January 10, 2008

Reading Class: The Talented Mr Ripley

The Talented Mr Ripley is Patricia Highsmith's first novel about the psychopathic murderer Tom Ripley. For those who don't know it the plot is as thus- Ripley is a poor ne'er do well in New York who is sent by an old acquaintance's father, Richard Greenleaf, to go to Italy and find Greenleafe's son Dickie and persuade him to come back to Italy. After going there and meeting Dickie, Dickie's girlfriend Marge and his friend Freddy Miles, Tom becomes increasingly enamoured of Dickie's lifestyle- to such an extent that he eventually murders Dickie and later Freddy and spends the rest of the book evading the Italian police. As Debra Hamel pointed out at Normblog the point of the novel is to elucidate and describe Ripley's character: the title provides a clue to that. Ripley not the murders nor the investigation is the centre of the novel and the reveal is about Ripley's character: slowly inch by inch Highsmith shows us Ripley the man and reveals to us his anxieties, paranoia and his thoughts.

When reading it therefore you get a very precise idea of Ripley's motivation. Why then does he do what he does? Murder normally is mystery: here it is the end of the mystery and in order to discover the real mystery we need to discover why Tom murders Dickie Greenleafe. In truth Tom murders Dickie because he envies the other man's class and sophistication, his money and easy living lifestyle. He murders Dickie because Dickie is slowly growing tired of Tom: because Dickie sees Tom in part as a sponge and possibly a homosexual sponge at that. Tom decides he has to become Dickie- he has to reinvent himself as an aristocratic young man about Italy, as a classy cool individual. Even his posture we are told changes as this process unfolds. Tom's hesitant slouch becomes Dickie's confident and assertive pose. Dickie's class though isn't all money- its also savoir faire. Its a certain style- a magnetism that Tom is forced to acknowledge and wishes he has. Dickie is someone- and throughout the book Tom lives in his shadow. In reality Tom seeks not to murder Dickie as to merge with Dickie, Tom seeks suicide not slaughter.

Poverty and wealth come together in this novel- and what we see is the way that the poor man sees the rich man. Not neccessarily as the owner of the accoutrements of money- but as the owner of the parephenalia of civilisation. Tom aspires to Dickie's culture, he is disappointed by Dickie's vulgarity (especially the poverty of Dickie's painting- Dickie reminds me of Vronsky in Anna Karenina, forever attempting to be an artist, forever failing) but he likes the carefree indolence of the young American. He has insecurity which is founded on poverty but not described by it. Tom's insecurity is fed into by other things: his possible homosexuality, his own poor family life, his anxieties about being a dependant. That insecurity leads him to murder and to various other things: but it remains the focus of the novel. It is what ultimately makes Tom's character sympathetic- and it makes you wish that he will escape, because all the time you are alone with his fears. None of the other characters comes alive in the same way as Tom does- because none of the others are given an internal voice and none of the others are in motion. In a curious way, murder becomes a means to social advancement in the novel.

I don't think I have captured the flavour of the book well- there is much more in it, including a really good read. But I think the way that it describes the experience, the total experience of social anxiety and its complexity- the way it derives from sexual, social and cultural signs- is perfect. Tom's anxiety is not all class based. But part of its structure depends on his class. It is not all based on his homosexuality and his idealisation of Dickie and rivalry with Marge: part of it though is. It isn't all based on his fear of being dependent both socially and monetarily on Dickie: part of it is though. Throughout the novel we see Tom grow and change- a haunted hunted man becomes even more haunted and hunted, but he gains respectability through murder.