The Glass Cell (novel)

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For the German-language film based on the novel, see The Glass Cell (film).
The Glass Cell
Glass Cell-Patricia Highsmith.jpg
First edition
Author Patricia Highsmith
Language English
Genre Fiction
Set in United States
Published Doubleday & Co. (US, 1964); Heinemann (UK, 1965)
Media type Print
Pages 213
OCLC 1378820

The Glass Cell (1964) is a psychological thriller novel by Patricia Highsmith. It was the tenth of her 22 novels. It addresses the psychological and physical impact of wrongful imprisonment. It appeared in both the UK and the US in 1964. When first published, the book jacket carried a warning that its opening scene is "almost unacceptable".[1]

It was republished by W.W. Norton & Company in 2004 and by Virago in 2014.


Highsmith received a fan letter in 1961 from a prison inmate who had enjoyed her novel Deep Water (1957). They exchanged several letters and she used him for research, requesting detail of daily life in prison. She then came across a journalist's account of an innocent man's prison experiences that provided her with more material. She also relied on John Bartlow Martin's account of the 1952 riots in the Michigan State Prison, Break Down the Walls (1954). She used his detailed description of solitary confinement and adopted his thorough critique of imprisonment in the United States. She began work on the novel in September 1962.[2] Her working title was The Prisoner.[3] She visited a prison near her Pennsylvania home in December, though she could only see from the reception area. She wrote much of the novel in Positano in 1963. Her editor at Harper & Brothers rejected the manuscript and requested major changes, especially to establish Carter's character before his imprisonment. Highsmith found herself blocked for a time until the acceptance of other manuscripts (The Two Faces of January by Doubleday in the US and a short story by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) restored her confidence. She reworked the manuscript and placed it with Doubleday and Heinemann in the spring of 1964.[2] Highsmith dedicated the novel to her cat Spider.[3]

Highsmith devoted a chapter of her non-fiction Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) to The Glass Cell as "The Case History of a Novel".[4]


The novel opens with a graphic scene of prison violence in which a prisoner is strung up by his thumbs.[1] He is Philip Carter, a sweet-natured and naïve young engineer who has been sentenced to ten years in jail for fraud, though he is actually innocent. In prison, sadistic prison guards torture him, leaving him with chronic pain that he manages with morphine injections. He becomes violent and depressed. He secures his release after six years, emerging to find that his wife Hazel has been having an affair with a lawyer who she thinks is working to obtain a pardon for her husband. Carter, whose character and personality have been transformed by his prison experience, now confronts his wife's betrayal as well as those responsible for framing him for a crime he did not commit.


Highsmith employs strong overtones of Russian writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the work was immensely well received by critics from across the spectrum.[5]

Writing in The Guardian, Rachel Cooke called The Glass Cell Highsmith's "masterwork: Crime and Punishment without any hard labour on the part of the reader.[1]


The novel was adapted as a German-language film of the same name (Die gläserne Zelle). It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1978.[6] Highsmith thought well of the film, which only increased her dismay when the same director, Hans Geissendorfer, made changes she thought "dreadful" when adapting her novel Edith's Diary.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Cooke, Rachel (8 November 2015). "There's more to Patricia Highsmith than Ripley". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 December 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Wilson, Andrew (2003). Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved 6 December 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Schenkar, Joan (2009). The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. p. 13 et passim. 
  4. ^ Highsmith, Patricia (1966). Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. Boston: The Writer, Inc. pp. 102–124. 
  5. ^ "The Glass Cell at Norton Books catalog". Norton Books. Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  6. ^ "The 51st Academy Awards (1979) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Gerald Peary, "Patricia Highsmith", Sight and Sound, Spring 1988, Vol.75, No.2, pp.104-105, accessed December 8, 2015