Strangers on a Train | Critical Essay by Noel Dorman Mawr

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Strangers on a Train.
This section contains 2,905 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Noel Dorman Mawr

Critical Essay by Noel Dorman Mawr

SOURCE: "From Villain to Vigilante," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 34-8.

Mawr is an American educator and critic who has written works on Romantic poetry. In the following essay, she discusses the development of the character Tom Ripley in Highsmith's Ripley novels, stating that the series shows Ripley's "progression from a villain to a vigilante as the world becomes even too evil for his taste."

Have you ever wondered how the criminal mind works? Patricia Highsmith has. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, focused on the pathology of a central character; and her only series character, Ripley, is a professional criminal. Some writers might make the hero charming—a bumbling crook, or a swashbuckling villain—but not Highsmith. Ripley is a thief, a murderer; he even takes risks in order to make it all more "fun."

Ripley undergoes some very interesting changes throughout the four-book series. In his debut, he lives in a fantasy world; and Highsmith presents him as the unfortunate product of a corrupt society. By the fourth book, society is presented as a malignant force which makes criminal behavior an inevitability. A close look at this most unusual series, which began in 1956 and was last added to in 1980, shows Ripley's progression from a villain to a vigilante as the world in which he lives becomes even too evil for his taste.

The original Tom Ripley, in the 1956 The Talented Mr. Ripley, lives in a society which hardly touches him—which, in fact, he half creates in his imagination. Tom is given a conventional fairy-tale orphan's background, complete with a sadistic aunt who belittled and humiliated him. Apparently as a result of this, Tom is lacking in self-confidence and drive, has identity problems, and creates his own imaginary world. Such a self-created world comes in later life to control him, and he loses his ability to tell real from imaginary. It is this invented "reality," coupled with Tom's weak sense of ego and contempt for the "real" Tom Ripley, which leads him first to attempt to alter his identity and finally to kill another human being with whom he has identified, actually assuming his identity.

Tom's great need to find an identity leads him to attempt to find it through "love": someone will love him, and he will lose himself in the identity of that person. He meets and seizes upon Dickie Greenleaf. "More than anything else in the world," Tom wants Dickie to like him, but in this Tom fails:

In Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for all the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be an illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.

Tom's disappointment finally results in murderous rage toward the would-be object of his love and identification, so Tom kills Dickie and finds after Dickie's death the identity that has eluded him: he assumes Dickie's name, his appearance, his voice, his manner, until it finally comes easier to Tom to be Dickie than to be Tom Ripley.

Tom Ripley's imagination has vast powers over the external world. It can cause "the whole city of New York" to "collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage." But it does not have the power to give Tom Ripley self-confidence, or cause others to love or even like him. Since Tom could not get Dickie to love him, he killed him, and now he must go on killing in order to protect his new identity as Dickie Greenleaf. He has no doubt that these murders are justified; they are, after all, necessary to protect what simply is due him. In these latter respects, Tom becomes more the type, not of the psychotic in his world of delusions, but of the amoral, unfeeling psychopathic criminal—the type he will become in later novels.

Another development within Tom in this first novel is his increasing enjoyment, not only of his masquerade, but of the feeling of danger that goes with it. He has always chosen to "tempt fate," to "take a chance" whenever he can. After the first murder, "it was as if he were really inviting trouble, and couldn't stop himself." He thinks about taking risks and realizes that "risks were what made the whole thing fun" because "he was so bored." What had begun as a need to find a secure and acceptable identity has become a need for stimulation, for excitement to allay the boredom of life. For Tom, in whatever incarnation, cannot really feel very much. His overriding need is always to fill up the void that is Tom Ripley—with another's identity, with the stimulation of danger.

These latter elements are further developed in the second novel, Ripley under Ground (1970). The recognizable traits of the psychopathic criminal, which have become evident in Tom by the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, here dominate. Tom is no longer at the mercy of his imagination, and he is now Tom Ripley pretty consistently, and apparently satisfied with this. Tom now prides himself on his sensitivity, sincerity, and moral rectitude, while at the same time emerging as a moral Typhoid Mary. In the first novel, Tom murdered the person closest to him. In the second and third in the series, he becomes a malignant influence on those who are sucked into his orbit. In each novel, someone is driven to suicide through contact with him.

