(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 766 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tom Ripley is trying to survive in New York City. He has to rely on his wits while living off menial work. Between jobs, he engages in illegal scams and lives among shady people. One day, wealthy Herbert Greenleaf approaches Tom—who casually knows his son Dickie—to persuade him to travel to Italy and convince his wastrel son to return home. Tom eagerly accepts Mr. Greenleaf’s offer of a round-trip ticket and six hundred dollars in spending money. Arriving in Mongibello, Tom runs into Dickie and Marge on the beach; the couple seems indifferent to him until Tom tells them the truth about why he is there and keeps them entertained. Dickie invites Tom to share his luxurious house. Tom accepts, to the chagrin of Marge, who lives separately and sees Tom as an impediment to her romance with Dickie.

Tom and Dickie, who resemble one another, become fast friends and travel widely together, usually without Marge. They run into Freddie Miles, a wealthy acquaintance of Dickie who reminds his chum about a scheduled winter skiing party in Cortina. Tom, thrilled to be living a leisurely life he could only dream about before, covets Dickie’s fine clothes, expensive possessions, and a monthly allowance of five hundred dollars.

The friendship between the two men becomes strained after Tom is discovered wearing Dickie’s best clothes, admiring himself in a mirror. Dickie cruelly repeats Marge’s suggestion that Tom might be homosexual; Tom hotly denies it. The friendship crumbles further after Tom attempts to involve Dickie in a drug-smuggling scheme. Dickie begins to spend more time with Marge and shuns Tom; Tom daydreams about eliminating Dickie. Because Marge is busy working on a book, Dickie consents to accompany Tom to San Remo. There, they rent a small motorboat and head into the Ligurian Sea. While they undress to swim, Tom beats Dickie to death with an oar, sinks his body with the anchor, and scuttles...

(The entire section is 785 words.)