not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account. It contains significant spoilers for this book.
The violence in The Talented Mr. Ripley is among the most upsetting I’ve encountered in a book recently. This isn’t because it’s extremely graphic or brutal — Tom Ripley is a fairly practical and considerate murderer — but because it’s sudden, unexpected, and the person being murdered knows what is happening but has no idea why. It speaks to the impulsive nature of human beings, the feelings that arise when we see a man standing close to the street, and we find ourselves thinking about how easy it would be to push him into traffic. It’s a wonder that Highsmith’s work was only adapted by Alfred Hitchcock once.
The greatest trick the novel pulls is making a character who is a fraud and a murderer earn our sympathy, partly by showing us how deeply he is affected by his own violence (after the first murder, there hardly seems to be a moment he isn’t consumed with fear and suspicion), partly by making his background and motives just sympathetic enough. Tom Ripley is that most American of characters, a striver who wants to better his position in life and is willing to do anything he can to get to that point. When he murders Dickie Greenleaf in that rowboat, it’s a violation of class propriety as much as anything- Tom rejects Dickie’s unspoken power to dismiss Tom from his company, and seizes the opportunity to earn the income and lifestyle toward which he’s been striving. Tom’s attitude toward the rich seems to be, “if you can beat them [enough for their brains to leak out of their head], you can join them.”
I can’t in good conscience end this without mentioning the homoerotic undertones of the novel, through which Tom’s assumption of Dickie’s identity becomes a bizarre sort of marriage, with Tom thinking to himself that he will need to act like he is “living for two” in order to properly cover his tracks. I’m not so sure that Tom Ripley is gay, or straight for that matter: his main characteristic is the fluidity of his identity, and a definite categorization seems a bit too easy. But Highsmith does ask us to at least entertain the possibility, and the novel’s end, with Tom receiving Dickie’s inheritance the way a bereaved spouse might, suggests that The Talented Mr. Ripley has a more complex perspective on sexuality and gender than a synopsis of the novel might reveal.