In Ripley under Ground, Tom is a creator and part owner of a counterfeit painting racket. Bernard, the counterfeiter, becomes increasingly distraught over his own dishonesty, and Tom realizes that Bernard must die or he will expose the scheme and ruin everyone involved. When, after lengthy pursuit by Tom, Bernard kills himself, "Tom began to realize that he had willed or wished Bernard's suicide." Bernard has accused Tom of being the "origin" of the whole fraud, and Tom's response is to acknowledge—while deriding—the fact that people look upon him as "a mystic origin, a font of evil."

In this novel, Tom is less a prey to his fantasies, more secure in himself, but more in need of external stimulation to alleviate his boredom. Even some of his criminal activities, such as smuggling, cause him to experience "fatigue, contempt, boredom even." Only danger can alleviate this boredom, and the excitement of the dangerous game banishes all other concerns. Tom tells himself—and, as is usual with his imaginary constructs, believes—that he is concerned with ethics, with right and wrong. He even has feelings of sympathy for the wife of one of his murder victims. But Tom never really feels very much—including a sense of "right" and "wrong." He "saw the right and wrong, yet both sides of himself were equally sincere," because for Tom the actual reality is still that bottomless pit which is Tom's lack of identity—of any inner self. He is in constant—and increasing—need of stimulation to fill that void. And the more he fills it, the less he feels, and the more he needs. When the art collector first reveals that he is onto the forgeries, Tom does not know if he should feel anything or not: "Tom was unworried. Ought he to be more worried? He shrugged slightly."

Tom is fairly consistently self-confident, he is aware of his lack of a basic sense of right and wrong, but he is also becoming increasingly moralistic and self-righteous, and this characteristic manifests itself in his responses to French society. He thinks with scorn of "French bloody-mindedness, greed, a lie that was not exactly a lie but a deliberate concealment of fact." In Tom's observations about French society, Highsmith initiates the move toward depicting the actual society in which her protagonist functions. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom lives in a New York City of his own imagination and in an Italian tourist wonderland. The natives are hardly noticed, and crime is not a significant enough occurrence to be commented on. In Ripley under Ground, French society is full of greedy, dishonest people, and crime is a way of life—a business. Tom's new friend, Reeves Minot, is a smuggler by profession, and Tom's "business" interest is art forgery. Even murder is a business in this society, and the "honest" people are not really honest, cheating each other every chance they get. This is a different picture of society from the first Ripley novel, and this Tom is more confident but more criminal, more hardened. Those changes will be developed in the next two Ripley novels, but, with the added twist that Tom, while rarely seeing himself as evil (or even criminal), will become increasingly disgusted with criminal activity in society and will begin to direct his efforts against other criminals—and simply, he will tell himself, for the sake of foiling professional criminals. At the same time, he will continue to seduce and to destroy ordinary, innocent people—and still see himself as a decent, moral person. In the most recent Ripley novel, Tom does, in fact, see himself as the hero, fighting impersonal crimes in a corrupt society.

In Ripley's Game (1974), the focus is divided between Tom and his victim, Jonathan Trevanny, who seems to serve as counterpoint to Tom: against Tom's pretensions to ethics and morality is placed the genuinely ethical and moral Jonathan. And, while Tom always feels that he "understands" Jonathan, Jonathan never feels that he understands Tom. While Tom's "understanding" of Trevanny is always skewed, he yet is able to draw Trevanny into his schemes, and finally—while convincing himself that he is Trevanny's benefactor—to destroy him, both morally and physically. Tom's malignancy is stronger than the ordinary man's morality, just as, in society as it is seen in this novel, crime is stronger than honesty and the lives of criminals are worth more than the lives of ordinary citizens.

