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The Talented Mr. Ripley
Highsmith (1921-1995) is receiving some well-deserved media attention these days thanks to
Anthony Minghellas opulent Hollywood version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The
film has much to recommend it, but it sorely lacks Highsmiths pitch-black humor and
blithe amorality. Less an adaptation than a wholesale reinterpretation, Minghellas
film asks us to pity a hapless murderer and to reflect on the tragic aspect of his
yearnings and motivations. Highsmith, on the other hand, prefers to play the Devils
advocate - if not the very Devil himself - by inviting us to identify with every twisted
compulsion and petty indignation swirling inside the head of a sociopath.
The delicious perversity of Highsmiths 1955
novel (and its four sequels) lies in the casual normalization of murderous impulses.
Because were privy to killer Tom Ripleys worst thoughts, he comes to represent
our uncensored inner bastard. Even his "good" thoughts are selfishly
compromised. Highsmiths The Talented Mr. Ripley is about the snobbish voice
of superiority that resides within each of us, the voice that proclaims were smarter
and more sensitive than the fools around us. Its also the voice that on occasion
steps over the line and sneers that the damn fools would be better off dead, especially
the ones whove acquired money and prestige that weve been denied.
The novel begins by immediately pulling us into
the wary and suspicious mind of twenty-five year old Tom Ripley, small-time New York scam
Ripley has good reason to fear
exposure: hes lately been impersonating an Internal Revenue agent and telling
selected individuals that they owe additional money to the government. Unfortunately,
its a lousy scheme because Tom cant cash the checks most of his victims
invariably make payable to the IRS. Ripleys resources are dwindling - hes
jobless and has been sponging off friends and relatives. His brain is in overdrive
searching for a new and improved swindle.
behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked
faster. There was no doubt the man was after him.
The mystery man pursuing Tom introduces himself:
Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipbuilder. Greenleaf has heard that Tom is acquainted with
Greenleafs son, Dickie, who moved to Italy two years ago as an aspiring painter.
Greenleafs wife is dying of leukemia and he wants his son back in America.
Toms memory of Dickie is sketchy, but he pretends otherwise. Throughout the
conversation, while Tom dazzles Greenleaf with fabricated anecdotes, Highsmith keeps us
clued-in to the netherworld of Toms reptilian consciousness: "He was bored,
God-damned bloody bored, bored, bored! He wanted to be back at the bar, by
himself." Greenleaf sees only the surface charm on display. After a couple of
drinks, hes begging Tom to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy in order to
visit Dickie and convince the young man to return home.
Highsmith quickly establishes her themes of
pursuit and paranoia with those first four words: "Tom glanced behind
him..." Her symbolic use of the color green is evident in the first sentence,
too. Green is shorthand for money, of course, and "Green Cage" - the name
of Toms barroom hangout - is a cynical metaphor for wealth as a kind of class
entrapment. It also foreshadows Toms imprisonment in anothers man identity. He
will eventually assume the name and bank account of his murder victim, Dickie Greenleaf,
whose fecund name suggests a veritable garden of cash. Highsmith is masterful with
double-barreled ironies. By the novels end, Ripley will be a free man imprisoned in
Although we are always inside Ripleys head,
Highsmith never offers us the seductive camaraderie of a first-person narrator. Ripley
doesnt relate his own story. Instead, his thoughts and actions are presented by an
elusive and clinical third-person voice that conceals as much as it reveals. We find
ourselves in a moral vacuum, desensitized to Ripleys bleak world view and curiously
drawn to his cold logic. Highsmiths cryptic minimalism has lost none of its
disturbing pungency over the years. Here is Dickies murder:
The most startling of
the books "green" metaphors is the association of Dickies murder
with the cutting down of a tree. One wonders while reading the passage if the
metaphor is Highsmiths or Toms? So thoroughly is Highsmiths voice
blended with Toms that we can accept either answer or both. If Tom is momentarily
imagining Dickie as a tree, its an apt illustration of psychotic dissociation.
Dickie has been objectified into a commodity or a fetish - a money tree, as it were. The
metaphor also suggests the gloriously demented image of Ripley as a lethal frontiersman
clearing the forest and carving out his destiny.
Tom swung a left-handed blow with
the oar against the side of Dickies head. The edge of the oar cut a dull gash that
filled with a line of blood as Tom watched. Dickie was on the bottom of the boat, twisted,
twisting. Dickie gave a groaning roar of protest that frightened Tom with its loudness and
its strength. Tom hit him in the side of the neck, three times, chopping strokes with the
edge of the oar, as if the oar were an axe and Dickies neck a tree.
The complex point-of-view techniques employed in The
Talented Mr. Ripley are a literary style pioneered by Henry James, to whom Highsmith
pays overt homage by modeling her novel on Jamess 1903 masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Perhaps the boldest postmodern
joke in Highsmiths novel is Mr. Greenleaf recommending that Tom read Jamess
book, a copy of which Tom later contemplates stealing. Both novels are filtered through
the sensibility of a "central intelligence," an American protagonist who has an
"awakening" when he visits Europe on a mission to retrieve the prodigal son of a
Highsmith doesnt just "steal" the
outline of Jamess plot, she turns James upside down, shakes the pennies from his
pockets, and gives him a wedgie for good measure. While she has been criticized for
portraying the murderous Tom Ripley as a repressed homosexual, it seems valid to surmise
that Highsmith - who was herself a lesbian - is spoofing the homosexual overtones that
play throughout The Ambassadors. Indeed, Highsmith humorously parallels so
many aspects of Jamess novel - including his elaborate symbolic use of the color
green - that the two novels in a sense enhance one another, like the pairing of Charlotte
Brontės Jane Eyre and Jean Rhyss Wide Sargasso Sea.
Patricia Highsmiths The Talented Mr.
Ripley has long had a cult following as a subversive black comedy. Its time for
her novel to be recognized for what it is: a 20th century literary classic.
- Bob Wake