The Sociopath’s Wrath and the Primrose Path: A Review of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
It had been a while since I read The Talented Mr Ripley (TTMR) and I wanted to muse its feel alongside older works by Raymond Chandler and contemporary works by writers like David Peace or James Ellroy. And so, due to some hot weather that put Italy on my forehead, I picked the book up (my paperback has noir-ish cover that I consider a complete mis-design) and read it in about the time it would take Trenitalia to get from Naples to Venice.
Tom Ripley is hired by Herbert Greenleaf to persude his son Dickie to return to the states from Italy. Tom heads to Mongibello, the fictional southern setting of the first part of the novel. Tom, a handsome loser in most respects, has a week impulse control and deep conniving without limits. He plots and then kills Dickie in order to take on Dickie’s persona. Tom changes his hair color, mimics Dickie’s voice and particular command of the Italian language, he wears Dickie’s clothing and jewelry (they are about the exact same size and look). Now passing for Dickie, in order to obtain the trust fund checks, Tom/Dickie ends up murdering a second time when one of Dickie’s friends begins to suspect the previous foul play.
The remainder of TTMR centers upon Tom/Dickie avoiding inquiries by both the Italian police and a private investigator Greenleaf has hired. By the end of TTMR, Tom, now Tom again, has been willed Dickie’s trust fun due to a letter he forged, and he prepares to head for Greece as it seems the investigators have removed him from the list of suspects. We end with Tom exclaiming, “Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!” The best hotel. The best, the best! It’s a downright fine plot. Helping it along is Highsmith’s seamless switching between action and interior thought. Coincidences are often stretching believability much and the plot grows somewhat long in the tooth during the third quarter, but it’s still a delicious read.
Around February 2013 I turned on the television to see a woman in the witness box who was being subjected to extremely harsh prosecutorial grilling. This was Jodi Arias who at at first glance she seemed meek and fragile and so I wondered how this woman could be the same person accused of the horrific murder. The more I watched the more creeped out I got. I felt that something really evil and manipulative was lurking inside her head. I was hooked and watched the remainder of the trial, weeks and weeks of it. Arias was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. It gave me an introduction into the type of person Highsmith wrote about and it helped me to understand her fascination with such a dually constructed character.
What creeped me out the most regarding the trial is what I had missed, that at first I’d seen no indication of evil. I started looking up phrases tossed around in the trial and on the net that included personality disorder, narcissism, sociopath, and psychopath. This ability to charm and manipulate others seemed to be one of a number of traits of such people. Mainly they have no empathy. Us mortals can’t even begin to understand what it means to lack empathy. Scary. Seriously scary.
Highsmith’s design of Tom Ripley seems to have conformed to that of a narcissistic sociopath, or narcissistic psychopath. From what I read they are fairly similar with psychopaths perhaps having a less coherent thought process and less empathy than a sociopath. But I suppose both are spectrums that might overlap.
Literature on narcissistic sociopaths and psychopaths say they can be likable, easily bored, pathological liars, con artists, lacking remorse or empathy, highly manipulative, parasitic, with inflated self worth, and attention seeking. The are able to pour on the charm and they may seem normal at first, but lurking underneath is the evil and manipulation. A psychopath doesn’t want to be found out. Ok, Highsmith did her research for Ripley.
Before I move on, numbers in North America are a bit chilling too. Dr. Robert Hare, criminal psychologist researcher, says about 1% of people are psychopaths but that 4% of business leaders and CEO’s are psychopaths and that 29% of corporate psychopaths are also bullies (Hare; Babiak, Neumann & Hare). Dr. Ronald Schouten at Harvard Medical School says about 5%-15% of Americans are “almost psychopaths” (Schouten).
So we meet Tom Ripley once again, a relatively common character according to research. He’s a narcissistic sociopath or psychopath, he seems to wobble between both. He’s the product of an author who said, “I have a lurking liking for those who flout the law” (Wilson). If you want my opinion, and I have no evidence, Tom Ripley probably influenced Bret Easton Ellis in his imagining of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. I see similarities with their sociopathic traits, their murderous rages, their emphases on clothing and accessories, as though Ellis took Tom’s traits and cranked the Spinal Tap knob up to eleven.
It is said a good lawyer never asks a question without knowing the answer; similarly Tom figures out all possible ramifications before he initiates a plan, he wants no surprises. He plans well for all his worring. One of the nice things about TTMR is that Tom gets away with the murders. I never saw the American movie of TTMR, but since in my view Hollywood pretty much soils everything it touches, I wouldn’t bother anyhow. I did however watch Plein Soleil, the 1960 French movie based on Highsmith’s book, directed by René Clément starring Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, and Marie Laforet. This is a great and recommended movie; its only weakness is the terrible ending that doesn’t match the book. Highsmith herself criticized this ending for conforming to some idea of so-called morality in having Tom get caught (Wilson). When I imagined many of the bright seaside or Venice scenes during my reading, my internal pictures came directly from this movie.
