Literary Techniques

As a contemporary work of fiction (written after 1945), The Talented Mr. Ripley focuses on the dissolution, or disparity, of the "self." The novel's focus on the solipsistic nature of its protagonist, a character who is equally antagonistic to himself, reflects the works appearing after World War II, infused with questions of "national," if not "individual," identity. Locating this novel in Europe heightens the drama of displacement; placing this novel in Italy creates the drama of what Anthony Minghella, screenplay writer and director of the 1999 film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, refers to as the exploration of "issues of identity and sexuality." The novel is "escapist" in the sense that it allows Tom Ripley the opportunity to travel beyond his society to explore the boundaries of his identity. What ensues, most tellingly, reveals how tenuous those boundaries are.

While The Talented Mr. Ripley is identifiable as a work of "contemporary" fiction, its location in and between the modern and postmodern is more ambiguous. Although the narration is third person omniscient, like James' The Ambassadors, the allusions to James' text illustrate that something else is at work in the novel. Highsmith's play with the modernist tradition is evident as the reader travels to Europe with Tom Ripley, only to then delve into the nightmare of Tom's mind. In this sense, Highsmith's work appears "postmodern" as it posits the idea that the self is polyvalent, multi-vocal— informed by other voices. This concept that the self is fragmented, and multiple, is played out in the context of the novel as Tom can only see himself as Dickie; once Dickie is removed from the text, Tom can become like him, if not liked by him.

While Highsmith is regarded as a writer of "suspense" fiction, as her work, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, would indicate, her work appears to transcend such simple categorizations....

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Ideas for Group Discussions

The problems associated with the formation of identity are central to The Talented Mr. Ripley. In the novel, Tom Ripley desires to be like Dickie Greenleaf, a longing that leads to murder. For Tom, class mobility is only a possibility once he is mistaken for another; Herbert Greenleaf thinks him to be "other" than he is. Tom then becomes "another" person when he is afforded the opportunity to recreate himself abroad. The issue of class is essential to understanding the novel because it is what provides the opportunities for characters like Dickie, Marge, and Freddie, while it denies Tom the ability to reconstruct his world. And since Tom cannot sustain Dickie's identity (once Dickie is "found out" for Freddie's murder), money becomes the most important gain for Tom's new life to continue without a hitch. Rethinking the significance of class distinctions in this novel forces us to examine what constitutes identity.

1. How do we define Tom Ripley? List his positive and negative qualities. Are these characteristics particular to him or shared with other characters? What conclusions can you draw from your findings?

2. Considering the title of the novel, what are Tom's "talents"? Compare how Tom defines himself to how others define him. Are the two perspectives similar or dissimilar? Why?

3. Who is the protagonist of this novel? Is there one? Who is the antagonist? What is the struggle?

4. How are issues of class played out in the context of the novel? What is Tom's background?

5. How are issues of gender played out in the context of the novel? Is Marge a strong female character? What does this tell us about the constitution of the "self"? If the "self" is informed by social constructs like class and gender, what does this tell us about identity?

6. What is the function of desire in the novel? What does Tom want from Dickie? What does Marge want from Dickie? How can we define "desire" and discuss its results?

7. Who is Dickie Greenleaf? What does he represent to the different characters? What does he represent to us?

8. How does community function in the creation/reformulation of the self? What does this imply about "identity"?

9. What is the "American" self? Why is it important that all of these characters are abroad?

10. Discuss issues of narration. What is the difference between the reader's perspective on Tom and Tom's own perspective? What does the act of reading this novel allow the reader to do that Tom can't?

Social Concerns

In the "Preface" to his book, Patricia Highsmith, Russell Harrison curiously qualifies the genre of Highsmith's work. Harrison writes, "For a long time, her work was, in the United States, viewed as crime or suspense fiction," but he is careful to explain that while her work is not representative of "literary realism," it does evince and "create in readers" "states of extreme psychological tension unlike anything produced by her contemporaries." Harrison's reading of Highsmith's works as psychological and social, reflecting the ways in which the "self" is created, informed, and altered by society, illustrates that her novels are, in a sense, subversive—challenging the norms of the societies that she unveils. While her works cannot be reduced to the categories "crime" or "suspense" fiction, her treatment of the characters' quest for identification within (or rejection of) an often hostile environment leaves the reader with a whirlwind of questions regarding the construction of the "self" and its social role.

