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The Talented Mr. Ripley

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Response Paper: The Talented Mr. Ripley The Talented Mr. Ripley, a novel by Patricia Highsmith, raises questions of identity for both its characters and the novel itself. Protagonist Tom Ripley is a con man, impersonating at the beginning of the novel an income tax agent, not for profit but for amusement. He is then mistaken for a close friend of Dickie Greenleaf’s -- an identity which he is happy to assume. He eventually murders Dickie and assumes his identity as well. Ripley’s identity is amorphous, his ambiguous true self pushed aside in favor of less “boring” personas. The novel’s characters -- seemingly one-dimensional, easily summarized and described -- all find themselves in crisis, each desperately wanting something. Tom Ripley desires higher class status and to become Dickie, to assume his identity. He believes that “It was impossible ever to be lonely or long as he was Dickie Greenleaf," that somehow a complete change in identity would cure all ills. Dickie yearns for external validation and acclaim, while Marge wants Dickie’s affection and a committed relationship with him, and Freddie wants attention from others. Some actively conceal or ignore parts of themselves. For Ripley, this is his queerness. There are various cues to Ripley’s homoerotic desires: when he is young, he is called “sissy”; he lived with an older man who “preyed” on young men; he was “very friendly” with a male Princeton student last summer; he covets Dickie and describes the man at length. However, when Dickie says “I am not queer,” Ripley replies, “Neither am I.” He denies this trait to others, and may even deny it to himself. Dickie, too, longs to be someone different than he is. He wants to be a virtuoso and write the Great American Novel, ignoring his lack of talent in either domain; indeed, he cannot even spell. The characters behave as though they were characters in a novel. Each could be easily summarized, and appears to be relatively simple, succinct. They want more, try to escape the bounds of the roles they’ve been written -- Tom his lower class and his queerness, Dickie his simple mind and lack of talent , Marge her “good-egg type” and lack of allure to Dickie -- but find that they cannot. (Oddly, Tom and Dickie each posses something the other desires: Tom, talent, and Dickie, richness. The two are then inherently drawn to each other, but also repulsed, in what harkens both their potential homosexuality and their status as written characters.) Tom, himself an expert in fraud, even kills Dickie, in what could be seen as an act of attempting to murder his own homosexual desire. However, no act can change how he is written, as the murder itself is described in orgasmic terms: it is an “ecstatic moment” for Ripley, as he imagines “all the pleasures that lay before him.” The novel is, in this way, highly self-aware: each character finds himself discovering the limitations of his written role. (Tom’s first impression of Mr. Greenleaf is even that he looks “like somebody’s father”: Mr. Greenleaf’s role in the novel, father to Dickie, becomes his character description.) Another example of the novel’s self-awareness is Mr. Greenleaf’s question to Tom, inquiring as to whether he has read Henry James’ The Ambassadors. James’ novel has the same basic plot formation as does The Talented Mr. Ripley: a protagonist travels to Europe to bring a young man back to the United States. If Ripley were to read the book, he might reach a new awareness of his own position as a character in a novel. This, apparently, cannot happen: Tom hunts for the novel but fails to acquire it. On the boat, his status as a first class passenger (his falsified identity) prevents him from accessing the book, which is only available to the cabin. Like someone in a dream, Tom reaches an invisible wall, a frustrating boundary that he cannot cross. The novel character cannot read a novel, as he himself lives within one. The Talented Mr. Ripley mirrors The Ambassadors, just as Tom mirrors Dickie (literally trying on the other man’s clothes and admiring his reflection in a mirror). Just as its characters suffer crises of identity, the novel itself is having an identity crisis. The self and the other -- Tom and Dickie, the novel and James’ -- tense against each other in delicate balance. Beyond The Ambassadors, The Talented Mr. Ripley includes many elements of the written word -- particularly, letters and post. These include Tom’s initial scheme with checks and letters; Tom’s letter to his aunt to end contact with her; a letter from Mr. Greenleaf to Tom; Tom’s letter to Marge impersonating Dickie; a letter from Marge to Dickie, ending their relationship; letters from banks to Dickie; and an abundance of other correspondences between Tom-as-Dickie, Marge, and Mr. Greenleaf. This draws more awareness to the novel as a printed and distributed work, much like a letter for post, increasing the element of self-awareness. The fact that many of the letters in the novel are falsified (all by Tom) may also hint at a quality of literature: it is false. (Dickie’s will, too, is falsified: Tom writes it up and sends it to Mr. Greenleaf.) Inherently, the narrator of a text is rarely who they claim to be (as they would really be the author of the work), just as in Ripley’s letters impersonating Dickie. The contents of a letter are directed at one person in particular. While literature is written to be read by many, the significance of any “read” of literature is in how each individual reads it. That is, individual readings, or one-on-one conversations between author and reader, comprise a larger literary conversation. In this way, literature is also like letters. All literature is a deception, with the author being the ultimate conman. She masquerades as narrator, as each character; she profits from this exchange. The reader, despite knowing the trick, falls for it every time. Highsmith is, perhaps, doing readers of Ripley a favor. For as her characters struggle to identify themselves in a setting which is completely falsified, readers of the novel may also ponder their own lack of control in their design, place, and backdrop. Readers relate to powerless personas, designed by some otherworldly force. Talented, perhaps, but autonomous? It remains in question.

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