A Man in Crisis

The world of literature is brimming with characters who leave deep impressions on the readers. They are as diverse as they are distinct. There are characters who were crafted to push the bounds of our imaginations. There are also characters who make us appreciate the most profound things around us. There are also characters who make us question who we are and the world around us. There are also those who are meant to entertain us. Without a doubt, the world of literature never runs out of characters who can occupy our minds and make us think critically. Literature provides characters from every part of the spectrum. It is rarely lacking and doesn’t take much to find a character who can best exemplify our values.

Among the most popular literary characters are Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Prince Caspian, Katniss Everdeen, Atticus Finch, and Scout Finch. They inspire in us positive values that dwell on the indomitability of the human spirit, the values of camaraderie, and the crusade for justice. On another part of the kaleidoscope lurks a set of eccentric characters. In this group are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Ove from Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. While there are characters that captivated us and spectators across the globe, there are also characters we have come to loathe. They are the epitome of characters we love to hate and hate to love such as Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, and Gone with the Wind’s Scarlet O’Hara. They are often vilified, even in the contemporary.

Another interesting character starred in one of Patricia Highsmith’s most popular novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley. The titular Mr. Ripley is Tom Ripley, a young man in his early twenties who was struggling to make ends meet. He was orphaned at a young age and was raised by his Aunt Dottie in Boston. Living in New York City, he was trying everything within his means, even beyond the bounds of the law, to earn a decent living. But a decent living was not be had in the labyrinthine world of the Big Apple. He resorted to conning others and was even operating a scam involving the Internal Revenue Services. But he was always cognizant that his luck will eventually run out. When we first meet him, his nerves were on the edge. While walking alone on the streets of New York, he noticed he was being followed. He thought he finally reached the end of his scheme and that he would be arrested. He thought wrong.

“He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn’t take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.”

~ Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

The man he noticed following him approached Ripley. He introduced himself as Herbert Greenleaf, the father of Richard Greenleaf, or briefly referred to as Dickie. Dickie was the heir apparent to the Greenleaf family fortune. The Greenleaf family rose to prominence for their boatbuilding business. The Greenleaf patriarch approached Ripley under the impression that Ripley was a friend of his son. Mr. Greenleaf poured his troubles on Ripley. Dickie has been living in Europe for two years, mainly in the (fictional) coastal village of Mongibello in Italy.  He wanted Ripley to assist him in convincing his son to come back home to take over the family firm. Moreover, Dickie’s mother was having a health crisis. Quick to the catch and with no better alternative, Ripley accepted. He had nothing to lose and the trip was all paid for by Mr. Greenleaf.

When Ripley arrived in Mongibello, he received a lukewarm reception from Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge Sherwood. Marge and Dickie were dismissive of their unexpected and unwelcome visitor. Dickie’s attitude towards Ripley changed only when he learned about Ripley’s mission which rather amused him. It eventually dawned on Tom that Dickie was unwilling to give up his decadent life in Italy. Dickeie was seduced by the Meditteranean and by his girlfriend that it is a Herculean task to convince him otherwise. Nevertheless, Ripley opted to stay and exploited the hospitality extended to him by his hosts. It didn’t take long for things to unravel. Once they did, the readers are swept off of their feet, thrown into a whirlwind of nail-biting action that takes them across different towns and cities in Italy and France. What was once a simple mission turned into a cat-and-mouse chase.

Perhaps fittingly, Tom Ripley loomed large in the story. However, he is not your typical hero. Viewed through a different lens, Ripley was the quintessence of the anti-hero. He was quick-witted and able to rationalize things at the sleight of the hand. He was also a compulsive liar. He can turn up the charms if it plays to his advantage; he has no scruples about deceiving others in order to gain something. His cunning was akin to that of a chess grandmaster who was able to quickly map out situations and even emotions before responding to them. He showed not an ounce of remorse in impersonating a tax collector to rip off the vulnerable and the gullible.

He had a talent for impersonation and can even imitate other people’s voices, both of which Dickie found fascinating. Apart from impersonation, Ripley also had an exceptional talent for forging signatures. Indeed, Mr. Ripley is quite talented and all of these talents, both latent and patent, played a critical role in moving forward the story. These talents turned him into a shape-shifter. He has a compunction about taking risks. His calculating mind allowed him to shed his exteriors to assume different shapes and personalities in a heartbeat. His power of observation allowed him to assume even the mannerisms of others. He was a chameleon who can adapt to his environment. He was also as slippery as an eel. In countless dire situations, he was able to slip through without anyone none the wiser.

“They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the worldless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.”

~ Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

But he was capable of so much more, even those that lurk in the darker sides of the human condition. Highsmith provided the readers with an intimate image of a sociopath who was capable of manipulating everyone. He also had murderous and violent tendencies which were no random occurrences. When he was younger, he fantasized about killing his aunt who repeatedly referred to him as “sissy.” But even his nature was filled with contradictions. While he was a conman himself, he resented those shady fellows who he referred to as friends. There were also overtones of materialism overlaid with undertones of narcissism. The Talented Mr. Ripley is an intimate character study of a man in crisis who was too cunning he was able to make it through even the smallest of holes.

