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The Talented Mr. Ripley ()

Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers

    Everybody's searching for a hero
    People need someone to look up to
    I never found anyone who fulfilled my need
    A lonely place to be
    So I learned to depend on me


    Because the greatest love of all
    Is happening to me
    I found the greatest love of all inside of me
    The greatest love of all
    Is easy to achieve
    Learning to love yourself
    Is the greatest love of all
        -The Greatest Love of All (L. Creed/M. Masser)

When the Modern Library's list of the Top 100 English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century came out, it struck me as absurd that Ulysses was #1 and that two other Joyce novels made it too : Finnegan's Wake and Portrait of the Artist.  After all, you can trudge your way through Portrait, but no more than a handful of folks have ever read all of Ulysses and nobody, I mean nobody, has ever read Finnegan's Wake in its entirety.  How could they possibly justify putting such unreadable dreck on the list ?  But, upon reflection, I'll acknowledge, grudgingly, that if you put together a list where you were giving great weight to considerations such as which novels were most influential, or which best captured the zeitgeist, then I suppose you would have to include Joyce somewhere, even if the books are horrid.

Now, Patricia Highsmith has none of the readability problems of Joyce--her novels are compulsively readable--but you do have to wonder about the propriety of recommending an author whose fiction is quite as amoral and repulsive as hers is.  Sure, The Talented Mr. Ripley grabs you from the first page and won't let go, but Tom Ripley is one of the most repugnant characters in all of fiction, a 1950s version of Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer as protagonist.  If one of the central purposes of art is to edify, and I would argue that it is, then is it proper to celebrate a novel whose anti-hero makes his way through the world by thievery, fraud, impersonation, and murder ?  And who, unlike the poor wretches in noir fiction, succeeds in practicing evil, even thrives ?

I think the answer to the question is that The Talented Mr. Ripley is a most important novel, one which deserves a wide readership, because it brilliantly captures the spirit of the age.  Once upon a time, our moral sensibilities, the ethos of the culture, would have required that a Tom Ripley get his comeuppance.  As the Century opened, few people would have imagined that a Tom Ripley could exist, never mind that he could prosper.  At the close of the Century, a Tom Ripley was President of the United States.

This will I'm sure sound too harsh to some, but as I read the book, one quote kept coming to mind; ironically enough, it was Jesse Jackson who said of Bill Clinton :

    I can maybe work with him but I know now who he is, what he is. There is nothing this man won't
    do.  He is immune to shame. Move past all the nice posturing and get really down in there in him,
    you find absolutely nothing ..... nothing but an appetite.

Similarly, Tom Ripley is nothing but selfish appetite.  And his appetite is for the things that people have.  He doesn't so much want to become someone else, as to have the things that they have.  For Ripley, all is surface.  He can ape other people, but he can't even begin to comprehend them :

    It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past
    and for those he would know in the future : each had stood and would stand before him, and he
    would know time and time again that he would never know them...

Truly becoming someone else would require that he take on not just the surface gloss, but their interior too, that he occupy their soul, that he adopt their moral character.  Not for Ripley anything this demanding.

Samuel Johnson said : "No man ever yet became great by imitation."  But the Ripleys of the world don't care about "greatness," at least not if it's understood as a quality of one's character.  For this would require them to develop character in the first place.  No, we live in a time when people are unwilling to make the sacrifices required to make themselves great, instead they seek ways to obtain the adornments which have always followed greatness.  So, Tom Ripley does not wish to learn how to build ships, does not want to develop his own business, does not want education or breeding or grace or virtue; he wants the lifestyle that those things have earned for the Greenleafs.  Having no interior himself, he understands everyone else to be all exterior, and so, if only he can look and talk and write like Dickie Greenleaf, can dress and spend and eat like him, he imagines that he will "be" Dickie Greenleaf :

    He wanted to see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf with Dickie Greenleaf's money, Dickie's clothes,
    Dickie's way of behaving with strangers....The idea of of going to Greece, trudging over the
    Acropolis as Tom Ripley, American tourist, held no charm for him at all.

As if all we are is our clothes, our wallets, and a few mannerisms...

Patricia Highsmith has somewhat stacked the deck in Tom's favor here, by making the Greenleafs and Madge into particularly vapid rich nitwits.  She is naturally trying to win Ripley our sympathy so that we'll root for him.  And it is indeed hard to mourn the loss of Dickie, or Freddie.  But, even if the inherent drama of the narrative catches us up, we never really root for Ripley because, as he himself notes, there is no Ripley; he is a hollow man.

