In ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ a Shape-Shifting Protagonist Who’s Up to No Good

This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation about “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” to be led by Edmund White and held on April 22.

Patricia Highsmith was Tom Ripley without the charm. She was unhappy if an affair was going well, and stirred up trouble with her multiple women lovers — she could only write in a state of high tension. She collected snails and loved observing them, liked their passionless, unconscious way of breeding, thought the French were practically cannibals for eating them. When she was the most in love, oddly enough, she thought of strangling her partner; luckily, she expressed her combination of desire and violence in her writing, not her life. She identified with Ripley, her most famous creation, and would speak of him and his comings and goings as if he were a real person, claiming, “I am a man and I love women.” A vicious anti-Semite, she was also “an equal opportunity offender,” as one of her friends described her. She disliked almost every minority — virtually everyone. Like Ripley, she was a social climber and intensely aware of status; most of her girlfriends were upper middle-class, rich, well-connected, preferably married. Like Ripley, she constantly fantasized; even in her journals she seemed incapable of distinguishing between reality and her inventions. Her most recent biographer, Richard Bradford (the author of “Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith,” released this year) points out that many of the affairs minutely recorded in her notebooks are not based on identifiable women or events; she couldn’t distinguish between the real and the fictional. She was an epic drinker, drunk from morning to night. She also liked sex, noting in her diary that she routinely had it ten times a day with women she picked up in bars. Until she fell completely apart, she was attractive and chic.

Ripley is a nobody who bitterly resents his sleazy New York City friends and his low income as a stockroom clerk for the IRS; he is a petty thief who feels not a shred of guilt impersonating a tax collector in order to fleece vulnerable people. When, by chance, he meets Mr. Greenleaf, the rich father of a vague acquaintance, he pretends to be an Ivy Leaguer and the son’s great friend. Fooled, Mr. Greenleaf buys Ripley a first-class ocean liner ticket to Europe and finances a six-week stay in the Italian coastal town of Mongibello (based on Positano), where his son, Dickie, is living as a self-serious but talentless painter. Though Dickie’s mother is dying of leukemia, he refuses to return home to comfort her; after all, he has a villa, a sailboat, a maid and an American admirer, Marge, and life is well within his means (he also has a modest trust fund). Tom Ripley’s job is to charm Dickie, to become his best friend and eventually to persuade him to return to the States and his dying mother.

Although some of Highsmith’s later books approach the improbable, in this novel all the details are believable. Dickie is easily bored and Tom keeps the jokes coming; he is a master of impersonations (especially of old ladies), which he now trots out to make Dickie laugh. Tom keeps his distance when Dickie is in a mood but is always available when his friend wants company. He tries to befriend Marge, but he and she are intensely jealous of each other; she even unjustly accuses Tom and Dickie of being lovers. The truth is that she loves Dickie but he’s not attracted to her and has befriended her because she’s the only other American in the village. For his part, Tom doesn’t want to have Dickie but longs to become him.

Tom quite literally becomes Dickie. He murders him and assumes his identity. He wears Dickie’s clothes, signs Dickie’s checks, even writes letters on Dickie’s old typewriter. Switching his old New York persona for that of the Europeanized golden boy Dickie Greenleaf, Tom comes to feel much better about himself:

He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was … a feeling that everyone was watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolutely confident he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made. But he no longer felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at first. He had no need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted out, Dickie rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite.… He had even produced a painting in Dickie’s manner.

In other words, his impersonation of Dickie is not only as a criminal disguise but a psychological prop to his own self-hatred. He likes himself more when he is a rich, handsome heir.

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH, WHO was born in Texas in 1921 and died in Switzerland in 1995, lived for many years in New York City and in the French countryside near Paris, among other places. Her first book, “Strangers on a Train” (1950), was made into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock starring the astonishingly handsome Farley Granger. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1955) was twice made into a movie: 1960’s “Plein Soleil” (otherwise known to American audiences as “Purple Noon”), starring the equally handsome Alain Delon; and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), with Matt Damon as Tom and Jude Law as Dickie; Gwyneth Paltrow plays Marge.

Ripley was such a successful character that Highsmith wrote four more novels about him. Another successful film, “Carol” (2015), starring Cate Blanchett, was based on her lesbian novel, “The Price of Salt,” which she wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Highsmith’s agent had suggested she use a false name if she wanted to keep her career. This was the start of the Eisenhower years, a conformist era of rabid anti-Communism and Hollywood’s Hays Code, which censored all dirty words (even “virgin”) and forbade film scenes of a married couple sleeping in the same bed. Certainly homosexuality was considered beyond the pale, though a few plays on Broadway tested the limits. “The Price of Salt” sold nearly a million copies in paperback, and once Highsmith became known in certain circles as its author, the novel became one of her main seduction tools in the lesbian bars of the day.

