Monday, February 14, 2011

666. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Psychological thriller
Rating: 3
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 1992

Tom Ripley is financed by Herbert Greenleaf to encourage his absent son (Dickie) to return home because his mother is ill. Tom willingly accepts and finds himself living a life he loves. But it can't last and Tom becomes desperate when:
• he steps over Dickie's line and is asked to move on; and
• simultaneously loses the financing provided by Dickie's father.

How far will Tom go to continue living a life he enjoys? And will he get away with it?

The first chapter:
My questions for The Talented Mr Ripley my questions are:
• Why was Tom so worried about being arrested? (p3) And what's he involved in that leads him to talk about "... grand larceny or tampering with the mail ..."? (p4)
• Where was the slight error in "Charley could have told Mr Greenleaf that he [Tom] was intelligent, level-headed, scrupulously honest, and very willing to do a favour"? (p6)
• If Tom has a talent for mathematics, why isn't he doing something with it? (p8)
• How desperate is Mr Greenleaf that he'll offer a stranger an all expenses paid trip to Italy to bring his son home? (p9)

These questions give us an insight into Tom, the deeply flawed anti-hero. The first chapter presents him as nervous and seeing people following him because of some illegal activity he’s engaged in. But he's also cool, calculating and manipulative, and quick to see the chance for a new life in Italy presented by Mr Greenleaf: "Tom's heart took a sudden leap. He put on an expression of reflection. It was a possibility. Something in him had smelt it out and leapt at it even before his brain." (p9) Later, despite terrible deeds and a deeper insight into Tom, it's still possible to feel pity for a man who doesn’t like himself: "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 ... He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even with it was new." (p192)

Despite learning the depths to which Ripley can sink, it wasn't enough to overcome the flaws in the other characters to the extent that I could like them or feel sorry for them. Dickie Greenleaf was the worst; what good can be said about a selfish 25 year old with no interest in returning home despite knowing his mother has leukaemia. Dickie’s father Herbert I have some sympathy for: his gullibility and trust come from desperation to bring his son home and it doesn’t feel unexpected when he accepts his son’s not coming home. I also found Marge annoying. I don't know if it's because I’m a woman but her animosity against Dickie becomes a sort of pathetic gratitude and finally acceptance. To be honest, all I wanted to do with Marge is to give her a good shake!

I have to admit to reading a little more about the novel before I wrote this review, and learnt about two things I had no idea about as I read the book. One was modelling The Talented Mr Ripley on the Henry James novel “The Ambassadors”. Apparently, Highsmith doesn’t just "steal" the outline of James’s plot, she adds twists and turns that suggest I need to read The Ambassadors soon. Reading this I now understand why the two references to The Ambassadors are in the book: Mr. Greenleaf recommending that Tom read James’s book ("... but Mr Greenleaf was chuckling again, asking him if he had read a certain book by Henry James." (p24)), a copy of which Tom later contemplates stealing ("He put the book back docilely, though it would have been easy, so easy, to make a pass at the shelf and slip the book under his jacket." (p35)). At the time, I thought the references to The Ambassadors were odd but now I see how important they are.

The link to The Ambassadors is furthered by Highsmith’s symbolic use of the colour green, which she refers to from the first page. The references are obvious: the “greenback” (the dollar) and the "Green Cage"—the name of Tom’s barroom hangout (maybe a metaphor for wealth as a kind of entrapment?). This seems apt given it’s the scene for Tom’s acceptance of Herbert Greenleaf’s trip to Italy, and the real beginning of the story.

It also sets up Tom’s eventual imprisonment in another’s man identity. He will eventually assume the name and money of Dickie Greenleaf, whose name suggests a garden of cash. The most violent of the green metaphors (which I missed) is the likening of Dickie’s murder with the cutting down of a tree: ." ”Tom swung a left-handed blow with the oar against the side of Dickie’s 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 Dickie’s neck a tree.” The metaphor also suggests the gloriously demented image of Ripley as a lethal frontiersman chopping down the money tree and carving out his destiny.

I also read that Highsmith has been criticized for portraying the Tom Ripley as a repressed homosexual, and it’s been suggested it’s valid to surmise that Highsmith is spoofing the homosexual overtones that play throughout “The Ambassadors”. This angle also never occurred to me, but a re-reading of the book leads me to believe that, while Highsmith leaves various homosexual related ‘clues’ she’s uncommitted either way, and that the relationship about Dickie is more about obsession than anything else.

If you accept there is no sexual undertone to the relationship, then it’s Tom's obsession with Dickie that leads him to marginalise Marge in order to have Dickie to himself. Tom's hatred towards Marge is palpable, especially in that fateful scene which leads to the breakdown between Dickie and Tom; it's not only Tom wearing Dickie's clothes and mimicking Dickie mannerisms, but Dickie must have noticed that the scene is walked in on was of Tom assaulting Marge (pp78-79). The idea Tom's obsessed with Dickie, given Tom's animosity towards Marge but it only tells part of story because Tom's animosity extends to Marge's sexuality: "What disgusted him was the big bulge of her behind in the peasant skirt below Dickie's arm that circled her waist. And Dickie--! Tom really wouldn't have believed it possible of Dickie!" (p77) And it’s this obsession, in part, that allows Tom to blame Dickie for what went wrong: He hated Dickie, because, however he looked at what had happened, his failing had not been his own fault, not due to anything he had done, but due to Dickie’s inhuman stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold.” (p100)

But this quote might just as easily be a ‘homosexual’ clue, including earlier discussions related to sexuality, over pp80-81, that suggests that either (or both) Dickie and Tom are homosexual: for example, such as when Dickie's tone reminded Tom of Dickie's evasiveness when Tom "...had asked Dickie about [whether Dickie knew certain people Tom knew to be 'queer'] and he [Tom] had often suspected Dickie of deliberately denying knowing them when he did know them." So was Dickie homosexual and did he deny knowledge of other homosexuals through embarassment or fear of being found out? And is what Tom wouldn't have believed possible of Dickie the idea that Dickie was sexually attracted to a woman?

Most of the reviews I've read suggest it was Tom who was the repressed homosexual but I'm less comfortable with this idea. Tom always seems more interested in pathetically clinging to people or gaining advantage over them, that he's strangely asexual. If Dickie is homosexual (or even bisexual) and hiding it, this seems to present no problems to Tom other than to surprise him. There are also other references to Tom interacting with homosexuals, and again Tom seems to present a pathetic clinging figure: "When a couple of them [homosexuals] had made a pass at him, he had rejected them - thought he remembered how he had tried to make it up to them later by getting ice for their drinks, dropping them off in taxis ..."? (p81)

During the last few chapters I wondered how the story would turn out because I knew this was no moral tale where the anti-hero would be punished for daring to presume. But there were so many times when I felt he would: Highsmith played with us so skilfully when Tom met the police as Dickie and Iwondered whether the police would twig they were one and the same (p202), and I kept waiting for the police to turn up and take Tom’s fingerprints and the whole game would be up (p287). And this is where Highsmith’s style is so complex … all of this was heightened by the third person narrative who drew us into Ripley's tension: "The police might be looking for him in Rome. The police would certainly look for Tom Ripley around Dickie Greenleaf. It was an added danger - if they were, for instance, to think that he was Tom Ripley now, just from Marge's description of him, and strip him and search him and find both his and Dickie's passports." (p179) Looking back this constant teasing was an effective technique to increase the tension.

Perhaps because of this and/or because the people Tom dealt with were outwitted so skilfully by him eg why did Marge not like Tom when he was trying to come between her ("Tom knew what Marge would say: 'Why don't you get rid of him, Dickie?" (p92)), but she seemed to have no doubts about him once Dickie disappeared despite Tom stumbling twice (eg getting him and Dickie's names mixed up and Marge finding Tom's rings?). And how dumb was one of the police who saw Tom as both Tom and Dickie and didn’t twig (although seeing him in different cities might have something to do with it). But the police also didn't seem to pursue leads such as who was the person being helped out of “Dickie’s” apartment which coincided nicely with Freddie's death. But I guess much the reader knows so much more of the story because we see it through Tom's eyes, and another characters aren't privy to the same information.

And the last thing I have to mention is how neatly the story is sandwiched between Tom's believing he's being followed (paranoia or conscience?) and how his reaction changes over time. On the first page (p1) he's looking over shoulder worried about being caught and trying to work out how to get away. But he's more self assured, more poised by the last page despite a continuing belief in people following him: "He saw four motionless figures standing on the imaginary pier, the figures of Cretan policemen wating for him ... He grew suddenly tense, and his vision vanished. Was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he approached? ... Even if there were policement on the pier, it woulnd't necessarily mean--." (p290) What does this say about Tom's future?

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