The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), opens with our eponymous antihero being followed by someone. Despite Tom Ripley’s fears that it is the police catching up with him, it turns out to be the father of an acquaintance. Herbert Greenleaf wants Tom’s help in persuading his son, Richard (known as Dickie) to return from Italy to the family business in America and his sick mother. Although, not a close friend of Dickie’s, but always with an eye for the main chance, Tom manages to wrangle a free trip to Europe, to and see if can convince Dickie to come home. I would say that Tom is not your typical antihero, as on the one hand he has already shown himself to be guilty of fraud before even leaving America, but on the other hand he is sure in his own mind that he will do all he can to bring Dickie back. The astute reader remains unconvinced.
This novel can definitely be categorised as a character study, with Tom from the exposition of the novel showing a tendency for ennui and a boredom with his existing life:
‘He was starting a new life. Good-bye to all the second rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him…’
This is fuelled by a feeling that he has been cheated by his circumstances from obtaining the nicer things in life, including his choice of friends and his aunt who brought him up. Moreover, when it comes to reality he has a very elastic and imaginative grasp on it at times, although I think this helps him in events later on in the story.
Despite a rocky start with Dickie, Tom soon feels he is ingratiating himself a little, even with Dickie’s friend (clearly with benefits) Marge, although the idea of getting Dickie to return to America soon becomes a more distant memory, with Tom planning various joint jaunts around Europe. However, this all comes apart, with Herbert coldly dismissing Tom from his task and Marge instigating a distancing between herself and Dickie with Tom. Sensing his own increasing isolation and feeling keenly the loss of his close friendship with Dickie, Tom decides to take matters violently into his own hands, to ensure he gets the life he thinks he deserves, on a goodbye excursion to San Remo. A decision which has far reaching, although not necessarily negative consequences for Tom, who begins to take on a dual identity as himself and Dickie.
This initial period after San Remo reveals interesting insights in Tom’s character, where it seems he finds it more taxing when he is himself than when he is being Dickie. I think his actions are rooted in self-loathing and a need for acceptance, so being Dickie provides him with an opportunity to change his personality and even become more of a social success, especially when he travels to Paris for a time. However, on returning to Rome, his problems begin and as you read, you see how there is nothing he won’t do to prevent being caught out. I felt the beginning of the novel was a bit slow, but I think it gets more interesting in the middle when Tom has to juggle his two identities and as the situation gets trickier and trickier for him as he has to deal with the other characters. Eventually events transpire in Tom killing off one of his identities, a process which covers the final third of the novel and also reveals to the reader whether Tom manages to pull everything off. A feat which will not be easy with obstacles appearing until the very end and even an American private eye is called in. Has Tom bitten off more than he can chew?
In a way as an antihero, who in his very nature defies the conventions of being a hero, I think Tom also defies reader expectations as he does not really change or develop through the novel, which is something you normally expect with a central character. The events of the novel, some of which are fairly dramatic do not seem to affect his personality, which is even reflected in the atmosphere of the novel as the uneasiness Tom has at the start of the novel is present at the denouement. Although, despite being a character study novel I couldn’t really get interested in Tom as a character, almost finding him a bit empty or undistinctive – which are the only two ways I can find at the moment to describe my reaction to him.
For me the novel lacked surprise or excitement, especially the ending which was rather anticlimactic (unless of course that was the point). I think though that there was a negation of surprise for me because I kind of knew what to expect and as a reader who thinks in narrative patterns, I could kind of see where the story was going. I think my problem was that I had different expectations for the story, especially in style and pace, which I found a bit slow at times. Although I do give Tom high marks for his creativity in responding to the situations which befall him. Overall I think I much prefer Highsmith’s other novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), which was much more dramatic and intense.