He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody.
The plot of Highsmith’s novel is perhaps best known from the 1999 film: it is essentially a character study, the character just so happens to have a knack for forgery, imitation and murder. We follow Tom Ripley as he leaves New York (and a bunch of income tax scams) to undertake the task of bringing Dickie Greenleaf home from Italy to his sick mother and anxious father. Matters are complicated when Ripley finds Dickie unwilling to leave and involved with fellow American Marge Sherwood. Ripley ingratiates himself into Dickie’s life but soon finds himself drawn to Dickie and his lifestyle and jealousies quickly arise.
Ripley’s murder of Dickie happens in the first third of the book and is a very visceral, violent scene (I read it on the train, cringing at the descriptions of the oar hitting Dickie’s head). From this point on the novel turns into more of a recognisable thriller, catch-and-mouse tension as Tom tries to cover up his murder and subsequent identify-theft to the police and Dickie’s friends and family.
Like Strangers on a Train Highsmith puts the reader almost, but not quite, in the head of a troubled, cold, mind but manages to still make the voice in some ways sympathetic. We are never fully in Ripley’s head (the novel is written in third-person) which allows Highsmith to show us Ripley’s actions and thought-processes while allow room for the reader to interpret and form their own opinion. It allows Highsmith to operate the novel in a moral grey area as well as show the gap between how Ripley sees the world and how it actually is. Take for example Ripley’s disdain and dislike of anyone who isn’t Dickie. He hates Marge on sight (and most women in fact) and his friend Freddie (who is later murders) for no other reason than that they are closer to Dickie than Ripley is. Early on in the novel Dickie shows Ripley his paintings, and Ripley’s opinion on them is low, he muses that he would rather not have seen them and invents instead the kind of paintings he wish Dickie did make. Highsmith lays very early on the seeds of Ripley’s dislocation from reality and his need to project his version of events and personalities onto the world.
In many ways this is a novel about lies and perception, about the hiding of the true self. Both in the literal sense and more metaphorical sense. Dickie is hiding from his family name, the family business, wishing to reinvent his self in Italy. And Ripley of course, as becomes clear over the course of the novel, hates his sense of self. He works hard to disguise his real upbringing as an orphan raised by an (at least verbally) abusive aunt and reinvents himself in New York, hanging out with a set of people he will then comes to hate, jumping at the chance to be the kind of American who holidays in Europe. And then Ripley quite literally changes his self when he kills and takes over Dickie’s life. Soon being Dickie is easier for Ripley, because in pretending to be someone else his actions are already dictated to him, he doesn’t have the heavy burden of having to be himself, of making his own decisions. Instead he only has to think ‘what would Dickie do?’ and act accordingly. Going back to plain Tomas Ripley is a failure for him and a sacrifice of the freedom he thinks he has found in Dickie’s life: well-liked, rich, upper-class.
The extent to which The Talented Mr Ripley can be read as a queer text is an interesting one. A few times in the book (most noticeably in a letter from Marge to Dickie) queerness is mentioned and the possibility that Ripley is a gay man in love with Dickie or in some way ‘pursuing’ him. ‘Queer’ is a term used in the book in the derogatory sense of the word and Ripley himself distances himself from that term, a hint of self-loathing perhaps at his own desire for men? I’m sure I’m not the first to wonder if Ripley is a repressed gay man. When Dickie tells Ripley that Marge thinks he’s ‘queer’ Ripley’s response confusion and he has a strong physical response:
“‘Why?’ Tom felt the blood go out of his face […] ‘Why should she? What’ve I ever done?’ He felt faint. Nobody had ever said it outright to him, not in this way.”
The subtext here is that Ripley has been accused of being gay before, his aunt is one example and there are suggestions that others in New York have thought the same. Similarly Ripley references certain queer men that he knew in New York (and asks Dickie about) and several had made passes at him (which Ripley rejects but then is kind to them as he doesn’t want them to ‘dislike him’). He more explicitly rejects any female attention (before he leaves New York and is ‘disgusted’ when he sees Dickie and Marge kissing). It’s possible Ripley is asexual, since he seems to reject and dislike any sexual attention (aimed at either himself or others). At one point he says that had it not been for Marge he and Dickie could have go on together being happy for the rest of their lives. And yet he comes to hate Dickie, a hatred borne out of Dickie not wanting him and it is Dickie’s rejection that Ripley uses as his rationale for killing him:
He hated Dickie, because, however he looked at what had happened, his failing has not been his own fault, not due to anything he had done, but due to Dickie’s inhuman stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship companionship and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility.
Ripley’s delusions are not to be underestimated, he expects people to behave in a certain way and when they do not his method is to manipulate or kill to get the outcome he believes he deserves. In Carol (or A Price of Salt as it was first published as) Highsmith’s celebrates queer, lesbian-love, the lovers themselves have very little inner turmoil about their attraction and it is society (the institution of marriage, husbands and boyfriends) that create the tension and danger by spying on them and using lesbianism as an argument for unfit motherhood. But here Ripley (if he is a gay man) has internalised society’s homophobia to the extent that he hates his own self, his desires and ends up murdering the man he wants to spend his life with. Killing what he cannot have and becoming a darker shadow of that man. There is more complexity at play here though, Ripley self-loathing comes from a place also of class-anxiety and an almost paranoid sense that others dislike him when he has only shown them kindness (even if this is not the case in reality). Ripley is always hiding and obscuring his true-self, always acting a part to manipulate others, something we all do to a certain degree, but which Ripley takes to a more sinister extreme.
Highsmith has created a captivating character, which despite his murderous thoughts and hatred is one which never becomes distanced from the reader or unsympathetic. Through Highmsith’s careful narration and exploration of Ripley’s inner psyche she keeps us on side, so for this reader at least, it was a relief when he escaped.