Highsmith’s most famous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley, bears resemblance to Strangers on a Train. Tom Ripley’s world is marked by alienation and oppressive social rules. Tom does not fit into “good” society, and consequently he “performs” various roles, mimicking not only conventions he sees as key to social acceptance but ultimately imitating his double, Dickie Greenleaf—the ultimate social “insider”—in order to gain access to the American Dream.
The novel opens with Tom Ripley being followed. Eventually, it is revealed that Tom’s pursuer is not the law but an acquaintance’s father, who offers to pay the impoverished Tom to bring his son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from an extended holiday in Italy. Tom accepts the task, and as he prepares to leave, the reader gets a glimpse of his life. Unlike the Greenleafs, who are part of the Manhattan establishment, Tom is a drifter with neither close friends nor immediate family. He moves from job to job, too smart and too bored to stay in the same place for long and lacking the connections necessary to succeed in postwar America. Socially, professionally, and personally, Tom just does not “fit.” As a result, he is guarded, distrusting, and self-loathing. Tom is trapped: He wishes to embrace the “American Dream” but feels it perpetually pushing him away.
Mr. Greenleaf’s offer gives Tom hope. With his travel allowance Tom buys new clothes, new luggage, and first-class passage to Europe. In a sense, Tom buys a new self and a fresh start. Happy and optimistic for the first time in many years, Tom feels reborn and celebrates the blank slate he has been given. Indeed, Highsmith’s Ripley is a postwar Jay Gatsby who believes money is the tool to create a new, socially acceptable self.
Tom arrives in Italy committed to performing his duty and performing his...
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