The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were before I started reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I haven’t seen the 1999 film version with Matt Damon and Jude Law, so I didn’t already “know” the story. What I can say is that I am glad I have discovered Patricia Highsmith and whatever my expectations were, I wasn’t disappointed.
The story follows Tom Ripley, a twenty-three year old man basically living in poverty in New York City. Tom is homeless, jobless, and practically friendless. He’s an orphan who was raised by his father’s sister, but they do not have a good relationship and Tom does not like her. She sends him checks for strange dollar amounts, and though Tom despises the crumbs that she sends him, he is also financially dependent on them. Tom is a small-time con artist, and at the beginning of the story he is engaged in IRS tax fraud. He’s paranoid that his petty crimes will be discovered, as evidenced on the first page, where he notices a man following him. He wonders if the police have come to arrest him, but the man introduces himself as Herbert Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf has been told that Tom and his son, Dickie, were friends prior to his son leaving the States and travelling abroad in Europe. It is upon this friendship that Mr. Greenleaf eventually comes to ask Tom if he will go to Italy, where Dickie is currently living, and convince him to come home. Dickie’s father owns a boat-building company and his mother is suffering from leukemia. Dickie’s father wants his son to come home, take his place in the company as the heir-apparent, and live a “normal” life rather than the life of an expatriate artist. Tom ultimately agrees to try to help Mr. Greenleaf and travels to Italy. The first meeting between Tom and Dickie is awkward because they weren’t really good friends to begin with. Also, Dickie has developed a close relationship with Marge Sherwood, another American expatriate. Tom likes and admires Dickie and wants to be his friend. Tom looks a lot like Dickie—they are the same height and just about the same weight. They have the same color hair and facial features. Tom could be Dickie’s doppelganger. Indeed, this is one of the tropes Highsmith’s novel turns upon—Tom as Dickie’s dark double who slowly begins to unravel then rewrite Dickie Greenleaf’s life.
Highsmith has crafted a wonderful anti-hero in Tom Ripley. Tom is indeed talented—he adapts quickly, has a capacity for languages, is a consummate observer, is good with numbers, and can employ logic and reason even in the most stressful situations. Tom went to New York because he wanted to be an actor. That dream wasn’t realized in the States, but the life he lives in Italy gives him the opportunity to become an actor and perform for his imagined audiences. It is perhaps the constant drive to perform that causes his thing with mirrors. Yes, Tom Ripley has a thing with mirrors. You can’t help picking up on this as you read the first few chapters (and I wonder if this is something the film develops). He is always checking himself out in a mirror, looking at his clothes, his facial expression, the carriage of his body. Along with being able to play different roles as necessary, Tom can invent plausible stories (read: lies) for the police and for others in his life as necessary; Tom believes that they are true and because of this, he is able to convince others that what he is saying is true. No one ever seems to call Tom on any of his lies. The other thing about Tom is that he has, until arriving in Italy, lived on the fringes and margins of society. Financial stability isn’t something he’s ever known, and one of the statements the novel is making is that the structure of society alienates and isolates men like Tom Ripley and forces them to extreme measures. Thus, Tom views his actions as being done out of necessity, and this adds complexity to his character because as readers, we have enough distance from Tom that we don’t completely identify with him but not so much distance that we can’t sympathize with him. Is Tom Ripley a sociopathic anti-hero? Absolutely, but that only makes him more interesting. I’ve read statements that Tom Ripley is one of the great anti-heroes in literature and I completely agree with that statement. He may be amoral and his actions are unconscionable, and yet…he frustrates attempts to fully condemn him, and I think that says more about me as a reader than anything else.
Though the focus of the novel remains primarily upon Tom, the character of Marge Sherwood draws my attention, too. As a supporting character, Marge is obviously intended to be a source of conflict and antagonism for Tom. She is also intended to highlight certain aspects of Tom’s character and thereby increase his complexity and reveal his motives. I wonder, though, if Marge was intended to be somewhat autobiographical, too. She is an American woman living in Europe and writing a book, and from what I know of Highsmith’s biography, she likely had similar experiences. Marge exists on the margins of the novel; on the one hand, she’s an example of the growing opportunities available to women (like Dickie, she is travelling abroad and living alone in Europe while engaging in a form of artistic expression she hopes to turn into a career) but on the other hand, she is completely deceived by Tom. Again, she’s not the main character of the story but her placement in the novel intrigues me and makes me wonder what Highsmith might have been trying to say through her character.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I definitely recommend it to readers who like suspense, tension, and well-drawn characters in their fiction.