The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

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Highsmith's creation of Tom Ripley as a central character is problematic, for Tom is elusive and decisively absent despite his omnipresence throughout the story. Tom's journey to Europe illustrates a Canadian journey into the "heart of darkness," for Tom's desires become horrific in their realization. Desiring to be another becomes deadly, not only for the one erased from the text, but also for the one inscribed with the identity of another. Tom is cruel, Tom is calculating, Tom is dangerous, Tom is not . . . Tom is elusive because he is constantly naming himself as another; in the beginning of the novel, Tom receives checks made out to fictitious names (like "George McAlpin"), and, by the end of the novel, is accepting checks directed to him by fraud. The first checks could never be cashed, for Tom feared he was being "sought out" by the police, but, by the end of the novel, is confident that his ruse was successful.

The novel fails to illustrate the conventional "character arc," through which a character experiences a transformative moment—catharsis and denouement that leads to the creation of a new, or revised, character. Tom begins and ends a "nobody" in the sense that he can never be defined by the author, narrator, or reader, because Tom Ripley, as a character, lacks the language to define himself. The only "true" thing we know about Tom Ripley is what he confesses (and regrets telling) Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf: "My parents died when I was very small. I was raised by my aunt in Boston." His subject position is tentative, for he is always reformulating himself, shape-shifting to suit his surroundings.

And Tom cannot see himself beyond what he feels and fears Dickie thinks of him. Fearing that he has lost Dickie's attention, Tom looks to Dickie to see that Dickie's "blue eyes" "were still frowning" and the "sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him." Although Tom is alienated from Dickie, he begins to see himself as Dickie: "in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror." And the similarities between the two characters, and Tom's eventual synthesis of the two, is most telling.

Like Tom, Dickie Greenleaf is elusive, for he is an angel and devil at once. Dickie is enigmatic, drawing both Tom and Marge into his circle, but is also violent—pushing each away. His sexual preferences, like Tom's, are questionable, for he never articulates his desires, and, more often than not, avoids questions. Dickie Greenleaf is a "type" in the sense that he is "money." Green-leaf and gilded, Dickie is glamorous and aloof—an expatriate by choice and artist by will. Dickie has the allowance to live as an artist, and play. Herbert Greenleaf describes Dickie as an "underachiever," or a "dreamer," as he states, "[Dickie] says he's painting. There's no harm in that, but he hasn't the talent to be a painter. He's got a great talent for boat designing, though, if he'd just put his mind to it." As soon as Tom hears this about Dickie's life, he begins to envy him, a desire that will later turn deadly. They are both twenty-five years old, but Tom can only recognize what he lacks, and Dickie has: "Dickie was probably having the time of his life over there. An income, a house, a boat. Why should he want to come home." As Tom attempts to picture Dickie's life, "Dickie's face was becoming clearer in his memory" as Tom pictures "a big smile, blondish hair with crisp waves in it, a happy-go-lucky face" and then ascertains, "Dickie was lucky."

Before we even meet Dickie, we think we know him, for he is at the center of the plot, and Herbert Greenleaf's thoughts. But Dickie is fated to remain the "flat" character on the pages of the photo albums that Mrs. Greenleaf shows Tom, illustrating "Richard taking his first step, Richard in a ghastly full-page colour...

(The entire section is 1,661 words.)