‘The Coquette’ by Patricia Highsmith

The Coquette by Patricia Highsmith, 1975

The magic trick:

Punishing the woman at the center of the story for the sins of the male characters

Day Two of stories from Highsmith’s bizarrely brilliant Little Tales Of Misogyny collection.

This is a story that certainly appears to be quite misogynist. The titular coquette does not come off well here, nor does she meet a good end. Heck, the very reduction of her character into the coquette brand is insulting.

But here’s the funny thing about this story: I’d argue it’s feminist in its point of view. The men are portrayed far worse. They are bumbling idiots. They are vain. They are cruel without guilt. They are mechanisms of a misogynist society that places contradictory expectations on women. Yvonne is simply using the means of power she has available to her.

The story doesn’t necessarily judge her favorably. But I’d argue it’s much harsher on the patriarchy than it is her. And that’s quite a trick on Highsmith’s part.

The selection:

Yvonne attempted to poison him by means of arsenic in cups of chocolate at her house, but he recovered and thought this a greater and more charming proof of her fear of losing her virginity with him, though she had already lost her virginity at the age of ten, when she had told her mother that she was raped. Yvonne had thus sent a thirty-year-old man to prison. She had been trying for two weeks to seduce him, saying she was fifteen, and mad about him. It had given her pleasure to ruin his career and to make his wife unhappy and ashamed, and their eight-year-old daughter bewildered.

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