Highsmith has a stylistic tic and I don’t quite know what to make of. A number of times she referenced objects and then added in a note about the way they appeared. Tom refuses to buy a refrigerator for the house in Mongibello but then there’s suddenly one, so Highsmith says they had been out buying one and this and that happened, then there’s a bottle of perfume in Dickie’s coat, and again she says something like, oh yes, that came about this way. At Orly we know Tom didn’t yet lighten his hair but then it’s in an afterthought yet again. This tic breaks Highwood’s normal forward method of event following event. And it disturbs her generally flawless pacing. Is it good? I can’t say it’s good or bad. There are times when the method definitely fails for example when Tom has to suddenly note he’d had his suit made by the same tailor that Dickie used, which could and should have been mentioned earlier.
I have a few miscellaneous thoughts that don’t quite congeal into a fluid paragraph so I’lll just lay them out:
While Highsmith said that The Ambassadors by Henry James provided influence for TTMR, there’s not a lot to find beyond a man being sent to Europe to retrieve someone. Nonetheless it’s cheeky on her part when the book is referenced, two times.
There is a witty anti-Melville section where Tom riffs about New York and hating the water and how he’d never been anywhere before on the water.
In today’s climate were Highsmith a man, say Hemingway or Bellow, she’d be accused of misogyny in the first half of the novel for making Marge a near mute underdeveloped woman. Marge is given a bit more substance in the second half of the novel.
Mrs. Greenleaf should have noticed and mentioned the similarity of looks between Tom and Dickie.
Tom really see-saws too much between wanting the center of the stage or just getting money and retiring in seclusion. I might, had I been a good editor, have questioned this or asked for more clarification of his internal odds duality based on his sociopathy to help us situate what seem to be contradictory aims.
Highsmith switches character voices very nicely.
People seem to focus on the Tom’s dressing in Dickie’s clothing scene, which isn’t much of a scene, nor is any real rationale given later for us or for Dickie. It just sort of dies. This all could have been done better.
Freddie’s showing up is really a bit too coincidental, again either Tom hides or he publicizes his secret address all over town.
Tom seems to have an uncontrollable addiction to telephones and answering them. Thus it’s odd when he let’s one ring.
Tom’s sudden move from a dingy room to a big palazzo with two servants, and ostentatiously attending parties is too sudden. Similarly, this could have been set up with more authority and motivation that would again solve the question of whether or not he wanted widespread attention.,
The ongoing references to the murder in all the Italian papers was not believable, as if Italy had nothing else to report for weeks on end.
There’s not enough rationale for Tom’s keeping the rings.
For a while I thought Highsmith was setting up a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario by having Tom kill someone and the Tom/Dickie kills someone else. She didn’t go there, surprisingly. However, what was it in the mid fifties that prompted this idea of doubles, of catch 22 positions, for creative minds? Highsmith’s book was 1955, Noël Calef’s novel Ascenseur pour l’échafaud turned into Louis Malle’s brilliant 1958 film (trans. Elevator to the Gallows) staring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet with soundtrack by Miles Davis. If you’ve never see this get it and watch it this weekend. Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 was begun in 1953 and finished in 1961. So what was it about the mid fifties? Was it the world’s involvement in the cold war, with capitalist rhetoric positioned against communist rhetoric? Were people generally feeling caught between equally unpleasant but inevitable futures that made catch 22 positions resonate?
Although Tom gets off scot-free, even financially set, goal obtained, he remains imprisoned by his sociopathy. He’s a feral creature on the run, he’ll seemingly needs to be on the run, always after that attention he can’t ever get enough of, always beholden to his uncontrollable impulses. As the Italians say, Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola. (When the game is over the king and the pawn end up in the same box.)
Will I read more of Highsmith? Oh I don’t know. No time soon. I find her lwriting is agreeable but not imperative.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 28, 174–193.
Hare, R. D., & Neumann, C. S. (2006). The PCL-R assessment of psychopathy: Development, structural properties, and new directions. In C. Patrick (Ed.), Handbook of Psychopathy (pp. 58–88). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Schouten, R., & Silver, J. (2012). Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? Center City, MN: Hezelden Publishing.
Wilson, A. (May 24, 2003). Ripley’s Enduring Allure. The Telegraph. Found online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3595207/Ripleys-enduring-allure.html