101 Masterpieces: 'The Talented Mr. Ripley'

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Early one morning in the summer of 1952, Patricia Highsmith awoke in a room at the Albergo Miramare hotel in Positano, Italy. The 31-year-old author had been traveling through Europe with her girlfriend, Ellen Blumenthal Hill, and the two weren’t getting along. Leaving Hill in bed, Highsmith walked to the end of a balcony overlooking the beach. It’s not as if things weren’t going well for her—her novel Strangers on a Train had just been adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. But the tumultuous relationship was taking a toll. As she gazed out at the sand, pulling on a cigarette, she watched “a solitary young man in shorts and sandals, with a towel flung over his shoulder, making his way along the beach. There was an air of pensiveness about him, maybe unease,” she recalled in a 1989 issue of Granta magazine. She started to wonder: “Had he quarreled with someone? What was on his mind?”

The intrigue stuck with her. Two years later, while living in a cottage rented from an undertaker in Lenox, Mass., Highsmith drew from that image as she began a new novel, about a man named Tom Ripley. Even then, she sensed that she was onto something special. “She considered [The Talented Mr. Ripley] ‘healthier’ and ‘handsomer’ than her other books at its ‘birth,’” Joan Schenkar writes in her excellent biography The Talented Miss Highsmith.

Highsmith’s instincts were correct: With the charming sociopath Ripley, she’d created a new type of character entirely. In five novels over the next four decades, he’d become not only her most acclaimed and memorable creation but the prototype for a new kind of antihero: the unlikable, immoral, cold-blooded killer we can’t help but like anyway. Ripley was a character so fully realized, so simultaneously compelling and disturbing, it seemed as if he were based on someone Highsmith knew intimately. In a sense, he was.

A FAMILIAR CHARACTER

An orphan unhappily raised by an icy aunt, 23-year-old Tom Ripley is living in New York City when we first meet him, trying his hand at casual extortion. In a bar one night, he’s approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf, father of an acquaintance, Dickie. Greenleaf is looking for someone who might persuade his son to return home from the bohemian life he’s been leading in the Italian village of Mongibello, and Tom seizes the opportunity. But what he finds when he locates Dickie is something he hadn’t expected: a glimpse of the privileged existence he’s always dreamed of.

The Highsmith lens, however, is hardly rosy. Ripley’s reality is a sick twist on the expatriate-American dream. Where others might notice beautiful scenery, happy families, or the potential for romance, Highsmith sees duplicity, deception, fraud, forgery, perversities of lust, and an intractable struggle between love and hate that veers toward murder. So while Tom might love Dickie, he murders him anyway, taking on the identity of his former friend by wearing his clothing and jewelry and adopting his mannerisms—and he’s surprisingly successful. More surprising is how Highsmith coaxes the reader into cheering him on. Somehow, we find ourselves hoping that this murderous psychopath will get away with it.

Before Ripley, “you just didn’t see that kind of character in a book,” says Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a collection of domestic suspense tales that includes one of Highsmith’s earliest short stories. “He’s somebody who wants what he wants and manages to succeed. We’re asked to identify. When he turned his tumor zapper on himself, Hurtubise lost his hair and 20 pounds. with him, and we find him fascinating.”

In many ways, Ripley is not unlike Highsmith herself. Throughout her life, she was plagued by the sense that she didn’t belong, that she deserved a higher social class or standing, and that she’d been orphaned (her mother lived to be 95, but she told a young Patricia that she’d tried to abort her by drinking turpentine). “I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on,” she once said. “And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions.” As a teenager, she became aware of her attraction to women. At 24, she wrote in one of her numerous diaries: “I am troubled by a sense of being several people (nobody you know). There is an ever more acute difference—and an intolerableness—between my inner self, which I know is the real me, and various faces of the outside world.” And at the age of 27, upon beginning psychoanalysis to “cure” her homosexuality, she began seducing the women in her group therapy sessions.

Ripley provided a window through which Highsmith could channel her rage. In her writing, she could seek revenge for the hurts and misdeeds she sustained throughout life at the hands of others—not only her mother (Highsmith loved and hated her with a passion), but also her lovers (for failing to love, or for loving poorly, or for being unlovable), the government (for taxing unfairly or too much), society (for being a place in which homosexuality was a disease to be “treated”), her birth father (for abandoning her), her stepfather (for stealing her mother and never adopting her properly), editors and publishers (for rejecting her), and so forth. In her books, she killed off women with her girlfriends’ names (and dogs with their dogs’ names). She also dedicated her books to lovers, former lovers, and her mother. The brutalities of life drove her to alcohol, but they also drove her—in a fervor that kept her typing about greater brutalities into the wee hours—to write. And Ripley was the character she wrote the most.