Highsmith's fourth published novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, focuses on the question of "identification"—a question not so easily resolved for the resilient Tom Ripley. Tom Ripley is talented, yes, but he is alienated from a larger society and himself. Tom's talent is fraud (not "a fraud"), for he does possess the talent of imitation. But before Tom begins to see himself as another, reconstructing "Tom Ripley," we are introduced to "Tom" and recognize that his character is, at best, a construct, for he is too eager to escape his world to become someone else. The novel begins with Tom's fear of being discovered, being "found out," a fear that manifests itself in a disastrous and climactic scene once Tom can no longer hide behind his well constructed facade. Though Tom evolves into a criminal (in the largest sense, for he becomes a murderer), he is originally conceived, and represented as, a voyeur. Watching and waiting, Tom hides in a bar, caught between the social sphere that he inhabits and a mental prison that leads him to question that he is about to be "found out" for fraud. But it is at this moment of fear of "discovery" that Tom discovers an escape—from his world, its inhabitants, and himself.

Ironically, Tom's introduction into this new world is one marked by his identification as "Tom Ripley," an identity that he will later erase in the context of his journey to Italy, to Dickie Greenleaf, and away from a unified notion of self. "Pardon me, are you Tom Ripley?" Herbert Greenleaf implores on the second page of the novel. It is at this moment that Tom breathes a sigh of relief; "Free!" he thinks to himself. Herbert Greenleaf offers Tom the opportunity to leave his world, at Herbert Greenleaf's expense. While the two men sit across from each other at the bar, in conversation, the dissimilarity is striking. Herbert Greenleaf is a shipbuilding magnate; Tom Ripley is wanted for fraud. But both characters despair over their respective lots—Herbert Greenleaf wants his son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return from Mongibello and enter the "family business," while Tom wants to escape like Dickie—to live a life of leisure. But Herbert Greenleaf has heard (mistakenly) that Dickie and Tom are friends (the two are little more than acquaintances). He thinks that "Tom Ripley" is the one to encourage and facilitate his son's return. And yet, during this meeting and the next to follow at the Greenleafs' home, Tom is readily constructing stories about his friendship with Dickie, to merely "pass the time." Amused by the Greenleafs' plight, their desire to see their son's safe return, and driven by his own needs, Tom Ripley willingly accepts the offer of a lifetime—a trip to Europe.

Tom's migration to Europe signifies a rebirth for his character. "He was starting a new life. Good-bye to all the second-hand people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. . . . A clean slate," the narrator tells us as Tom begins to "play a role on the ship." From-this point on, Tom continually renegotiates his identity, trying on different "hats" as readily as he dons a cap that transforms him into a "country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it." A "plain American," indeed, for Tom, upon arriving in Italy, attempts to become this "other" American, an expatriate, a young American of leisure, freedom, and volition to become someone else. It is at this moment that Dickie's life appears before him, literally. Tom's desire then is directed toward Dickie—all that Dickie possesses and is.

Tom introduces himself to Dickie as "Tom Ripley," but Dickie's question, "Tom what is it?" illustrates Tom's non-existence in Italy at this point. Tom does not know the area, or the people, and can only tell Dickie that he does not know how long he will stay, for he has to "look the place over." Dickie reaffirms Tom's spectral presence in Italy as he validates Tom's suspicion that "You don't seem to remember me from New York." As Tom gradually moves into Dickie's life and, eventually, home, he appears elusive, indefinable. When asked about his "job," Tom confesses that he can do a "number of things . . . forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impersonate practically anybody." While Dickie is impressed by Tom's stories and imitations, Tom's desire for Dickie becomes problematic, for Tom is so elusive. The reader knows Tom not by his own descriptions but by his desire to become "liked" by Dickie—for that was something that Tom wanted "more than anything else in the world"—and then "like" Dickie. Early in Tom and Dickie's "friendship" (for it is hard to term it without qualification, as Dickie tires of Tom and Tom desires Dickie rather compulsively), Tom begins to see himself like Dickie. Admiring Dickie's rings, Tom recognizes that "Dickie had long, bony hands, a little like my own hands." And it is this process of "mirroring" that inevitably drives Dickie away from Tom, for the imitation is too...

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Literary Precedents

The Talented Mr. Ripley is both like and unlike the text it alludes to—Henry James' The Ambassadors. The modernist impulse away from the unified self to the representation of "human subjectivity" illustrates a shift away from the omniscient narrator. In James, we find a narrator, who relays Strether's point of view, while calling its narration into question. In James' work, we glimpse the unconscious—what Strether is unable to consciously articulate and realize, but we are unable to process it all neatly, and flatly, as traditional omniscient narration allows. Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley narrates Tom's story, while relaying Tom's point of view, but, like in James, narration allows us to piece together what is beneath the surface in addition to what is conscious thought. Like James, Highsmith explores what it means to be an American touring Europe, especially after the war had divided (and yet somehow unified) the chasm between the two lands. Exploring the very notion of "identity" through the eyes of the "expatriate," Highsmith continues the conversation begun by James, and turns it inward.

In psychoanalytic terms, Highsmith's novel is closely related to earlier works of literary "mirroring." Edgar Allen Poe's "William Wilson" begins with a narrator reluctant to tell his story, or reveal his name, and the reader gets the sense that he is repressing (or deliberately reconstructing) his identity as he pens the story. While the narrative differs (between first and third person narration) between the two works, "William Wilson" is like The Talented Mr. Ripley (and vice versa) due to the fact that Poe's character cannot fully realize himself. Even when he is faced with his mirrored reflection, smeared with blood, he almost fails to recognize what he has done. Like William Wilson, Tom Ripley deliberately keeps these two identities distinct; Freddie must be murdered when he sees Tom as "Dickie" and Tom even contemplates murdering Marge if she realizes too much. Similarly, in Poe's eerie style, William Wilson is denied (and denies) self-realization, and, instead, favors keeping his two "selves" separate, until he no longer can.

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is another text that introduces this idea of a literary "hall of mirrors," through which characters like Richard III and Hamlet have posited what identity signifies. Wilde's Dorian Gray is split—between the "idealized" self and the "real." Without a "moral conscience," Gray does as he pleases, and the idealized Gray bears the wounds of the character's ill actions, so that, finally, self-destruction results when Gray can no longer deny his "self." But this hall of mirrors goes back still further, for the Brothers Grimm's version of "Snow White," where the queen begs the mirror's affirmation only to find that another version, her idealized self, exists elsewhere; she then resolves to kill the girl to subsume, and assume, her place.

Related Titles

In 1950, Highsmith published Strangers on a Train, a novel from which Alfred Hitchcock adapted his famous film. The Talented Mr. Ripley is Highsmith's fourth published novel, and the first of a series of novels featuring Tom Ripley: Ripley Underground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1990). As The Talented Mr. Ripley ends with Tom looking over his shoulder for policemen, and then to the taxi driver, indicating that Tom's journey is to continue, so do the subsequent novels follow Tom's perpetual struggles. Harrison writes that the central thread of the later Ripley novels is "domesticity," for Ripley weds Heloise (a character absent from this first work), obtains and retains a servant, Madame Annette, and his home, Belle Ombre. But the domesticity of these later Ripley novels is far different from the "domestic" realm of Mongibello, where Dickie, Marge, and Tom cohabit and entertain rather than sustain. And Ripley's newfound domesticity is distinct from that of Highsmith's novels that span 1957-1962, as Harrison argues, for domesticity in Deep Water (1957), This Sweet Sickness (1960), and The Cry of the Owl (1962) is "one of the most harrowing human experiences."

Highsmith's "domestic" novels of 1957-1962 are especially intriguing once we take into account their location. Set in "familial America," these novels explore the "American Dream," an illness that we witnessed Tom Ripley symptomatic of. Community is suspect and suspecting, and the lines between guilt and innocence are not so clearly drawn. Like in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith explores the role of the individual in society, but it is a different society—alienation is now "at home" in America. This societal "plague," alienation, reflects existential beliefs, and her characters, like Tom Ripley, at times appear like the "existential hero." Like Camus' The Stranger, Tom Ripley is isolated, and his actions are influenced by this realization.

But Strangers on a Train is perhaps more closely aligned to the tale of Tom Ripley evidenced in The Talented Mr. Ripley than the four subsequent Ripley novels, for it focuses on the relationship between two men, obsession, and murder. One man uses the other as "mirror," posits a "new" identity, and commits a crime to achieve this new "self." In Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines meets Charles Anthony Bruno, and a "relationship" is established, much by the insistence of Bruno, to a destructive end. In this work, we witness the dynamics of two men—both desiring certain ends and yet alienated from each other. The stakes are high, for one has the capacity to carry out the "plan" and makes a proposition that distresses the other. Here we have the microcosm of the plot of the first Ripley novel, but, with its variations, Strangers on a Train offers a different glimpse into the formulation and reconstruction of identities.


In 1960, Rene Clement adapted The Talented Mr. Ripleyinto a "French thriller" titled Purple Noon, or Plein Soleil. In relation to the novel, this film begins in media res, for Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) and Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) are in Rome, and no intimation of Mr. Greenleaf's proposition to Tom is given until it is revealed in later discussions. The film's premise, in its totality, is the same: Tom desires Philippe's life, and murders him to get it. Significant differences occur, though, in the formation of the plot.

As the film opens, Tom and Philippe appear as close friends, but the homosexual undertones (and overtones) are absent. To iterate this distinction, the film places Tom and...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cochran, David. “’Some Torture That Perversely Eased’: Patricia Highsmith and the Schizophrenia of American Life.” In America Noir. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2000.

Cooper-Clark, Diana. “Patricia Highsmith: Interview.” The Armchair Detective 14, no. 4 (1981): 313-320.

Evans, Odette L’Henry. “A Feminist Approach to Patricia Highsmith’s Fiction.” In American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King, edited by Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Harrison, Russell. Patricia Highsmith. New York: Twayne,...

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