the orang-utan’s murderous spree is precipitated by its abstraction from its natural environment and its exposure to human behaviours. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the hound is placed in an alien environment and weaponised by Stapleton. Both of these texts use animals to present nineteenth-century anxieties regarding atavistic degeneration, fears of the beast within the human form. Highsmith’s representations of animals partake of this tradition: the human and the non-human animal worlds are compared, with the beast repeatedly located in the former. In her representation of human/animal relationships, Highsmith is both conducting a searing critique of her specific culture and placing her work firmly in the traditions of detective fiction.
CitationWest, S. (2020-forthcoming). The Motto of the Mollusc: Patricia Highsmith and the Semiotics of Snails. In J. Miller & R. Hawthorn (Eds.), Animals in Detective Fiction. Palgrave.
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