[Contains spoilers for the entirety of the novel, right to the end.]
Sparing their bleakness, Patricia Highsmith’s novels have an almost playful amorality. Evil goes unpunished, yet the text treats this as neither bad nor good. It treats it as a fact, almost banal. She foreshadows no Damoclean Sword beyond the book’s end hanging over as yet unpunished criminals, criminals like The Glass Cell’s Phillip Carter.
The plot, in full (spoilers, of course):
Someone framed Phillip Carter for skimming funds off a school building project. It doesn’t who framed him; he’ll suffer six years in jail regardless. As if incarceration isn’t enough, the guards string Carter up by his thumbs, leaving them permanently deformed and throbbing. At least the doctor gives him ample morphine. Carter suspects his lawyer, David Sullivan, has had more success courting Carter’s wife, than securing a retrial or pardon.
When Carter is released, his life gets back on track. This doesn’t stop him bludgeoning Sullivan to death in a burst of rage. Neither does prevent him from killing another man in a calculated attempt to silence blackmailing witnesses. The police suspect him (ex-con, with motive against his wife’s lover), but can prove nothing. Not even his conscience can punish him
In this novel, as in the of her other novels I’ve read, Highsmith ensures crime goes unpunished. A more or less average individual commits a heinous act, and gets away with it. She never resorts to the milquetoast ‘Oh, but his conscience will dog him to his death.’ Highsmith stresses Carter ‘felt no … pangs of conscience’ (218). ‘In principle, his [Carter’s] killing Sullivan had been an evil act, done in anger. And the fact that he felt no guilt made it worse, in principle and in fact’ 218. That ‘made it worse’ might suggest he at least despairs at his dulled conscience. More likely, it means his murder is more evil because he felt no moral revulsion towards it; it does not mean he feels anything towards the evil he committed. If we take his thoughts at face value, Carter is ready to put the whole affair behind him. ‘He was sure he would not kill again … [T]hey’d (he and his wife) both made awful messes, but … there was something they could still save, and that was worth saving’ (218, 222).
One might suspect Highsmith lets Carter run free to feed escapist fantasies. After all, wouldn’t it be lovely to kill your wife’s lover and get away with it? You’d never do it again, except when absolutely necessary, and anyway those guys had it coming. But I doubt this is Highsmith’s intention. The passage where cuckolded Carter bludgeons Sullivan is too fast for escapism. So understated is the violence that the reader does not feel it:
‘Sullivan didn’t know his intentions until Carter was right on him, and then Carter hit him a blow in the side of the neck with his hand. It staggered Sullivan badly. Then Carter blacked out… [He] spat at Sullivan, and gave him a kick that missed.’ (152)
By letting crime go unpunished Highsmith evokes an amoral universe. The main point is not that evil goes unpunished, but that no universal force wills the punishment of evil. In the novel, Highsmith ensures punishment does not coincide with crime, suggesting the world does not enforce morality, and society cannot entirely do the work of karma. Carter went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and receives no punishment for the murders he does commit. In prison, the guards disfigure Carter’s thumbs for doing what they turn a blind eye to in other prisoners, selling cigarettes. Outside of prison, where Carter twice commits murder, the rule of law, which abandoned him in prison, protects him; there is insufficient evidence on him.
Highsmith almost succumbs to the cliché of prison making criminals. (Whether the cliché has basis in reality is irrelevant; as a commonplace irony it is overdone.) She pulls away from the cliché, however, by stressing how little prison lingers with Carter in the outside world. His new acquaintances are nervous around him, but his past does not scare them off. Prospective employers dismiss him, but with Sullivan’s good word he gets a respectable job. His thumbs are permanently deformed, but with some prescription painkillers they’re a minor irritation. He’s addicted to morphine, but his legal painkillers have a morphine base. He does leave prison a remorseless murderer, but after one heated killing and a killing calculated to clean up the first, he puts murder behind him. Spare two killings the courts cannot prove, he’s just your average guy, who suffered a regrettable stint in prison.
Prison failed to reform Carter, for he had done no evil. After doing evil, Carter needs no prison to reform him. Although evil exists in The Glass Cell, the universe does not punish it; the universe does not leave the mark of Cain, it does not ensure a stinging conscience, nor does it allow human systems, like prisons, to fill its amoral void.
[Page references from the 1980 UK Green Penguin Edition, 0140036032]