“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” had it been filmed at the time, would never have gotten past the censors, since we root for the murderous villain, or at least admire his nerve, excess and cunning — in the end, he goes unpunished! Even if Tom and Dickie never go to bed, their relationship (especially on Tom’s part) is very intense and romantic (we know Highsmith daydreamed about murdering at least one of her own love interests). The task of making a heinous character sympathetic is the real work of many novels. Think of the criminal Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (1955). Before long, we’re hoping he will seduce the nymphet, and we rejoice in her mother’s death. By the end of the book, we know in our bones what it is like to be a pedophile, and what horrified us at the outset has hoodwinked us. It was very important to Nabokov that the reader should disapprove of Humbert; he was dismayed when people in the swinging ’60s found him sympathetic. In the same way, Highsmith overcomes our moral scruples and makes us like the thoroughly evil Ripley.

I GREW UP gay in the 1950s and I had to pretend to my classmates, fraternity brothers and, later, office mates to be straight. It was a disgrace to be homosexual, and before the beginning of gay liberation many of us (including me) were going to shrinks with the sole goal of turning heterosexual. Our psychiatrists (who were being richly paid) argued that same-sex love was not inborn; it was only, they said, a symptom of a deeper neurosis caused, for instance, by an absent father or a stifling mother or by an Oedipus complex gone awry — or something. Usually it was the mother.

If we talked of our lovers, we would have to pretend in my case that instead of his being a 6-foot-3 blond guy named Ralph, the beloved was a 5-foot-3 girl named Joy. We would invent long stories about our courtship, our First Time, our interfering parents and so on — and we had to remember all that! I always contended that since Proust turned his real-life boyfriends into women, the imaginative exercise of invention and memory was good training for a future novelist.

Tom Ripley may not be gay, exactly, but he does first impersonate an Ivy Leaguer, then a forgotten acquaintance, and finally Dickie himself, copying his signature, wearing his rings and lightening his hair, all for the benefit of the Italian police, who are investigating what they believe to be Tom’s death. The art of impersonation was an essential skill for closeted lesbians and gays in the 1950s; the convincing details of that art were ruses that Highsmith, then, knew a lot about. Impersonation also prepared her to be a novelist, especially one who identified with her male hero.

In the next volume of the series, “Ripley Under Ground,” (1970), Ripley engages in another metaphor for a gay “passing” as straight: forgery. He is living in luxury in the French countryside; his income comes from Dickie’s estate (Tom has forged Dickie’s will in his own favor). He also receives money from a bogus art gallery in London that sells fakes of a well-known but dead and mysterious modern English master. At a certain point, Tom even convincingly disguises himself as the painter, authenticates the faked canvases, gives interviews to the press and reassures a suspicious collector. When the collector comes to Tom’s mansion in France and blows Tom’s disguise, Tom, naturally enough, murders him. The layers of forgery and impersonation are impressive.

In a telling scene in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Tom reassumes his old identity in private just to see if he can. “It was a good idea to practice jumping into his own character again, because the time might come when he would need to in a matter of seconds, and it was strangely easy to forget the exact timbre of Tom Ripley’s voice. He conversed with Marge until the sound of his own voice in his ears was exactly as he remembered it.” Interestingly, after the beginning of gay liberation in 1969, Highsmith was able to write openly about a male homosexual character, a painter, in the suggestively named “The Tremor of Forgery” (1969).

“The Talented Mr. Ripley” also attests to Highsmith’s knowledge of Europe — the trains, the hotels, the languages, the towns, the character of the continent (if there is such a thing). Tellingly, Mr. Greenleaf wants Tom to read Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” (1903), which is roughly the template for Highsmith’s novel. James presents an American who is sent to Paris to bring back a wayward son to the United States and the family business. In the end, the envoy and the beguiled youngster switch places — not exact but close enough to “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” James published his masterpiece in 1903, at the beginning of the 20th century. He, perhaps better than any other American novelist, exploited this international theme, the contrast between Europe and America. Highsmith is a talented descendant.

The villagers in Mongibello, as Highsmith portrays them, are agreeable but discreet, keeping just the right distance from their foreign visitors. The Americans, by contrast, come off as a bit hysterical, privileged — even condescending. They follow the rhythms of Mongibello life but are leisured, richer and waited on; as a result, they are never truly part of Italian life, despite their efforts to learn the language. As idle expatriates they feel free to live wherever and however they choose; they are exempt from the local rules governing family, work, deference and even sexuality. In this arena of freedom, Ripley, like Highsmith, feels comfortable reinventing himself; he lives in a world of his own making. Under conditions like these, Highsmith could protect her misanthropy, indulge her alcoholism and homosexuality; her creature, Ripley, can move into a new, better identity altogether.

Ripley, as he progresses, feels more and more fulfilled by his odd relationship with the deceased Dickie. Tom longs to write Marge saying that she should forget Dickie, that she should understand that “he and Dickie were very happy together, and that was that.” He realizes the Italian police (and, later, an American private eye hired by Mr. Greenleaf) are hot on his trail. “But what had he said about risks? Risks were what made the whole thing fun,” writes Highsmith. Pathological and immoral as Tom may be, he certainly let us in on his brand of fun.

Edmund White, professor emeritus of creative writing at Princeton University, is the author of thirty books. He lives in New York City.

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