The Uncanny and Diagnosis of Mr. Ripley: A Freudian Approach

August 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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