Highsmith @ 100: Ripley

TOM RIPLEY: MASTER CRIMINAL?

I know I have forgotten to keep up with posting the assignments for my students, but if you want to read along, here’s the intro text for this week:

I’m always amazed at the back cover copy of different editions of this book. I’ve got this edition with me. It refers to Ripley as a ‘smooth confidence man’: when you read the opening chapter you will see that he is anything but that. ‘Suave’? He’s actually cripplingly self-conscious and perpetually guilty. Why does this image persist? In a way, I think it’s a kind of confidence trick by the author, who so identified with the character that she added his name to an award she won for the book.

Highsmith was so dedicated to Ripley that she continued his adventures in four more books (if you enjoy Ripley, you might consider one of them for your final project). Like Tom, Highsmith also desperately wanted to get away from the US to Europe, where ‘culture’ lay as far as she was concerned. In the 1950s, American still felt like the gauche nouveau riche that Europeans often dreaded (see The Ugly American ).

Scholars believe that Highsmith was likely on the spectrum, and some of Ripley’s behaviour seems to suggest that as well, but there’s a lot more going on, too. His ‘difference’ is remarked on by other characters, from his Aunt who raised him to Marge and Dickie who use vintage epithets like ‘sissy’ to suggest he’s gay [there are more wincingly bad insults in the text]. While at least one of the film adaptations ran with the idea of Ripley being gay, I don’t think that’s quite right. Pay attention to the one moment of ‘ecstasy’ that he has.

The back cover copy also calls Dickie Greenleaf a ‘playboy’ and ‘debonair’–two things that really don’t fit either. Dickie is certainly rich and self-indulgent. He’s also everything Tom wishes he were. That’s where the trouble begins.

I also gave them a link to an overview of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, the book that inspired Ripley. And I mentioned the film adaptations and how they always change the story so it fits a more conventional morality/sexuality. Let’s see what the television series does with it. And if you haven’t read it yet, enjoy The Roots of Ripley over at Bristol Noir.