Sadly though, this is the age of the Hollow Men.  Tom Ripley--deceitful, treacherous, murderous, sociopath that he is--Tom Ripley is in many ways the perfect hero for the 20th Century.  It was a century that belonged to the Tom Ripleys, the Joseph Stalins, the Adolph Hitlers, the Ted Bundys, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum, those hollow little men who had nothing within themselves to offer the world. All of them avatars of acquisitiveness, they were the necessary product of a culture which elevated the self, denied the validity of morality, encouraged greed and envy, portrayed Man as merely an animal, aimed at celebrity rather than achievement, celebrated wealth rather than gravity, status rather than stature...

No, let us not quibble about the moral implications of a novel which makes a hero out of Tom Ripley.  He is actually the quintessential hero for the time.  He wants.  He takes.  The rest--the consequences to himself, to those he takes from, to society--be damned.  It is altogether fitting that Patricia Highsmith borrowed the plot of the book from Henry James's turn of the century novel, The Ambassadors.  James was one of the authors who turned literature inwards, into a claustrophobic examination of the interior lives of twisted, repressed people.  Highsmith has carried this tendency to its ultimate conclusion with Tom Ripley, who is solely concerned with himself.  The problem is that when you focus on the self, to the exclusion of all of the external world, you find nothing inside but a vacuum.  A soul does not develop in isolation.  All that develops is avarice, desire, appetite.  A soul, by its very nature, reaches beyond itself, seeking connection with others.  The self seeks only its own satisfaction. This is the truth that Highsmith has captured and, though it is particularly ugly, we would do well to recognize it.   With apologies to Jacques Barzun, whoever wants to know the heart and mind of modernity had better learn Ripley.


Grade: (A)


Patricia Highsmith Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Patricia Highsmith
    -EXCERPT: ‘Avoid sadists!’: Patricia Highsmith on sex, women and writing Mr Ripley: An extract from the author’s fascinating diaries reveals her innermost thoughts and feelings (The Guardian, 11/12/21)
    -EXCERPTS: A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman: The author’s diaries and notebooks chart her early work and love life. (Patricia Highsmith, The New Yorker)
    -SHORT STORY: The World's Champion Ball-Bouncer by Patricia Highsmith – a brilliant story unseen for 73 years: In this previously uncollected short story by The Talented Mr Ripley author, a young girl struggles to adjust to life in New York (Patricia Highsmith, 9 Jan 2021, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: Illustrating Patricia Highsmith’s Literary Career: From Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer’s Graphic Novel (Grace Ellis and Hannah Temper, 4/25/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Bed-hopping, martinis and self-loathing: inside Patricia Highsmith’s unpublished diaries: From her carefree 20s and countless affairs, to literary success and later-life bigotry and rancour, the author’s extraordinary diaries reveal a woman determined to chart her own course (Emma Brockes, 13 Nov 2021, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Patricia Highsmith’s Two Severed Hands (R.T. Raichev, March 7, 2024, Something is going to Happen)
    -ESSAY: The Talented Mr. Ripley And The American In Fiction (DEREK NEAL, 4/03/22, 3Quarks) by Derek Neal
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Mystery of Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries: What made her so interested in cold-blooded, apparently motiveless killers? (Benjamin Kunkel /November 8, 2021, New Republic)
    -ARCHIVES: Read the earliest reviews of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which turns 65 today (Book Marks, November 30, 2020)
    -ESSAY: Twisted brilliance: Patricia Highsmith at 100: Forbidden desires, strange obsessions and a singular talent for suspense (Carmen Maria Machado, 9 Jan 2021, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: PAULA HAWKINS ON PATRICIA HIGHSMITH'S STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, 70 YEARS LATER: The author of The Girl on the Train appreciates Highsmith's uniquely sickening vision of humanity. (PAULA HAWKINS, 1/20/21, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: A singular traveller: Patricia Highsmith at 100 (Alex Clark, 1/20/21, TLS)
    -ESSAY: PATRICIA HIGHSMITH AND THE WOMEN WHO INSPIRED RIPLEY: In 1950, Highsmith went to Positano with a glamorous, wealthy young Londoner. A year later, she traveled there again, with a new companion, at the tail end of a manic journey across Europe. (RICHARD BRADFORD, 1/19/21, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Patricia Highsmith’s Confessions and Rebellions at Yaddo: Richard Bradford on Strange Times at the Legendary Writers’ Retreat (Richard Bradford, January 19, 2021, Lit Hub)
    -ESSAY: Peculiar world of a singular talent: Highsmith was a great writer, with a moral vision bracing enough to clarify the terrors of the twentieth century(Christopher Bray, Jan/Feb 2021, The Critic)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith by Richard Bradford (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires (Independent ie)
    -ESSAY: Patricia Highsmith at 100: the best film adaptations: Shape-shifting Tom Ripley, ill-met strangers on a train… cinema’s love affair with Highsmith’s thrillers was immediate, and shows no signs of cooling off (Guy Lodge, Sat 16 Jan 2021, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Patricia Highsmith at 100: How the author’s chilling stories of murder have fascinated filmmakers for decades: Highsmith’s murderous con artist in The Talented Mr Ripley has become so well-known that he is often a point of reference for any real-life killers with a smattering of charm. As we enter the centenary of the writer’s birth, Geoffrey Macnab dissects the many film adaptations of her books (Geoffrey McNab, 1/01/21, Independent)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE CREEPIEST: John Malkovich as Tom Ripley (ANTHONY LANE, 2004-02-09, The New Yorker)
-REVIEW: of Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995 by Patricia Highsmith (Benjamin Kunkel, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Diaries (Natasha Cooper, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Charles J. Rolo, The New York Times, May 18, 1952)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith by Richard Bradford (Scott Bradfield, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires (Bob Duffy, Washington Independent Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires (Brooke Allen, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires (Daphne Wright, TLS)
    -REVIEW: Of Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks (Pat Padua, Spectrum Culture)


