The Talented Mr Ripley
The Uncanny and Diagnosis of Mr. Ripley: A Freudian Approach
Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, portrays a protagonist on the precipice of insanity. Mr. Ripley shows many qualities of a person with borderline personality disorder, or more commonly called: a psychopath. A book titled, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley, addresses multiple symptoms of borderline personality disorder, many of which can be seen in the character of Tom Ripley. These symptoms can help explain why Tom Ripley is so convincing and such a believable character in the novel. Along with the diagnostic facets in this story, one can witness elements of the uncanny in this thriller. Using Sigmund Freud’s article, “The Uncanny”, one can also see how Highsmith uses some key concepts of Freud’s article to create a sense of uncanniness. In order to better understand the state of Ripley’s mind, one must know the symptoms and behavior traits of a person with borderline personality disorder. The long list includes many deceptive qualities such as superficial charm, intelligence, unreliability, untruthfulness, lack of shame, egocentricity, failure to follow any life plan, etc. These general characteristics, taken from a multitude of different patient cases by Cleckley, provides the reader with the tools necessary to diagnose Ripley as a “psychopath”, and, once that is established, one can see how Highsmith incorporates his disorder in The Talented Mr. Ripley in order to create a sense of uncanny feelings.
One can see almost immediately a key characteristic of a psychopath in Ripley’s dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf. Cleckley states that, “More often than not, the typical psychopath will seem particularly agreeable and make a distinctly positive impression when he is first encountered” (354). This can be seen in the conversation and mannerisms between Ripley and the Greenleafs. During a lull in the conversation the reader sees Ripley look at himself in the mirror, seeing himself as “the upright, self-respecting young man again. He was doing the right thing, behaving the right way” (Highsmith 25) and just a paragraph later thinking, “That had been the only time tonight when he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt if he had been lying” (Highsmith 25). He acknowledges that he was behaving in the proper manner to this upper-class family, ensuring that they would grant him the opportunity to retrieve Dickie and travel to Europe on their dime. It is also during this seen that the reader sees two other characteristics of a psychopath: untruthfulness and a lack of shame. Cleckley states that, “The psychopath shows a remarkable disregard for truth and is to be trusted no more in his accounts of the past than in his promises for the future or his statement of present intentions” (357). This is seen when Ripley constantly lies when telling his life story to the family, from where he worked “Reddington, Fleming, and Parker” (Highsmith 23), to where he went to school “Princeton for a while… [then] in Denver and went to college there” (Highsmith 23). Neither statement was true, yet he felt no shame or regret in saying that they were.
Another characteristic Ripley shows throughout the novel is his inadequately motivated antisocial behavior. He frequently lies, steals, and commits fraud and murder in order to obtain his wants and desires. Cleckley states that these deeds, committed by psychopaths are often committed for “astonishingly small stakes and under much greater risks of being discovered” (359). This trait of taking great risks for absolutely no payoff or advantage is seen early in the novel when the reader is informed of Ripley’s fraudulent check scam where his total reached, “one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three dollars and fourteen cents…A pity he couldn’t cash them” (Highsmith 19). His inability to cash them was not because he wanted to avoid getting caught, but only because the checks were not addressed to his fake name. Yet, although he knew he couldn’t cash them, he continued to run his little scam just for the thrill of it. He puts this same skill to use later in the novel after his murder of Dickie when he signed the hotel’s “register with Dickie’s hasty and rather flamboyant signature… [Spending] that evening practicing Dickie’s signature for the bank checks” (Highsmith 116). While the payoff is indeed much more significant as the story progresses, his risk of being caught is increased and his sense of guilt or shame is virtually nonexistent, furthering his characteristics of psychopathic behavior.
The extreme circumstances that Ripley faces, including the murders of Dickie and Freddie, would have caused a healthy and normal person to succumb to their emotions. However, Ripley is shown to stay calm and collected even in the most excitable circumstances. This is precisely what Cleckley discusses when speaking about psychopathic behavior concerning the absence of nervousness or psychoneurotic manifestations where, “Even under concrete circumstances that would for the ordinary person cause embarrassment, confusion, acute insecurity, or visible agitation, his relative serenity is likely to be noteworthy.” (Cleckley 355). Ripley’s lack of these emotions and ability to stay calm is first manifested after Dickie leaves to make amends with Marge. It is then that Ripley, upon approaching the balcony, “had a curious feeling that his brain remained calm and logical and that his body was out of control” (Highsmith 77). He then proceeds into Dickie’s bedroom, trying on his clothes while performing a gruesome imaginary act where he throttles Marge’s neck, when he is caught in the act. Under these circumstances, an ordinary person would be very embarrassed; yet, Ripley manages to play it off and is quick to point the blame on Dickie, “Marge had launched her filthy accusations of him at Dickie. And Dickie hadn’t had the guts to stand up and deny it to her!” (Highsmith 79). This scene effectively shows yet another symptom of borderline personality disorder.
