Essay: Argument About Theme of the Talented Mr. Ripley

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Talented Mr. Ripley

That Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel the Talented Mr. Ripley engenders so many differing opinions in its readers is a testament to complexity and nuance Highsmith gives to the character of Tom Ripley. From the start, Tom is a con man, whose specialty lies in telling people exactly what they want to hear. In many regards this ability extends to the audience itself, lending Tom's motivations and inclinations open for interpretation. Leading interpretations of Tom Ripley tend to focus either on the evidence for Tom's potentially homosexual attraction to Dickie Greenleaf or else examine how Tom's criminal actions can be viewed as a kind of reaction or revenge against his social class and status. In the latter case, this perceived revenge is itself inherently tied to Tom's embodiment of white masculinity. Although there is evidence to support both of these positions, they are ultimately insufficient in explaining the motivations and logic of Tom's actions, because they cannot account for the manner and tone of Tom's eventual escape from justice. Specifically, both interpretations misinterpret Tom's final words concerning the uncertainty of his fate by reading it as evidence of a paranoid psyche or ominous premonition. Instead, when examining the character of Tom Ripley in his immediate historical, political, and literary context as an example of the quintessential supervillain (anti)hero, one can see how his potential queerness and demonstrations of problematic white masculinity are ultimately circumscribed within Tom's participation in a larger political reaction against the failure of ideals following World War II.

Before discussing the extant interpretations of Tom Ripley, it will be useful to provide a brief background of Patricia Highsmith's career in order to contextualize the Talented Mr. Ripley within both Highsmith's career and Western culture at large. Highsmith began her career writing as a comic book artist during World War II, but by the time the Talented Mr. Ripley, she had already written multiple novels, including Strangers on a Train, which was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock the year after its publication. Aside from a brief stint writing romance comics, the majority of Highsmith's work has featured male characters involved in crime or espionage, because even her time writing comics concerned superheroes and detectives fighting America's political enemies during World War II.

This larger genre of detective, superhero, and spy stories was still extremely popular when Highsmith published the Talented Mr. Ripley in 1955, as evidenced by the fact that Ian Fleming's third James Bond novel and Agatha Christie's thirtieth Hercule Poirot novel saw publication the same year. What makes Tom Ripley stand out from these two, of course, is the fact that he is the criminal, rather than the detective, and he ultimately wins in the end. However, before discussing Tom Ripley's status as a supervillain-esque antihero in greater detail, one must mention existing interpretations of Ripley's character, in order to better demonstrate how the interpretation offered by this study ultimately transcends and thus improves existing readings.

Arguably the most commonly discussed interpretation of Tom Ripley revolves around the question of his sexuality. This is such a widely discussed topic that there is no point attempting to highlight every variation of this trope, but it will be helpful to mention one study in particular, because its examination of queer characters in Gothic fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helps demonstrate, in a roundabout way, the importance of understanding the character of Tom Ripley in the context of the comic books and adventure novels of the mid-twentieth century. As will be seen, while one can certainly trace some of Tom's cultural and narrative origins to the representation of queerness in the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Tom's potential repression of homosexual desires should not be seen as a repudiation of homosexually in particular, but rather sexuality in general.

In his book Queer Gothic, George Haggerty argues the ultimately, "Tom triumphs by accepting terms that the 1950s demand for a queer," in that he represses his homosexual attraction to Dickie by killing him, which Haggerty interprets as Tom having "sacrificed genuine emotion and moved into a world in which every emotion is faked" (Haggerty 176, 177). Haggerty's analysis is instructive, because it simultaneously identifies a meaningful shift that occurs in the novel but misinterprets it due to the contemporaneous presence of details concerning Tom's sexuality. In short, while Haggerty (and other critics who focus on Tom's sexuality) interpret the hints of Tom's homosexual desire for Dickie as evidence of his underlying motivations, in reality this desire is merely one element of a character motivated by a much larger and ultimately more political interest, one that transcends sexuality or class but contains both within it.

What is interesting about Haggerty's interpretation is the fact that he essentially realizes that Tom's queerness is not the most important or central element of his character, but then he fails to imagine what those more important or relevant elements are, which ultimately leads him to misinterpret Tom's actions and desires. As Haggerty notes, "Highsmith does not want merely to label her character a 'queer' the way he might be labeled a spy, as an end point to her investigation of his character. In a sense, that is where she begins" (Haggerty 171). At the same time, Haggerty ultimately interprets Tom's most important actions as evidence of shame explicitly concerning his homosexuality, instead of what is actually going on, which is Tom's rejection of sexuality itself as a constituent part of the social structure he has chosen to reject and corrupt.

Haggerty argues that "Tom is ashamed before Dickie, and killing him can bring his desire to fulfillment at the same time that he destroys the object of desire and with it the source of shame" (Haggerty 175). In Haggerty's view, Tom is ashamed of his own desire for Dickie, and yet he cannot simply move on, so he must kill Dickie in order to consummate some kind of physical transmission while simultaneously ridding himself of that desire. While Haggerty's observation of the consummation that occurs with Dickie's death is accurate, he errs by suggesting that Tom's motivating emotion is shame, which leads to a secondary misinterpretation concerning the reason for Tom's success. However, before explaining that success, one must address the critique of Tom and Dickie's relationship from the perspective of class, because this too highlights important elements of Tom's character while ignoring crucial details.

In addition to representing a kind of queer identity, Tom Ripley has also been interpreted as a symbol of white masculinity as such, and particularly white masculinity in the face of an economic and political system that devalues him. In his essay "Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith's the Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club," Alex Tuss argues that, "devalued by a society that reduces him to 'living from week to week,' Tom reasserts his lost dignity in his manipulation of first Herbert Greenleaf, then Dickie, and finally the social and legal norms to win the crown for himself" (Tuss 93). Thus, where Haggerty views shame regarding Tom's queerness to be his motivating emotion, Tuss essentially argues that Tom is motivated by shame regarding his "lost dignity." This is important to note because the notion of dignity itself is inherently tied up in notions of masculinity, and aside from the practical concern of not being thought queer, Tom himself is not especially concerned with traditional notions of masculinity.

In his analysis, Tuss essentially provides the class and gender-based critique of Tom character, which can be seen to complement Haggerty's sexuality-based interpretation. However, even though both of these interpretations do observe and discuss important elements of Tom's character, they ultimately fail to account for the relatively happy ending that Highsmith gives to Tom, because they both interpret the ending in slightly negative ways. For Haggerty, the suspicion that the police might be waiting for Tom around every corner is taken as the lingering effects of Tom's shame or guilt, and although Tuss focuses on the freedom Tom feels as he finally escapes justice, he still suggests that what Tom has gained is merely a kind of masculine honor. In reality, one can only understand Tom's final thoughts in the novel if they are considered in the context of a serialized or continuing adventure story, with the Talented Mr. Ripley serving as a kind of an origin story for the international supervillain that is Tom Ripley.

In other words, this essay argues that while Tom Ripley is almost certainly queer, and is almost certainly motivated by class resentment, these character traits are merely contributing factors to his larger reaction towards his social milieu. This is because Tom is not merely reacting to the sexual norms of the 1950s, or the class divisions and economic standards of the 1950s, but instead to the entire narrative and ideological superstructure that sustains these lower-order restrictions. In turn, his response is not, as Tuss suggests, to attack or destroy this superstructure,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Argument About Theme of the Talented Mr. Ripley."  Essaytown.com.  April 9, 2013.  Accessed March 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/argument-theme-talented-mr-ripley/8901693.