Monday, September 29, 2014

What’s Wrong with Tom Ripley, and Why Does He Get Away with Murder?

Tom Ripley is a murderer, and a murderer who shows very little compunction about murdering. He needs to murder, after all, to get what he wants, and what he wants is more important than anyone’s life. So he kills Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles. Brutally.

So he must be crazy, right? I mean, a killing for revenge or a killing done in a white hot rage could be committed by a sane person, but killing to increase your social standing and to acquire some money (which is always good for your social standing—just ask the Kennedys—the money, not the killing, that is) in such a cold, premeditated way must be the act of someone unhinged, right?

Well, we want to believe that. We want to believe that anyone like Tom Ripley, a nice polite boy, a young man on the fringes of polite and gilded society, could not be a murderer (which is perhaps why he gets away with it).

Patricia Highsmith, in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, gives us a type of character so amoral and calculating that society should be barring its collective door against him at night. But instead we worry about home invasions and mad bombers and the like. Ripley is more like an Enron executive, a congenial (except when he is killing, or disgusted, like when he sees women’s underwear. Who couldn’t like women’s underwear, I’d like to know? But more of that later) and even sometimes charismatic fellow type who thinks the money in your pocket is really his money, somehow wrongly displaced from his pocket, and therefore money he is duty bound to liberate from you and return to its rightful owner—him.

But even Ripley, a protean character, Zelig-like, a shape shifter, a chameleon, so studied in his appearance at every moment, becoming whatever furthers his aims with a practiced and perfect spontaneity, slips sometimes. Having killed Dickie so he could be Dickie, to masquerade around Europe and live off Dickie’s trust fund, and then having reverted to the Ripley character (even as himself he is playing a character) when his forgeries on Greenleaf’s bank account have made it uncomfortable being Dickie, he is asked by Detective McCarron whether Dickie could have been the one who killed Miles (whom Ripley has killed for discovering Ripley’s impersonation of Greenleaf), and Ripley responds no and then explains: “Because there was no reason to kill him—at least no reason that I know of.” And McCarron responds (who wouldn’t), “People usually say, because so and so wasn’t the type to kill anybody.” But McCarron doesn’t seem to ever cotton to the idea that Ripley is a sociopath, a psychopath, and potentially a stock broker or investment banker (just kidding there, kind of).

And think of that. No reason that he knows of! As if having a reason to want to kill someone is all you need to do the killing, even though society is based on the premise that we are not going to kill everyone we have a reason to kill. If we did that, I would be guilty of killing many times a day. Just today I would have killed a telemarketer that interrupted my dinner and a supervisor at work who mouthed so many platitudes and clichés in a meeting that some people were actually near comatose by the time it ended.

As much as we may protest all the killing he does, Ripley’s urge to change his identity is a particularly American one. Isn’t Highsmith’s tale an inversion of the classic American Tale? We can see Ripley as an inverted Ben Franklin. Franklin who created a new American character in his autobiography, the American who gets by on pluck and God-given luck, as Ripley gets by on not those but on deception and homicide. Still, wasn’t America often the place where the conmen and horse stealers came to in order to escape the law in Europe? And weren’t you always able to go West and change your name when the elixir you served up in your traveling show killed some babies? Just re-create yourself, Tom, like the way that George Bush transformed himself from a dissolute coke-head into a religious zealot bent on eliminating the middle class.

So what, I ask again, is Ripley’s major malfunction? I mean, let’s assume that he is crazy (it will make us all feel better if we do, which is really why he gets away with it, because we have a need to believe social appearances are real, that all these centuries of civilization have made us civilized, that they, and us, are not capable of casual atrocity), and that craziness has a reason (another comforting thought)—then why?

Maybe it is because he is raised by cold and ridiculing Aunt Dottie, who reminds him often that he is unwanted and a sissy, and that she is somehow eligible for sainthood for taking the time and money and effort to raise him. That could be it. We hope. There are always lots of psychological theories floating around out there, and they get recycled every so often, changing like each year’s styles. Freud thought cold mothering caused schizophrenia. Bruno Bettelheim thought it caused autism. No answers to Ripley there. We might say some of Ripley’s fascination with Greenleaf is repressed homosexual longing, which is perhaps why, in the book’s most excruciating scene, Dickie finds Ripley trying on Dickie’s clothes and practicing being Dickie, and why Ripley finds Margie Sherwood’s panties and bra (Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend, and Ripley’s rival) so revolting. Ripley never comes out, even to himself. Then again, maybe there is nothing to come out to. Margie might be right in saying that he has no sexuality at all.

Another type of disorder, fashionable lately, is borderline personality disorder. Borderlines have a fragile grandiosity, and can’t form close relationships. They don’t manage to take any solace from the continuity of relationships, and every bit of conflict to them seems like the destruction of a relationship, as if its history of goodwill and friendship never existed in the first place. Borderlines also perform what is called splitting. They alternately see people as angels or demons, never becoming able to see people as combinations of both good and bad. Ripley certainly seems to suffer from these symptoms, as his deification and demonization of Dickie proves, along with his highs where he thinks of himself as the brightest and the most cultured guy going, and his lows where he feels like a clown shilling to a disrespecting crowd. And speaking of highs and lows—maybe he is manic depressive. Or suffers from anti-social personality disorder (that seems a no brainer, as the most anti-social thing you can do is murder).

Theories, theories, blah, blah, blah. Theories would reduce the three-dimensional character Highsmith has created to a type, a cardboard representation of someone who comes across on the page as so flesh and blood that he could be sitting next to you (plotting your demise). Maybe he is psychotic, or sociopathic (I was never sure what the difference was, although psychotic seems somehow worse). What does it matter? The chilling thing is that he is so calculating, so false, so completely lacking in spontaneous and true feeling. And the worst of it is that he is not different from us in kind, but only in degree. Who among us does not have a series of masks he or she wears as they navigate through the circles of hell, I mean society? Don’t tell me you don’t.

And so Tom gets away with it. No Columbo to come to the rescue. No great deduction, no analysis of effects leading back inexorably to some inevitable cause. In fact, one of the other chilling things about the book is the way that Ripley finds so many ways to spin the facts of the case to make himself seem like an innocent bystander. The comfort we might feel from a Holmesian critique of the evidence goes out the window. All is muddiness and obscurity, infinite narratives to account for infinitely tangled evidence.

Otto Penzler, editor of numerous Crime Fiction anthologies, made a distinction between hard-boiled detective and noir fiction. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the private eye lives in a debased world of moral dissolution, but is himself moral. In noir, all the characters are immoral, or amoral, are all losers, slaves to their passions, their desire to get away from their grimy world and their grimy selves, and all come to a bad end.
Ripley is amoral and a loser, I think, and even he thinks so , I would posit, at least sometimes, as in his fictional description of his alter ego Dickie’s demise: “He was a very ordinary young man who liked to think he was extraordinary— [his suicide] was because he realized certain failures in himself.”

But Highsmith departs from the noir formula in that Dickie walks away from all he has done without a scratch. It’s enough to make you never trust nice young men again.

© 2014 Mike Welch


  1. Mike-Several years ago I heard Terry Gross interview P.D. James. She was almost apoplectic in her expression of distaste for the Ripley novels largely because he doesn't get caught or punished. But she had such a strong reaction to them that I immediately went out and bought several. I've loved them ever since

  2. Often a socio- or a psycho- path masquerades as a " nice young man " or " nice young lady"... T.J. Straw