Ripley has many of the characteristics of borderline personality disorder. The examples above prove that diagnosing him as having this disorder or labeling a psychopath is not unbelievable, but very fitting. Now that Ripley has been established as having borderline personality disorder with the evidence from both Highsmith and Cleckley, one can turn to Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny”, and establish the concepts Highsmith uses in her novel to invoke uncanniness in the reader. In particular, Highsmith utilizes Freud’s concepts of creating a mentally unstable character and introducing the theory of a “double”. Freud’s concept of the double coincides with a key symptom of borderline personality disorder, that of egocentricity. Cleckley states that, “The psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of a degree not seen in ordinary people” (362), and Ripley portrays this characteristic throughout the novel. His actions show that everything he does is in order for him to fulfill his own ambitions. Freud addresses this egocentric mentality in his essay stating, “the ‘double’ was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’” (Freud 162). Ripley’s ego was beginning to deteriorate as Dickie began to become distant, wanting instead to be with Marge instead of Ripley. After a heated argument between the two about a job opportunity with a drug dealer, Tom felt “hurt that he said nothing, hurt like a child who has been sick and probably a nuisance” (Highsmith 89). Thus it was necessary for Ripley to act in a manner to restore his ego and loss of self-respect. That manner involved killing Dickie and taking his identity.
Ripley’s murder of Dickie adds to the sense of uncanniness for two reasons. First, he irrationally acted on a primal and savage instinct to kill, but in a very rational manner. Coinciding with the example stated in the above paragraphs involving a psychotic’s symptoms and characteristics, Ripley’s mental instability causes the reader to feel uncanny. Freud states that the uncanny effects of “manifestations of insanity…excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity” (157). This mental process is seen as Ripley murders Dickie in the boat off San Remo as “he began to feel cooler, and smooth and methodical” (Highsmith 103) as he prepared to dump the body. His indifference to his recently murdered friend causes excitement and horror in the reader as one realizes that this gruesome task seemingly has no effect on the mind of Ripley. He seems mechanical, like a machine, which leads to the second reason where Freud states, “In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure… is a human being or an automaton” (157-158). Clearly Ripley is not an automaton made of robotic parts or machinations, but he does act like one as he disposes the body. Feeling no emotions and working quickly and efficiently as if he planned every detail out, when, in fact, it was more an impulsive action.
Highsmith uses Freud’s concept of a “double” to invoke an uncanny feeling in the reader while further establishing the ego of Mr. Ripley. Ripley’s intentions of murdering Dickie, in order to take on his persona, are first shown when Ripley states, “he could become Dickie Greenleaf himself. He could do everything Dickie did” (Highsmith 98) and later, showing the ease in which he became Dickie, “he had done so little artificially to change his appearance, but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now” (Highsmith 121). It is after he commits the crime and “becomes” Dickie for a while that the reader gains insight on how this new persona is affecting Ripley as he begins to do everything from smile to brushing his teeth in the same manner. Freud’s statement that “the ‘double’ was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death’” (Freud 162) represents itself again when Ripley has to stop acting as Dickie due to the police investigation. The fact that he has to return to being Tom Ripley weighs heavy on him due to the destruction of his ego, and the confidence boost he gained from being Dickie. Ripley “hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again” (Highsmith 181). Freud’s concept of a double is seen throughout Highsmith’s novel, the uncanny effect is shown through the ease Ripley has not only acting like Dickie, but looking nearly identical also. Uncanny effects can also be seen in the reoccurrence of actions of Tom Ripley. Freud states that while:
“reoccurence of the same situations, things and events, will perhaps not appeal to everyone as a source of uncanny feeling…an involuntary return to the same situation, but which differ radically from it in other respects, also result in the same feeling of helplessness and of something uncanny” (163)
Therefore, taking Freud’s statement, one can see how Ripley’s murders of Dickie and Freddie can be related and seen as uncanny. While the situations differ greatly, Dickie’s being easier to clean up and planned better while Freddie’s was immediate and difficult to cover up, the reader feels helpless in two ways: one, if the reader is rooting for Ripley, they simply hope he can get the body out of there; two, if the reader was hoping Freddie made it out alive, they must watch as he is murdered, which, can feel as if they are an accomplice. One also feels the uncanny effect caused by Ripley’s luck in evading the police at every turn. From the hidden boat of San Remo, the fraudulent checks and letters, interrogations, both murders, and the fingerprints, all cause the reader to sense that something uncanny is happening that protects Ripley at all turns from detection.
Freud’s closing comment in “The Uncanny” states that the uncanny is “something which ought to be kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light” (166). Ripley’s psychopathic behavior was brought to light in this thriller, causing uncanniness and allowing the reader to see into the mind of a psychopath. Once Mr. Ripley’s borderline personality disorder is diagnosed using the symptoms detailed by Hervey Cleckley in, The Mask of Sanity, one can see how mentally unstable this protagonist is, as it provides insight on the strange behavior and mentality of the character. Patricia Highsmith also utilizes many aspects of uncanny feeling, as described by Freud’s “The Uncanny”. Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, portrays Tom Ripley as a psychopath who mysteriously gets away with his multitude of crimes. She expertly shows the mentality and characteristics of a person with borderline personality disorder while exciting in the reader a feeling of uncanniness in the different situations.
Manifestations of Love and Longing in the World of Tom Ripley.
In the book The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, we are introduced to one of the most fascinating and puzzling characters in modern literature; Tom Ripley. Tom Ripley is a character who is both contradictory and simple in his desires. He wants the approval and love from a relationship with Dickie, but we question whether he would be able to feel and return these same feelings. He is always on the move, always chasing something better – a desire which is often mirrored through his travels and his constant craving to visit the mythical cities of old – and culminates with his aspiration to reach the heroic Greek Islands. A careful reader, perhaps, can uncover how Tom Ripley’s sense of longing and love for a lifestyle ordinarily out of his reach, drives the entirety of the novel.
We see the roots of Ripley’s longing for a new life, fresh beginnings, and material possessions manifest themselves in the very first chapter. When discussing Dickie’s age with Mr. Greenleaf, we get to delve into the inner workings of Ripley’s mind. Ripley seems to despise his status, and where he is at in life, as seen when he lists some of his unfortunate – and downright disturbing – circumstances when comparing himself to Dickie; “living from week to week. No bank account. Dodging cops now for the first time in his life.” (Highsmith, 6). The list is written in snappishly short sentences, which suggests a growing sense of anger and frustration over his situation in life. Eric Targan believes this dissatisfaction sprung from childhood, as he was orphaned, but also verbally abused by his aunt. (Targan, 310). When recounting his memory of Dickie Greenleaf, Tom describes him as being pleasing in his appearance – perhaps as more handsome than he was. This marks the beginning of Tom idealizing and romanticizing Dickie, a running habit throughout the novel – even once Tom has killed Dickie. Particularly, Tom emphasizes Dickie’s aura of luck, such as when he describes Dickie’s “happy-go-lucky face” (Highsmith, 6), this is significant when we observe that this is a trait that Tom believes to be practically void in himself. Whereas Tom’s longing for a clean slate made him feel miserable when considering his dreary situation in Chapter One, it changes his world view to one full of excitement and possibilities when he is contemplating his future in Europe as he is sailing on the ship. Tom explores possible career options for after he has finished with Dickie, and now uses long, expansive sentences, complete with explanation marks, and numerous commas to suggest his new openness to possibilities – creating a feeling that anything could happen.
Tom’s longing to transcend his class is obvious in the way he romanticises Europe. Jacqui Miller believes this stems from a belief that “Europe is the place of high-culture and an unearned income, leisure-class lifestyle”. Establishing from the outset Tom’s longing for a comfortably luxurious lifestyle and an elevated status. Upon arriving in Italy, we turn to the question of whether Tom feels any love for Dickie, and whether it has an outcome of what he will do in the rest of the novel. Upon first meeting Dickie, Tom is desperate for his approval, as he admits that it is what “he wanted more than anything else in the world” (Highsmith, 40). From this line, it becomes clear that whether Tom loves Dickie, that Dickie has become the temporary centre of his world. This is seen best in all the lengths that Tom goes to, to entertain Dickie. An example of this is when he is listing his many talents to Dickie. Tom sneaks in foreshadowing for observant readers, when he intersperses his talents that he will be utilizing to conceal the murders he will commit. But he also makes a reference to what he is doing in that immediate moment, when he says that he can “do a one-man show in a nightclub in case the regular entertainer’s sick.” (Highsmith, 45). This is a rewording of Tom’s current situation, as he was required to spontaneously entertain Dickie himself, when no other satisfactory person could be found. It also reflects Tom’s current world-view; he is not only entertaining Dickie, but is also grasping new opportunities as they arise, and creating an act as he goes along. This ‘one-man’ show is replicated later in Tom’s disturbing imitation of Dickie, in which he pretends to kill Marge. The beginning of the passage hints at Tom’s underlying feelings towards Dickie. He copies the strange “higher pitch” and “little growl” of Dickie’s voice that only a lover or a con-man would detect, and is able to link these changes to Dickie’s moods – showing how sensitive and close towards Dickie that Tom feels. He then pretends to strangle Marge, while saying “You were interfering between Tom and me – No, not that! But there is a bond between us!” (Highsmith, 61) This last quote is interesting, as by ‘that’ we can assume that Tom means a sexual relationship between him and Dickie, which he disputes, but he still insists upon a bond between them. An explanation for what this ‘bond’ might be – if not sexual – is that Tom sees Dickie as being his second identity – his better half – who has the life he never had. Which brings us to the question; for how long did Tom know that he was going to kill Dickie, beforehand? Was he originally copying Dickie’s mannerisms and observing his habits with the overall intention to become him?
Edward A Shannon seems to think that Tom treated almost like a pleasurable activity – pretending to be someone he’s not – when he points out that Tom “delights in imitating Dickie long before he decides to kill him.” (Shannon, 23). This theory on their ‘bond’ as Tom sees it, is reinforced when we consider the second part of the passage; Tom seems a lot more calm and devoid of passion as he carefully considers how his appearance is similar to Dickie’s. He observes that if he tweaks small features about himself (like his hair) that he can easily merge into his better alter-ego. Tom so much as says this when he is walking around Paris after he has killed Dickie, and observes that “he had two people to take care of” (Highsmith, 104) as if he and Dickie are just opposite sides of the same coin. Tom focuses on the finer aspects of life, such as when he and Dickie are in Cannes and he mentions that he would have been willing to “have paid whatever it cost at the best hotel on the ocean front” (Highsmith, 75). This is interpreted as being Tom’s desire to ‘live well’ and with security, while enjoying Europe in the way he thinks it is supposed to be enjoyed. Tom’s fascination with objects is revisited when he eyes Dickie’s rings while he contemplates killing him on the train. We already know what Dickie’s rings look like from when Tom initially notices them upon first meeting Dickie. This preoccupation with Dickie’s rings – which is carried on throughout the entire novel – is central because it seems to be a label or a signifier of Dickie’s privilege and upper-class status – something that Tom cannot buy, but ultimately longs for, and wishes to steal. Targan perceives that Dickie’s rings possess his initials, and by wearing them, Tom thinks that he can inhabit Dickie’s being (Targan, 311). We know that Dickie often likes to dress poorer than he really is, such as when he wears soiled pants, or simple “terracotta” shirts, but it is these rings that he never takes off that reminds everybody around him – and Dickie himself – of his true station in life.
On the train ride back to Mongibello after killing Dickie, Tom admits he is “happy, content, and utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.” (Highsmith, 86) and this is largely because of the prospect of Dickie’s lifestyle and unlimited material possessions spread out before him. He seems hyperaware of the tactility and appearance of objects, such as when he caresses the sheets and blankets and marvels at them. This gives us an insight into what Tom craves and loves: material possessions, as they are what makes him truly happy. He describes Dickie’s clothes and accessories lovingly, even casually mentioning his love for them; “they were all his and he loved them all” (Highsmith, 97). This sentence could be understood as being a frivolous statement made by Tom in the moment, but throughout the passage Tom takes the time to gloss over the little details that make them a part of Dickie – such as the “sagging pockets” of Dickie’s sweater, and the “well-worn alligator wallet from Gucci’s” (Highsmith, 97). As Shannon points out, Tom seems to be of the belief that “Dickie is his clothes” (Shannon, 24) and just by donning his clothes can Tom transform into Dickie. A lot of the book is defined by how Tom has an internal longing to transcend his class and live the life he feels like he deserves, and he often recreates this for himself through his focus on possessions. Tom loves the idea of being Dickie, so when he is forced to send Dickie’s possessions to storage, he is devastated at the thought of becoming Tom Ripley again. He compares it to “putting on a shabby suit of clothes…. That had not been very good to begin with.” (Highsmith, 148) this highlights his deep dissatisfaction with his natural identity, and when paired with the fact that he cries over Dickie’s clothes, suggests that Tom feels as if Dickie as a part of him, the part that he longs to be. As was mentioned before, Tom does not only love possessions, but he loves the status and lifestyle that Dickie’s position and money affords him. Even after being questioned by officers in Venice, he is still eager enough to plan the luxurious meal he plans to eat. Similar to when he is describing possessions, he describes luxury in general in lavish detail, emphasising “creamy sauce over delicate pasta” showing that Tom makes an effort to make sure he savours and enjoys. Upon first arriving in Paris, Tom seems to be in love with how ‘chic’ and sophisticated it is and he wishes to let “the atmosphere seep in slowly,” (Highsmith, 97) In this sense, Tom hopes to be influenced by Paris itself, and to absorb the old-world sophistication and class into himself. Throughout the book, we are aware of Tom’s hedonistic love for possessions and luxury, but it is not until the end of the novel does he directly address his feelings towards them.
For Tom, possessions gave a person a sense of self-worth, security, and the freedom to live life on their own terms. Throughout the passage, we get the impression that this is the sincerest Tom has ever been throughout the novel, and he unabashedly admits that he loves his possessions’ “quality, and the love that cherished the quality.” (Highsmith, 193). Perhaps what this reflection reveals is that Tom loves himself most of all, in the sense that he holds most dear the things that allow himself to live a life of ease and which please him and make him happy. It is normal to love the things that make a person happy, for most people it is our relationships with others. But Tom Ripley is not most people, instead, he forms relationships with objects. He is ecstatic when he gains access to them, cries when they are separated, and cherishes them above all. In the last chapter where Tom anticipates his journey to the Greek Islands, do we see that travel is transformational in Tom’s eyes. He exhibits the desire to arrive “as a living, breathing, courageous individual.” (Highsmith, 215) and draws on the ‘heroic’ history of the Greek Islands by quoting The Odyssey when he imagines the ‘wine-dark sea’. Is Tom comparing his journey to The Odyssey, and himself to Odysseus? Perhaps, in the sense that The Odyssey was a journey fraught with dangers and obstacles, and that Odysseus was only able to save himself through his ingenious use of cunning, wit, and disguises. Targan likens Tom to being a type of “shapeshifter” (Targan, 311) where he conforms and fits into whatever ideal that fits his fancy. Where it had once been the easy glamour of Dickie, we see him transform into the brave Odysseus in front of our eyes.
From the outside, Tom can be viewed as the quintessential self-made American male. But beneath the picture-perfect veneer of Thomas Ripley, we discover a man shaped by his consuming hate of his birth-station, who longs for a better life and elevated status so desperately that he is prepared to kill for it. We witness a man who is devoid of any meaningful relationships, but instead fills his days with marvelling over collected possessions and experiences that he loves and adores. When we watch him prepare to shape a new destiny for himself at the closing of the book, we recognize a man whose obsession with materiality and status is so powerful that it can shape not only his world view, but his perception of his identity and himself.
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.
What drives Tom Ripley’s campaign to change his life?
The Talented Mr Ripley, written by Patricia Highsmith in 1955 is a psychological thriller that follows Tom Ripley, an antihero who is given an opportunity to change his life, In the novel, Highsmith clearly accentuates one of the main motivators of Ripley, as the chase for money, possessions and items of materialistic values that he didn’t receive when chasing the “American dream.” She also subtly pulls out subconscious feelings including his innate desire to be someone else and a member of a superior class, hinting at his own insecurity. Furthermore, Highsmith shows us that Tom Ripley is driven by emotion just as much as materialism, emphasizing his desire to be loved and his tragic past. Overall, Highsmith shows the readers three main drivers of Ripley’s campaign to change his life; His value of materialistic objects, his subconscious value of a higher class, and his emotional value and vulnerability.
Perhaps the clearest driver of Tom Ripley throughout his campaign, is that of his chase for Materialistic objects, that he believes are the markers of a good life. As an American, he glimpses the realization of the “American Dream”—financial success and happiness—derived from the erasure of an old identity and construction of a new one through Dickie’s success in Europe and this ultimately drives him to transform his life. When Tom first meets with Mr Greenleaf he subconsciously compares himself to Dickie, thinking about “An income, a house, a boat.” as the markers of having “the time of his life.” This comparison between himself and Dickie simply centers on the materialistic possessions that each of them have and shows Tom’s fixation on possessions as a major drive. After murdering Dickie, Tom immediately takes items of money-oriented value. He takes “Dickie’s silver lighter, a pencil stub, the alligator wallet and several little cards.” As he then debates when to go after the murder, he decides not to go to Paris so he can see to see about Dickie’s belongings.” On the train back, he envisions “the pleasures that lay before him now with Dickie’s money, other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases,” and other items that are symbols of the American dream that he has been chasing. From these quotes, it appears that one of the reasons for Dickie’s death and subsequent alteration to Tom’s life, was so he could become reach the level of “success” that Dickie had through possession of Dickie’s objects. A final look at Ripley’s chase of possessions is when he risks his entire escapade, simply to forge a letter and take Dickie’s, he “leaves his income and possessions” to himself. This final section of the novel caps of with Ripley thinking of “Dickie’s money” which he relates to “freedom”, capping of Tom’s relationship between money and the value of materialistic objects. Overall, Highsmith uses Tom’s apparent fascination with possessions rather than human connections to show this as a major driver for him to change his life; a look perhaps at Highsmith’s criticism of the American dream and its impact on those who it fails.
Another powerful motivator of Ripley, from the very beginning of the novel, is that of his value for class and from this his desire to escape from his own insecurities. Ripley begins the novel, “living week to week, dodging cops for the first time in his life” and being low in the class system which is part of the reason he makes the move to change his life. We learn of his disgust, at his “lousy friends” and despite the fact that he is one of them, he is ecstatic at the idea of saying “Good-bye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him.” Highsmith clearly illustrates to the audience Ripley’s motivation to “begin a new life” free from “past mistakes.” When Ripley then begins his travel to Europe he rejoices from the fact that he will receive no more “piddling cheques for the strange sums of six dollars and forty-eight cents and twelve dollars and ninety-five” which further symbolizes his want to climb the social ladder. Then when Ripley kills Dickie, Highsmith orchestrates his first action as taking “Dickie’s green ring”. A signet ring is symbolic of an identity and usually used to indicate class and hence this ring is used by Highsmith as a motif to show the killing of Dickie as a move by Ripley to move up the class structure. Towards the end of the novel, when Tom invites Marge to lunch, she expresses shock at how quickly Tom climbed up the social rankings, asking “is this all this yours?’ in response to “the high coffered ceiling.” A little bit later, Marge appears to be “dazzled.” This section of the novel serves to show that Tom Ripley’s motivation and driver to change his life appears to be his past life of “second-rate people” and his desire to become something more. Overall, Highsmith uses small moments within the novel and symbolism with motifs such as the rings to point the reader towards class as a major compeller towards Ripley’s obsession to radically change his life.
Perhaps the core driver that Highsmith accentuates during the beginning of the novel is Tom’s emotional vulnerability crafted from his tragic past and ultimately his desire to be loved. Before Tom departs to Europe, we learn that “his parents had drowned in Boston Harbour” and that he grew up with an abusive aunt who called him “a sissy from the ground up.” The fact that he grows up without parents and with no apparent close relationships builds the groundwork for his desire to build connections and change his life. When Tom is about to depart, he remarks to Cleo that “he’s [Mr Greenleaf] really adopted me like a son.” When he gets the bon voyage basket, Tom begins to “sob” feeling for the first time the connection that he so desperately seeks. Despite the fact that all Mr Greenleaf has done was paid him for a trip to Europe, Tom’s overreaction shows us his emotional vulnerability and his desire to be loved. This motivation is also experienced as we watch Tom’s connection to Dickie. As soon as Dickie begins to sour towards Tom and their relationship, Tom realizes that “they were not friends” and that from this he feels a “painful wrench.” He Speaks of “a shock of his realization which seemed more than he could bear” and tells Dickie that he “wants to die.” This final admission before he kills Dickie, shows the reader that if Tom does not receive his personal connection that motivated him to move to Europe, then, he would have to kill Dickie and assume his relationships and standings.
Overall, Highsmith uses Tom’s tragic past and fragile connection with Dickie to show the audience how Tom is driven by his emotional vulnerabilities and lack of love and human connection. Thus, Highsmith paints Tom’s venture to change his life as a split between three main motivators, his chase for materialistic possessions, his subconscious and conscious envy of higher classes and his emotional vulnerability and lack of family connection. Through these three contributors Tom begins his trail of murder and deceit, simply in an attempt to improve his own life. Overall, The talented Mr Ripley, is used by Highsmith and her clever characterization of Tom Ripley as the failure of the American dream and the impacts that following your motivations can lead to if they are followed without restraint.