A Most Humane Sociopath
“Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that is the most frightening thing about them,” writes Alice Sebold in her bestselling book The Lovely Bones. This assertion, as disturbing as it is true, illustrates the theme that lies at the very crux of the complex moral dilemmas throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley. In the novel’s multifaceted protagonist Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith creates a character that is undeniably flawed in his sociopathic actions, yet at the same time remarkably humane, leaving readers at a loss when they can’t help but recognize themselves in him. However, Tom’s universal relatability stems not from our natural fascination with deviation and murder (though that certainly plays a part), but the fact that no matter how depraved the crimes he commits, he still remains unquestionably sympathizable in his humane qualities. Readers are easily able to identify with all of Tom’s attributes, from his convoluted affections towards Dickie to even his murderous tendencies, because he represents core aspects of basic human nature: the characteristics of ambition, insecurity, and recklessness.
Tom’s ambition and drive, his defining characteristics, are traits basic to human nature, allowing readers to easily identify with his relentless desire for self-improvement. Without some sort of drive or motivation, is a person even truly living? Our tireless hunger, endless searching for a better life, is what keeps us alive. Tom is the very personification of these attributes, absolutely determined to escape his pitiful past and re-invent himself into a vision of respect and affluency. His enormous dissatisfaction with his mundane life in Manhattan, working odd jobs and wasting away, is what gives Highsmith a reason to write a novel in the first place, for it is what propels Tom to accept Herbert Greenleaf’s proposal to travel to Italy and bring Dickie back. Without his ambition, Tom would only be another Bob Delancey, dissolute and indolent, with a dirty apartment and equally as greasy friends. As so, Tom’s idiosyncratic determination to make something of himself is what truly draws the audience to him from even the first few chapters. After agreeing to travel to Italy, Tom imagines magnificent scenes of grandeur: “Waiters to bring him things when he pushed a button! Dressing for dinner, strolling into a big dining room, talking with people at his table like a gentleman!” (Highsmith, 15). Tom jumps at the slightest opportunity to become the “gentleman” he has always dearly desired to be, his zealous resolve to forge himself a better life instantly overcoming any qualms over the intimidating feat of travelling to a whole other country for an erratic endeavor. In reality, the distance only makes the offer even more attractive; he can finally truly escape from the ordinary, boring life he so despises. Tom’s vigorous drive to get what he wants, no matter the risks, is remarkable, and in fact, a trait we value tremendously in our modern society. Therefore, it is no surprise that the readers would identify with such a character, one who personifies the relentless motivation every human has, or aspires to have. In this manner, Tom’s ambition is one of his characteristics that inherently draws the audience to him, further aided by his traumatic past and naturally sensitive personality.
Throughout the novel, Tom shows the traits of insecurity, self-doubt, and sensitivity stemming from his aunt’s mistreatment of him when he was younger, causing readers to feel empathetic towards his more unstable disposition. It is easy to empathize with Tom in many instances, especially after the audience learns about his turbulent upbringing with an aunt who relentlessly abused and taunted him. This childhood maltreatment causes Tom to become a deeply insecure adult, remaining continuously haunted by the jibes of his abusive caretaker, and unable to form genuinely meaningful, affectionate relationships. However, the true scope of this inner vulnerability is first revealed when Tom receives a gift basket from Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf before travelling to Italy. Highsmith writes, “Tom had never before received a bon voyage basket. To him, they had always been something you saw in florists’ windows for fantastic prices… Now he suddenly found himself with tears in his eyes” (35). This is a scene which indisputably tugs on the reader’s heartstrings; Tom has been so alone and unloved all his life, he has forgotten that genuine affection and kindness exist. The gift basket brings out the feeling he has struggled so much to repress: his desire to be loved, arguably the most humane trait of all. It is moments like these that showcase Tom’s undeniable humanity, and make the audience can’t help but empathize with him. Tom’s vulnerability also stems from the fact that he truly in essence, despises himself and the life he leads, shown best in his relationship with Dickie. Dickie personifies everything Tom so dearly wishes to be in life: affluent, well-connected, and effortlessly charming. Tom idolizes and obsesses over Dickie, holding him to the highest standard, as well as becoming enamored with every single aspect of his carefree lifestyle. For this reason, when Dickie eventually rejects him, it hurts Tom to the very core, suddenly reverting him back to those feelings of despair, of a world cold and loveless. He thinks, “[He and Dickie] were not friends. They did not know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for all the people he had known, and those he would know” (86). Dickie’s rejection hurts the most because it brings Tom to finally understand the “horrible truth” of the world in his eyes, that society is completely barren of affection and warmth. Even more depressedly, Tom realizes in this moment that he will never truly “know” someone, and he will spend the rest of his life alone, shut off from life’s adventure. In these moments of desolate reflection, and many more throughout the story, a reader would have to be heartless to not feel sorry for Tom, and identify with his feelings of depression and hopelessness. Tom’s emotional sensitivity causes him to be an especially empathetic character, but what truly makes him the most human is the way both his ambition and emotions transform into bold impetuousness.
Tom’s reckless and thrill-seeking tendencies are perhaps his most dangerous traits of all, propelling some of his most venturesome decisions throughout the book, but also creating a realistic character who speaks to the risk-taker and rule-breaker inside all readers’ hearts. Over the course of the novel, Tom’s takes multiple risks, most that may seem completely unnecessary and even unintelligent. However, it is his affinity for thrill-seeking that demonstrates Tom’s true humanity; in the end, he too is controlled by his emotions, no matter how hard he tries to repress them. A fundamental trait of all humans is the inner desire for excitement, stimulation in our lives, modelled in the popularity of survival television shows and movies in our modern day era. We watch these shows to fuel our internal hunger for danger; they provide an outlet for us, who mostly lead boring, perpetual lives. Likewise, all of Tom’s actions throughout the novel can be attributed to this basic craving for thrill in his life, and his reckless behavior speaks to the audience on a primal level. One major example would be at the beginning, where he extorted people not for money, but for pure amusement, a pursuit he could easily get arrested for, but one he continues to undertake anyways. As the novel goes on, this risk-taking urge manifests into the dangerous action of forging Dickie’s will in order to procure all of his wealth. Highsmith writes, “In a way it was asking for trouble… But that was the mood he was in. He had bought his ticket for Greece in the middle of May, and the days grew finer and finer, making him more and more restless” (258). Tom knows that logically, forging another document would only invite more suspicion and “trouble” onto himself, but he cannot help his own “[restlessness]” in this boring, lulled existence. Tom thrives on the thrill, the adrenaline of getting away with things, even if they are illegal and morally questionable. Over the course of the novel, he becomes practically addicted to taking risks, and actively seeks to do so even as it puts him into additional, unnecessary danger. In this way, through his perilous actions, Tom represents not only the desire for stimulation, but also the potential for crime within all humans.
Throughout The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom’s ambition, insecurities, and recklessness makes him the embodiment of basic human attributes any reader can identify with. His relentless drive, sensitive side, and incessant need for stimulation results in a character that is undeniably human, even as he commits dangerous and illegal crimes. However, Highsmith’s true point in this sociopathic persona is to highlight how some of the best traits of humanity ironically have the highest potential for the most inhumane acts. Just as Tom’s strong determination, empathy, and thrill-seeking qualities, the very traits that make him so “talented”, could have easily been turned to a life of virtue and integrity, as demonstrated in this novel, they also effortlessly translate to his ability to engage in illegal, immoral deeds. Likewise, within every human lies the potential to be a righteous, upstanding citizen, but also the potential to become a cold-blooded murderer. But who’s to say they can’t be both? In the end, there is no clear-cut juxtaposition between the innocent and the criminal; they are intricately linked and tied together in an incessant cycle.
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