Debra Hamel is the author of Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period and Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. (She has been called 'hip' for having created a video for the second of these books.) She has also published a handful of scholarly articles and reviews as well as publications for a general audience, including several articles that have appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Debra lives the better part of her life online, being a blogger and book reviewer, and she is the genius behind BAFAB - a quarterly holiday that celebrates surprising people with the gift of books ('good karma, good books'). She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, Connecticut, and is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls. Below, Debra discusses Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley.
Debra Hamel on The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
My records indicate that between 1999 and 2003 I read 22 books by Patricia Highsmith - 20 novels, one collection of short stories, and one book on writing - beginning with her 1955 classic The Talented Mr Ripley. My guess is that my interest in reading the Ripley series was prompted by the 1999 release of a film based on the book, also called The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf. I didn't in fact watch the movie until years later, but the ads will have prompted my interest in reading the novel.
Twenty-two books by the same author over the course of four years would suggest a fondness for that author's oeuvre, certainly. It's fair to say that once I read the first Ripley novel I was hooked. I came away from ingesting the Ripley books and Highsmith's other novels impressed that she is able to inject so much tension into her stories despite the fact that her writing is unemotional, and the events she describes are for the most part banal. Here, for example, is something I wrote in 2003 in a review at book-blog.com of Highsmith's novel Deep Water:
Deep Water shares with her other books a certain remarkable slowness. Highsmith's characters unhurriedly attend to the minutiae of their lives. They entertain friends and admire artwork and do the gardening, they take drives and prepare supper. Very often it seems that nothing is happening in one of her books, and yet as the pages turn the reader becomes more and more tense, wondering when precisely the axe will fall - for it certainly will fall.When Norm invited me to contribute to the 'Writer's choice' series here at the normblog, I decided to revisit Patricia Highsmith, to read a bit more slowly - because I now know how it ends! - that first of her books which got me so excited in the first place. So, the question I asked myself was, what's so good about The Talented Mr Ripley?
If you don't already know it, the story, in a nutshell, is this. Twenty-five-year-old Tom Ripley is asked by a certain Richard Greenleaf, the father of an old acquaintance, to travel to Italy and find Greenleaf's son Dickie. Tom promises to try to convince Dickie to give up the idle life he's been living in Mongibello and return to the US. Arrived in Italy, Tom befriends Dickie and in fact comes to obsess over him like a jealous lover. Eventually, Tom murders Dickie and impersonates him, in part to gain access to his money. Tom is later compelled to kill again to cover up the first murder. This time the victim is Dickie's friend Freddie Miles (who was played brilliantly in the 1999 film, by the way, by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The second half of the book concerns the various steps Tom takes to avoid detection as an impostor and forger and murderer. It is not clear until the last page or two of the novel whether he will get away with any of it.
Although the events as described above are dramatic - murder and mail fraud on an international stage - this book does not grab you by the throat, its author imperilling her protagonist in every chapter to keep readers anxiously turning the pages. The story is slower than that, and when they do happen the dramatic bits emerge naturally from Tom's character. Layer upon layer, chapter by chapter, Highsmith has made of Tom a rich, complex, wholly credible personality. And that, in short, is what's so good about The Talented Mr Ripley.
We get a sense of who Tom is in the book's first paragraph:
Tom glanced 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. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren't quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.Tom, that is, is the sort of man who needs to look over his shoulder a lot. Why this should be so is dribbled out over the next several pages: Tom fears himself wanted by the police for mail fraud. It turns out that he has been posing as an employee of the Department of Internal Revenue and collecting checks from unwitting taxpayers under an assumed name. But, interestingly, he has not cashed the checks.
As the story unwinds we learn more and more about Tom, but the details are never heaped on the page. They are strewn throughout the story, a piece of Tom's persona here, another there, so that his character emerges only gradually. Tom is polite but insincere, very intelligent, with a facility for mathematics. He is a ready liar, convincing in his dishonesty because he imagines his lies so very thoroughly, nearly deceiving himself with their veracity. He is a natural actor, and in fact had wanted to pursue a career in acting. Tom is an orphan. His parents drowned in Boston Harbor, and he is consequently frightened of the water - though, of course, much of the action of the first Ripley book occurs on and around water. Tom was raised by a verbally abusive aunt. Once when he was about 12 the aunt told a friend of hers that Tom was a 'sissy' like his father, a remark that stings Tom still. He is a homosexual who, however, does not act on his impulses, is indeed repelled by them and by the suggestion that he might be 'queer'.
Though conflicted and dishonest and a double murderer, Tom remains, incredibly enough, a sympathetic character: he is capable of small acts of kindness; he sobs over the Greenleafs' gift of a bon voyage basket when he first sails to Italy; and at the beginning of the book he fully intends to do his best by Dickie's parents. Nor is Tom without remorse. He regrets having had to murder Freddie Miles, for example, and he is disgusted, when he thinks about it, that he is a murderer.
Tom hates 'riff raff', which is to say the sort of social class he emerged from. And he hates himself, hates being Tom Ripley, so that when the opportunity comes to slough off the personality of Tom Ripley he is happy to do it. Once emerged into his new identity as Dickie Greenleaf, Tom is happier than he's ever been before:
Tom felt completely comfortable, as he had never felt before at any party that he could remember. This was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming over from America. This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person.That Tom is capable - physically as well as emotionally - of becoming Dickie Greenleaf is hinted at throughout the story. He muses early on about his similarity to Dickie: they are the same age but enjoy very different circumstances. Later, references to Tom's physical similarity to Dickie are sprinkled into the narrative - their hands and height and facial features. Tom adopts Dickie's gait unconsciously. He envies Dickie, wants to be Dickie, puts his friend on a pedestal but finds, unfortunately, that Dickie cannot live up to his expectations.
Given what we know about Tom, it does not surprise us when he murders and impersonates Dickie. Indeed, it is natural that he should do so. When we first meet Tom he is already started on the path. He is like the troubled kid who has taken to torturing animals in the woods behind his house, violence that will later, in the natural progression of things, be directed against humans. At the beginning of the story Tom is already engaged in mail fraud - a crime without any real victims, as he doesn't in fact steal anyone's money. And he makes a habit already out of sponging off of acquaintances and gathering information from people in case he should need to use it later to weave credible lies. He has also already fantasized about killing his aunt. Nor is the path Tom has started on likely to end with Dickie and Freddie: at the book's end Tom himself worries that he might wind up killing another friend, Peter, whose mannerisms he has already imitated - a bad sign, given his earlier experiences with Dickie.
In the end it proves impossible for Tom to continue playing the role of Dickie, and he is forced, quite unwillingly, to slink back into the skin of Tom Ripley. But the Tom that emerges is a changed man, neither wholly Tom nor wholly Dickie. He is comfortably off and newly confident, multi-lingual, cultured, the sort of man who can step into a taxi and ask the driver to take him to one of the better hotels:
'To a hotel, please,' Tom said. 'Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!'Highsmith has effected a remarkable transformation.