The Parallel Structure in 'Strangers on a Train'
Image by Courtney Nicholas
One of the strategies that Patricia Highsmith employs in her first novel, Strangers on a Train, is to bounce the narrative between two characters. As the title suggests, these two strangers, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train at the beginning of the book and discuss killing people in each other’s lives in order to duck suspicions based on motives. Guy doesn’t take Bruno’s suggestion seriously, but after Bruno kills Guy’s wife, Bruno pressures Guy to murder his father. The structure of the book allows Highsmith to jump from one character to another and put them in completely different parts of the country, but because of their relationship and the vacillation between the two storylines, they feel as if they are very close to each other. It is almost a split screen effect, where they are living their separate lives distinct from each other, but the parallel structure brings them close together. It feels as if they’re in the same frame.
The linear form of the book prevents the stories from being played at the exact same time as a split screen might in a film (although split screens are rarely used this way in movies). But the two threads are woven in such a way that causes the reader to experience the stories as if they were happening simultaneously, at least that is the understanding conveyed. This technique causes the reader to go through one thread at a time, injecting a force of energy into the narrative. When each section is taken up again, it is resumed in the midst of the most crucial moments for that character. The back-and-forth transitions trim the fat and streamline the storytelling.
The book, which was published in 1950 and adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year, begins with Guy’s perspective. Guy is the moral and stable character. It retains his point of view in the opening section in order to establish that Bruno is a madman. Highsmith writes about sociopaths often (the Ripley novels all follow the acts of a murderous psychopath), but she is able to keep readers engaged because these characters either have sympathetic human desires. In the case of Tom Ripley, he wants to be on the inside, to be liked (less so in the book than in the movie), and not to be lower class. In Strangers on a Train, we are able to endure Bruno because he is mediated through Guy, or in the very least we aren’t forced to stay with him for too long before we are shifted back to a Guy’s perspective. The filtering lens of Guy’s point of view in the beginning highlights how crazy Bruno is. And because we are in close proximity to Guy at the beginning, it causes us to align ourselves with him. Guy is the protagonist, but Highsmith often cuts away to Bruno to show what he’s up to behind Guy’s back. When she does this, we are not really aligned with Bruno even though we have been brought much closer to his thoughts and actions. We aren’t seeing him through another character’s perspective, but we still retain our allegiance to Guy.
Guy is the sane one (relatively) in the book. So when we follow Bruno as he starts on his self-motivated mission to kill Guy’s wife, we are still seeing him from Guy’s standpoint. It is an ironic perspective because the close third-person relationship with Guy has been defied. Guy isn’t in these scenes and would have no way of knowing the subtleties of what happened during Bruno’s pursuit and execution of murder. But because Guy has been established as the protagonist, we see Bruno as an evil and distant agent acting against Guy. We in no way connect or feel sympathy with Bruno because he acts in such an extreme way, and his reasons for killing Guy’s wife are so crazy and are bound up in his desires to solve his own problems. He wants his father dead because his father controls his money and because he is cruel. So, Bruno’s emotional connection to his violent act against Guy’s wife is rooted in his own desire to have his father offed and a subtle attraction to Guy. Because the motive for his actions are so distant from the murder of Guys’ wife, and because his desire for murder doesn’t fit the wrongs he feels his father has inflicted, we have no sympathy for Bruno. But we are engaged with his sections, not because of an emotional connection, but because his actions will have such a big affect on our hero, Guy.
If we stayed with either of the characters for too long and didn’t switch between the two, the book might get bogged down in shoe leather. But because it alternates between them (favoring Guy) it can be implied that much of the shoe leather happened during the transitions. We don’t have to stay with Guy as he goes about his architecture career and plans his next marriage and then experience the murder of his estranged wife through his limited perspective. We are made privy to Bruno’s actions in close third person proximity, and thus have more knowledge than Guy. And because the reader is given that privileged ironic perspective, much time can be saved watching Guy figure out what happened. The story is propelled forward because it doesn’t need to time showing how Guy is caught up to speed about Bruno’s involvement with his wife’s death. Ultimately, the book is telling a story for the audience. It is told through segments that would take much longer in real life, but here, because the reader is aware of everything, the same rules don’t apply and things can be truncated and sped up. The sections compliment one another and allow the pace to be maintained because we don’t have to wait for the characters to figure things out. We get to see what happens on both sides at once.
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