What distinguishes the story from other literary pieces was its skewed character development. While we often read books where characters change for the better, in Highsmith’s novel we read of a character descending to the underworld of amorality. It is the antithesis of the ubiquitous coming-of-age story. From this layer, a separate layer was unveiled that underscored one of the novel’s literary values. This layer concerned the value of narrative persuasion. Relatable characters often win the readers’ hearts but in The Talented Mr. Ripley, we read of a heinous character, while portrayed as despicable also appealed, albeit subtly, for sympathy from the readers. This can also be gleaned in similar loathsome characters in seminal literary pieces such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

But the novel does not reduce itself to a mere character study. Beyond the psychological pathology of Ripley, the novel also grappled with privilege and the dichotomies between social classes. In Dickie and Tom, we see different polar opposites. Born with a silver spoon, the former lived a decadent lifestyle. He can pursue anything he wants, including unproductive ones under the pretense of passion because he has a safety net. Whether he was aware of it or not was moot. He also has a trust fund which ensures full financial freedom and worries that are typical of those who were born into the lower classes, such as Ripley. Ripley even detested his lot. By taking on Mr. Greenleaf’s proposition and earning Dickie’s friendship, Tom finally felt how it is to be among the elite. Everything that Dickie took for granted was everything that Tom yearned for.

There were also undertones of homosexuality in the novel. At one point, Marge believed that there was something deeper in the friendship between Dickie and Ripley, that it has developed into a romantic homosexual relationship. The novel captured the attitude toward gay during the period it was set. Homosexuality was viewed with contempt and distaste. The rejection from different quarters of society drives homosexual individuals into secrecy, even escapism. There are some that are driven into yearning for an entirely different life. Amidst this sea of dark and heavy subjects, the story was accented with lighter subjects such as the pleasures of travel and tourism, although this is an offshoot of the privileges of the elite. This privilege was also exemplified in their pursuit of arts and creativity. What is a profession to some is a hobby for the upper classes. Ironically, the novel’s biggest artist was Ripley, in the way he was able to evade dire straits.

“This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time.”

~ Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

All of the novel’s fine elements were woven together by Highsmith’s writing. The story and its unconventional character made for an absorbing experience because of Highmith’s capable writing. The prose was unadorned but it still worked as Highsmith was adept at writing about a sociopath. The image of Ripley became clear and vivid. Her high level of her understanding about the other side of the human condition was ostensible in the novel. She knew her way around crafting complex and labyrinthine minds. It was believable how she captured the interiors of Ripley. Her brilliant literary work earned her several accolades such as the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière as the best international crime novel. It was also included by BBC News on its list of 100 most inspiring novels.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a hallmark of literature. Within its pages, we read of a character who was amoral. He was not a character one expects to find in a typical story, for the novel is not your usual story. While we are used to reading about characters developing for the better, Highsmith provides its paradox. We see a man ascending to amorality. The readers are provided with an intimate peek into the inner machinations of a sociopath. We read of a brutal and remorseless murderer. He had no scruples. He was creative. He was crafty. Yet, the readers are riveted, reeled into his complex mind because of the quality of Highsmith’s writing. This is a feat not easy to pull off but Highsmith was able to do so. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a literary masterpiece deserving of all the accolades it has received.

Rating

84%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 
24%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

It was through must-read challenges that I first encountered Patricia Highsmith and her most popular work, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I wasn’t even aware that the novel was adapted into a film. Nevertheless, it was ubiquitous which made me curious about what it has in store. It was one of those titles that I immediately knew I wanted to read, like in the case of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Even though I barely had any iota on what these books were about, there was something about them that reeled me in. Interestingly enough, I obtained a copy of The Talented Mr. Ripley back in 2018 but it wasn’t until four years later that I was able to read the book, as part of my 2022 Women’s Fiction reading journey. Tom Ripley was a fascinating character, not the typical one and his unconventionally was one of the reasons why I liked the book. Moreover, Highsmith was skilled at keeping me hooked. Her writing made you feel the tenterhook and the tension. It was certainly a great reading experience.

Book Specs

Author: Patricia Highsmith
Publisher: Vintage
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages: 258
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Synopsis

Tom Ripley is struggling to stay one step ahead of his creditors and the law when an unexpected acquaintance offers him a free trip to Europe and a chance to start over.

Ripley wants money, success, and the good life and he’s willing to kill for it. When his newfound happiness is threatened, his response is as swift as it is shocking.

About the Author

Patricia Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman on January 19, 1921, in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth. In 1924, her mother married her adoptive stepfather, artist Stanley Highsmith and in 1927, the family moved to New York City. She attended the Julia Richmond High School. At Barnard College, she studied English composition, playwriting, and short story prose. When she was sixteen, Highsmith decide to become a writer and was even the editor of their college magazine during her senior year. She finished her degree in 1942. Post-university, she was unsuccessful in her applications at publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and The New Yorker. From 1942 to 1948, she wrote for comic book publishers while living in New York and Mexico.

In the summer of 1948, Highsmith was accepted by the Yaddo artist’s retreat based on a recommendation by Truman Capote. It was during the retreat that Highsmith started working on her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was published in 1950. The following year, the book was adapted into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, using a screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde. The novel was also nominated for the Edgar All Poe Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, The Price of Salt was published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Published in 1955, Highsmith’s most popular work was The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America. It was also adapted into a film in 1999, directed by Anthony Minghella. Over the course of her career, she wrote 22 novels. Her last novel, Small g; A Summer Idyll, was published posthumously in 1995.

Highsmith was also renowned for her short stories; she published eight short story collections. Her short stories first appeared in the early 1950s in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. One of her short stories, The Terrapin, was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Best Short Story. She also wrote essays and published essay collections. Other honors she received include the 1979 Grand Master from the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy and the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres conferred to her in 1989 by the French Ministry of Culture.

Highsmith passed away on February 4, 1995, in Locarno, Switzerland, near the village where she had lived since 1982.