Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1661
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 photograph dressed and posed as the Blue Boy, with long blond curls." And Tom's reading of Dickie is more telling than the photos, for it is here that desire develops: "The album was not interesting to him until Richard got to be sixteen or so, long-legged, slim, with the wave tightening in his hair." In these photos, Tom witnesses a metamorphosis, of sorts; Tom thinks, "Richard looked more poised in the European pictures." Even after Tom meets and begins to "know" Dickie, he is "waiting for something profound and original from Dickie," only to reaffirm that "Dickie was handsome."
But Dickie has secrets, like Tom; at least we are led to believe he does. Although the narration is in the third person, we know Tom better than we do Dickie, because others—his father, Tom, Marge, and Freddie, then the police, are constantly reading Dickie. Dickie never defines his own role, for the narrator does not (or is not able to) penetrate his thoughts. These readings and misreadings create a Dickie Greenleaf who can be no more than "type," an object for our longing, as we, and Tom, see fit. Marge Sherwood is another expatriate, and alienated American. Living with Dickie in Mongibello (though not in the romantic sense), Marge is part of his world. Herbert Greenleaf and a photo first introduce her to the novel, like Dickie. '"And here's the girl there, the only other American who lives there,'" Mrs. Greenleaf supplies. Tom reads Marge as "healthy and unsophisticated-looking, with tousled, short blonde hair— the good-egg type." Marge is like Dickie in the sense that she is a writer, an "artist" like Dickie, both surrounded by an idealized landscape. But while Marge is a strong character, an independent woman, desiring Dickie, she is dependent upon him; her actions are determined by his reactions. Dickie is at the center of her world, and we often forget that she is a writer, or what she is writing, for it is subordinate to her desire to please Dickie.
Marge is initially introduced as Dickie's "friend," as Tom thinks, "The Dickie-Marge relationship was evidently just what he had supposed it to be at first . . . Marge was much fonder of Dickie than Dickie was of her," but, once we, like Tom, spy the couple's embrace, she becomes more problematic to the plot. Marge infers (so we're told by Dickie) that she suspects Tom is "queer," and she, in one sense, is the catalyst to the murder. Once Tom's desire for Dickie's friendship is called into question, Tom feels called to action, and Marge is left to bear witness to the plot as it unfolds.
Herbert Greenleaf is a catalyst as well, but in a more pronounced manner than Marge. He seeks Tom out, and implores that Tom travel to Europe to "retrieve" the wayward son, and it is his money that finances Tom's "new life." Herbert Greenleaf is a "type" in all senses—he is the original "Greenleaf," shipbuilding magnate, representative of old money. Gullible and proud, Mr. Greenleaf will do anything to control his son, bringing him back into the "family business," including believing Tom Ripley's stories about his intimate knowledge of, and influence over, Dickie. Herbert Greenleaf is a dupe as well; Tom Ripley departs from New York under false pretenses, frames Dickie for the murders (Freddie's and his own suicide), and collects an "inheritance" from Herbert Greenleaf.
Freddie Miles is an extreme version of Herbert Greenleaf. Freddie has money, but an even greater abundance of arrogance. He first appears as "a young man with red hair and a loud sports shirt," identifiable as "an American." The question then arises if it is his loud sports shirt that signifies his nationality, for the two are instantly connected. As "The American," Freddie is detestable to Tom, for "Tom thought he was hideous" and "hated red hair, especially this kind of carrot-red hair with white skin and freckles." Tom's portrait (mediated by the narrator) is one of hideous characteristics. Freddie represents all that stands in the way of Tom's acceptance into this new society, literally. Freddie first criticizes and then admonishes Tom, first for Tom's intrusion, then for Tom's deception. When Freddie threatens Tom's plan, as the first (and truly only) one to realize the extent of Tom's facade, Tom murders him. Freddie, too, then, is a catalyst; Tom can no longer live as Dickie once Freddie's murder is discovered, for Dickie is then named "murderer." Tom must then become "Tom Ripley" again, but with revisions.
Cloe Dobelle and Bob Delancey, as part of Tom's New York world and "old" identity, are foils to all that the Greenleafs represent. They live in poverty, and appear to "leech" off of each other—Bob wishes Tom well and goodbye at Tom's own expense, and inconvenience, as his "friends" crowd the ship's cabin. Cloe seems to "know" Tom, but only in a limited sense; their relationship is as ill-defined as Marge and Dickie's, Dickie and Tom's, and the others, indicating that alienation is symptomatic of the times—not a specific class or gendered divide. We know Cloe only as "a tall, slim dark-haired girl who could have been anything from twenty-three to thirty, Tom didn't know, who lived with her parents in Gracie Square and painted in a small way—a very small way, in fact . . ." While Cloe's role is small, one of her comments is telling of the ways in which the role of women is complicated in the novel: "Men! You have all the luck. Nothing like that could ever happen to a girl. Men're so free!" It is precisely this freedom that Tom and Cloe desire—the ability to recreate a new identity—and its seeming impossibility, as Cloe proclaims, "You're the only person I know who ever went to Europe for a reason."