In a telling scene from Schenkar’s biography, it’s 1971 and a 50-year-old Patricia Highsmith is making notes for the novel that will be Ripley’s Game. She jots down the idea that “Tom should carry out a series of revenge murders for a 60-year-old writer,” calling it “a dialogue with myself.” Of course, novelists often relate deeply to their characters, but Highsmith identified with Ripley so intensely that she referred to herself as “Pat H, alias Ripley.” Often, she felt Ripley was writing his book.

In detailing Ripley, Highsmith imbued him with many of her own traits and “obsessive little habits,” Schenkar writes. And much like Ripley, hiding in plain sight was Highsmith’s modus operandi. Though she worked for years writing comics before publishing her first book, she would never reveal that to anyone. She published her one “lesbian” novel, The Price of Salt, under the pen name Claire Morgan. Her affairs with women would circle affairs with other women and sometimes men. She put forth a revisionist history even in her own diaries, which she kept throughout her life, and, in one of the more odious details of her history, created numerous aliases with which she wrote letters to newspapers and governmental bodies espousing anti-Semitic and racist views. The French government suspected her of tax fraud, perhaps fairly.

“There’s always a dichotomy in her, which ended up evidenced in her writing,” Weinman says. She preferred writing about men, as she told Joan Dupont in an interview for The New York Times in 1988, because “women are tied to the home, tied to somebody, not as independent to travel—and they don’t have the physical strength, if needed. Men can do more, like jump over fences.’’ Highsmith loved woodworking, traveled frequently, and owned a number of homes. (It’s unclear whether she jumped over fences.) She kept snails as pets, entranced by their self-sufficiency and the lack of a perceptible difference between the male and the female of the species.

HIGHSMITH & RIPLEY

Ultimately, it wasn't just Highsmith's internal life that was marked by duality but also her career. She was very successful, critically and commercially, in Europe, where she lived for most of her life, but she harbored an unfulfilled desire to be recognized in America (just like Ripley did). Though The Talented Mr. Ripley won awards in both France and the United States, Highsmith never achieved much literary recognition in America. She cared—not that she’d act like she cared. When Highsmith’s American agent told her that the reason her paperbacks didn't sell well in the U.S. was that there was no one likable in them, her retort was, “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone.”

And yet, people liked Ripley: He proved time and again to be perfect for film and television, both in the United States and abroad. The Talented Mr. Ripley was first adapted for the big screen in Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon, in France in 1960. Over the years the character has been played by Dennis Hopper (in The American Friend, a 1977 adaptation of Ripley’s Game that also used elements of Ripley Under Ground), John Malkovich (2002’s Ripley’s Game), and Barry Pepper (2005’s Ripley Under Ground). Most recently, in 2009, BBC Radio 4 adapted the complete Ripliad, featuring Ian Hart as Ripley. Anthony Minghella, who directed the Academy Award–nominated 1999 American adaptation starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, called Ripley “one of the most interesting characters of world literature.” And indeed, there seems to be something irresistible about the particular brand of evil he embodies.

Today, we see Ripley’s mode replicated in such TV antiheroes as Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Dexter, and in literature from writers like Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis, and Gillian Flynn. There’s something endlessly intriguing about characters who outwardly present themselves one way but internally live by a code that’s clearly different—and not entirely scrutable. And watching that disconnect play itself out is pleasurably unsettling, perhaps because there’s also something uncomfortably relatable there. “That’s Highsmith’s gift,” says Weinman, “creating fascinating characters, even if we can’t relate to them or, worse, find that we do. Everybody’s got their inner psychopath.” Not everybody, of course, can harness their inner psychopath in writing, to entertain, terrify, astound, attract, and amaze the way “Pat H, alias Ripley” could.

The woman looking down at the beach that morning in 1952 hadn’t yet met her character Ripley; the solitary boy in shorts and sandals was just the spark of an idea. Forty-three years later, as Highsmith battled aplastic anemia and cancer at the age of 74 in Switzerland, he was still on her mind. Schenkar writes that on the inside back cover of the last notebook Highsmith used, “Pat wrote down two new titles for a novel about the talented Mr. Ripley. One of those titles was Ripley’s Luck. The other one was Ripley and the Voice of the Dead. It was the second title that Pat crossed out.” There would be no sixth book in Highsmith’s Ripliad. Highsmith died in 1995, leaving a lengthy bibliography and millions of dollars in the bank, though how much, exactly, or at which banks, remains a mystery.

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