-FILM REVIEW: Loving Highsmith (Christopher Reed, Hammer to Nail)
    -FILM REVIEW: Loving Highsmith (OLIVIA RUTIGLIANO, Crime Reads)
    -FILM REVIEW: Was Patricia Highsmith Actually a Hopeless Romantic?: The documentary ‘Loving Highsmith’ presents a new side of the enigmatic crime writer (Ella Feldman, September 7, 2022, Smithsonian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) - Mary Patricia (née Plangman, stepfather's name Highsmith); has also written as Claire Morgan (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "patricia highsmith"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Highsmith, Patricia
    -BOOK SITE : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Random House)
    -EXCERPT : from  The Talented Mr. Ripley (Random House)
    -PROFILE : A dark view (Susan Adams, Forbes Magazine, 06.15.98)
    -The Knitting Circle: Literature : Patricia Highsmith
    -Patricia Highsmith (1921 - 1995) (Queer Theory)
    -Patricia Highsmith AllReaders Club
    -xrefer : Highsmith, Patricia
    -ESSAY : Poet of Apprehension (John Gray, New Statesman,  June 19, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Dead writers: Movies spur Highsmith revival (JEFF BAKER, 08/05/01, THE OREGONIAN)
    -ESSAY : The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You : Everyone is a potential murderer in the malleable moral universe of Patricia Highsmith (John Freeman, City Pages)
    -ARCHIVES : "patricia highsmith" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES :  "patricia highsmith" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Bob Wake, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley ( Robin Brenner, Rambles)
    -REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Michelle LeBlanc , Literal Mind)
    -REVIEW : of The Ripley novels (Ian Lace)
    -REVIEW : of Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (Alice K. Turner, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Selected Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Penelope Mesic , Book)
    -REVIEW : of Selected Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle)
    -BOOK LIST : "Death in Venice" is No. 1 gay novel #36 The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (HILLEL ITALIE, Salon)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : "patricia highsmith" (
    -INFO : Strangers on a Train (1951) (
    -REVIEW : of Strangers on a Train (Alexander Walker, This is London)
    -REVIEW : Strangers on a Train DVD (Almar Haflidason, BBC Online)
    -ESSAY : Ripley believe it or not (Ben Pappas, Forbes Magazine, 06.15.98)
    -Official Website of The Talented Mr. Ripley
    -INFO : The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)(
    -BUY IT : The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) DVD (Amazon)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley  (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley  (Russell Smith, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Hillari Hunter, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Tom Block, Culture Vulture)
    -ESSAY : "Ripley" explores meaning of identity, director says (MARGARET A. McGURK, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
    -INFO : Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) (1960) (
    -REVIEW : of  Purple Noon (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Purple Noon (Mike Clark, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of Purple Noon (Walter Addiego, SF Examiner)
    -REVIEW : of Purple Noon (Edward Guthmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Purple Noon (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)