Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle-grade education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Two Analyses of the Iconic Book
It’s ironic that a book written so simply is so rich in complexities, but the paradoxes don’t stop there. The conflicting characters existing within the single man, Mr. Tom Ripley, have sparked to existence articles written by Alex Tuss and Edward A. Shannon discussing the themes of the book as well as the greater truths of society that Tom could very well embody.
Tuss’ article compares Tom to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Shannon’s compares the book with the movie it spawned later, but both share the common themes of sex and societal expectations, though their opinions on the matter at times vary immensely.
“I'm going to enjoy what I've got as long as it lasts.”
— Tom Ripley
Tuss comments on Tom’s sexuality very definitely. He describes Tom as “a closeted homosexual” who denies his sexual orientation throughout the entire book, which isn’t altogether true (Tuss 94).
While Tuss is correct in saying that Tom had defended himself to Dickie by clarifying himself as being heterosexual, it is also true that Tom never made any advance towards his own sex or even toward that of the opposite. He had certainly had homosexual friends among his acquaintances in the past, yet he had never reciprocated any interest they had shown him. He had even been known to say, “I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I’m thinking about giving them both up (Highsmith 80).”
Such a statement was more for the benefit of his friends, to whom he wished to give a good laugh, but it was certainly consistent with his behavior of having nothing more than friendship with men or women.
Shannon points this out almost to the exclusion of any other theme in his article Where was the Sex? In this article, Shannon compares and contrasts the book with the movie, commenting that, for whatever reason, the plot of the story had to be expanded and, at times, even changed for the audience.
The movie made Tom Ripley a victim of his homosexual passion, a man desperate for love and acceptance, which is quite different than the man Patricia Highsmith portrayed. In reality, Tom is less the homosexual in denial than a sexless shape shifter that plays his role in cold calculation as to the reception of his audience and, even more than that, his society.
As Shannon suggests, Tom is depicted as a man completely unmotivated by sex, or any other relationship, really. Throughout his entire life, Tom had never had a true relationship before, a revolution he comes to on page 89 of the novel. He never knew any of them, it said, there was only an “illusion” as convincing as the act he put on for everyone in his life. Being Tom himself had become an act, as evidenced by the show he put on slouching and wearing props like glasses such as on page 187. He wasn’t anyone, really, so he didn’t have a defined sexuality, unlike what is suggested in Tuss’s article.
Shannon takes this idea a step further by suggesting that Tom had no sexual desire, but instead a feverish drive for possessions. Not just any possessions either, but a “select few” of quality, as said on page 252 of the novel, that had become, according the Shannon article, a sort of a fetish (Shannon 24).
While Tom certainly paid attention to possessions, admiring Dickie’s suit and remembering to take his rings, perhaps Shannon goes a bit far suggesting that he worshipped them. It seems more likely that he worshipped what the possessions represented. “They give a man self-respect,” Tom thought of the possessions, playing into the theme of the American Dream and idealized masculinity that Tuss insists is threaded throughout the novel (Highsmith 252).
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Perhaps Tom is less a mortal driven by desire and more of a model of society and the gender roles it commands. While much of Tuss’s article is spent tirelessly comparing both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Fight Club to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he does manage to make a few good, albeit wordy, points about the theme of masculinity in the novel, as well as the connected idea of the ever-elusive American Dream.
According to Tuss, Tom denies a homosexual tendency, as well as other truths of his nature in order to achieve success and independence (Tuss 97). He had learned from his Aunt Dottie that his own nature was that of a “sissy,” and that such behavior was not to be tolerated. He comments on page 40 of the novel, in an almost sardonic tone, that “It was a wonder he had emerged from such treatment as well as he had.” In fact, it becomes quite obvious that he was deeply scarred by the accident, as his life becomes an act, a challenge to transform into whoever his audience wanted him to be.
According to Tuss, Tom was trying to transform into society’s ideal of masculinity as a result of this, hence his attachment to the socially acceptable Dickie and his father. By becoming the epitome of masculinity, no societal doors would be shut to him, paving his way to success and, of course, the ultimate American dream of independence. But that theory in itself has its own issues, as it isn’t altogether true to the story.
As stated before, Tom never actually made his sexuality clear, nor did he seem to strive for independence. His idea to murder Dickie, in fact, seemed to come when he perceived him rejecting his companionship. Moreover, also as mentioned before, Tom became almost inconsolable when he realized that he was alone and that he had never known anyone as anything past an illusion.
So, while there’s much potential for interesting conversation if Tom could be analyzed as merely trying to fit in to become independent, a symbol of the American Dream, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that Tom doesn’t actually know what he wants at all.
“He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn't that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn't take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.”
— Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Both articles seem to agree that Tom is striving for something, though they have very different ideas of what he wants. Shannon focuses on an almost sexual desire for possessions, while Tuss suggests that he is merely seeking the American Dream.
While it’s true that Tom achieved both of these things, in a sense, by gaining all of Dickie’s possessions as well as financial success and independence, there are seemingly minor discrepancies that suggest that Tom isn’t looking for either of those things. While the articles do the best they can to dissect the mind of a troubled Tom, there are layers of his rankled emotions that were not touched on. Truly, there could be endless discussion revolving around the fascinating and undoubtedly talented Mr. Ripley.
- Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1955. Print.
- Shannon, Edward A. ""Where Was the Sex?" Fetishism and Dirty Minds in Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"." Modern Language Studies. 34.1/2 (2004): 16-27. Print.
- Tuss, Alex. "Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of PAtricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club." Journal of Men’s Studies. 12.2 (2004): 93-102. Print.
© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas
Liz Westwood from UK on September 25, 2018:
This is an interesting analysis. My memory is more of the film than the book. It had the feel of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited".