The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

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(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 new self. However, one meeting with Dickie and Dickie’s friend Marge reminds Tom just what a poseur he himself is. Tom takes mental notes on his performance and makes the proper adjustments. As a result, Tom is embraced by Dickie and they become fast friends, traveling, living, and socializing together. Tom and Dickie are doubles: Tom sees all that he is not in Dickie and is drawn to Dickie’s charm, sophistication, and confidence, not to mention the trappings of his wealthy, leisured self. In fact, Tom’s fascination leads him to imitate Dickie’s way of talking, acting, and even dressing.

Eventually, Dickie grows tired and wary of Tom, ending their friendship. Tom believes Dickie’s rejection is class-motivated and “sees” Dickie for the shallow person he is. While traveling together one final time, a frustrated Tom kills Dickie and adopts his name, personality, possessions, and money. Tom becomes so good at being “Dickie” that “Tom” disappears. “Dickie” becomes Tom’s new “blank slate” upon which Tom is finally free to develop his intellect and engage with the world.

Tom, as Dickie, moves to Rome, where he is almost exposed by Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles, the quintessential “ugly American.” Freddie is loud, obnoxious, and elitist—characteristics Tom despises. Freddie’s suspicions about Tom’s role in Dickie’s life force Tom’s hand: Tom does not want to kill Freddie, but has to in order to protect himself. Once Freddie’s murder is discovered, “Dickie” comes under suspicion not only for Freddie’s death but also for the disappearance of “Tom Ripley.” Tom must do fancy footwork to avoid implication in both deaths. Trapped, Tom must become “Tom” once again. “Dickie” disappears, both literally and figuratively, and Tom returns to his rumpled, displaced, and devalued life in order to save it.

Unlike Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley’s amoral protagonist does not feel guilt, nor is he caught in the end. At the novel’s close, Dickie’s friends and family are convinced that Dickie has killed himself, and Tom, a skilled forger, concocts a codicil to...

(The entire section is 1,551 words.)