The Tom-Jonathan comparison is ubiquitous throughout Ripley's Game. Jonathan cannot manage the self-control to lie convincingly to his wife; Tom is still the master of invention, and one of his greatest inventions is his perception of himself as sensitive, ethical, and civilized. It is he who suggests pulling Jonathan into his and Reeves's criminal schemes, but, when Reeves actually acts on the suggestion, Tom calls it "a dirty, humourless trick." Tom's luring Jonathan into crime is soon looked upon by him as an act of beneficence, and he both congratulates himself and feels some empathy with Jonathan, whom he can now view as just a murderer, like himself. As he did with Dickie Greenleaf, Tom identifies with his victim and feels the warmest of feelings for him while never understanding that Jonathan both abhors and is mystified by Tom. Tom engages in crime to allay the boredom of his life—the boredom of being Tom Ripley. Jonathan has no need for stimulation and, in fact, after at first feeling "a bit euphoric" thinking of the money he will earn for his wife and child, is able to feel nothing.

To Tom, it is imperative that he see the rest of the world as no better than himself—as corruptible, as always having something to be ashamed of, as Jonathan must have felt once he became a murderer. Tom constructs a picture of himself as a heroic figure, kindly benefactor to Jonathan Trevanny, and moral superior to most criminals. He has the utmost contempt for large-scale, professional criminals, such as the Mafia, of whom he thinks as "more dishonest, more corrupt, decidedly more ruthless than himself." And, because "the law couldn't get its hands on the bigger bastards among them." he, Tom, will become a vigilante, assassinating criminals whom the law cannot touch.

But, Tom's pretensions to moral righteousness aside, the society portrayed is growing more corrupt, at least within the context of the Ripley novels. Organized crime and random violence exist in a society in which governments do not seem to be "aware of the insane actions of some of their spies. Or those whimsical, half-demented men flitting from Bucharest to Moscow and Washington with guns and microfilm." This last is Tom's view, and in such a context Tom's "game" is relatively harmless, his claim to be a force for the good and the right almost credible. It is these claims and this eroding society which become dominant in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980).

The original Tom Ripley created his own reality. In The Boy, the deception is more often on the part of the environment, and Tom is at its mercy. The illusion of wilderness in the Grunewald Forest of West Berlin first leads Tom to wonder if everything is not an illusion, and then leads him to succumb to the deceptions of a gang of criminals and to fail to prevent the kidnapping of Frank (the "Boy" of the title). External forces exert an unaccustomed control over Tom. After Frank's kidnapping, Tom feels that he "had never felt thus shaken by something that he himself had done, because in such cases in the past, he had been in control of things. Now he was anything but in control." Unlike the earlier, omnipotent Tom, this Tom becomes "tired of fretting over things he couldn't do anything about."

Tom once again identifies with the male figure in the story but this time seeks to protect his alter ego from the society that threatens both of them. No longer does he seduce the innocent into crime (Frank is a murderer before he meets Tom). And, this time, Frank's suicide seems to have nothing to do with Tom's influence. In this case, Tom's identification seems benign, a magnanimous, protective gesture. His perception of his righteousness grows as he opposes the professional criminals who try to kidnap Frank, and his perception seems (for a change) fairly close to reality. Tom initiates no evil, and the forces he is battling do seem more evil than he is. But the old Tom is still there, pursuing criminals finally for the ultimate good: the risk, the danger, the stimulation. And Tom Ripley the heroic crime fighter is still Tom Ripley who thinks like a criminal, anticipating the kidnappers at every turn—and succumbing to the foolhardy out of his abiding love of danger.

The old Tom Ripley is still with us, but the society in which he operates is now so rotten—really rotten—that the criminal with a "code" comes off as a hero. Any morality is superior to the total depravity into which most of society has sunk.

This view of society is not confined to the later Ripley novels. In her The Glass Cell (1964), Highsmith depicts a naïve protagonist first victimized by criminals, then corrupted by the prison environment in which he is unjustly confined. That Highsmith's focus on society begins to usurp her earlier vision of isolated criminality is underlined by her using The Glass Cell as the one extended example of her creative process in her 1966 how-to-book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (wherein she speaks of one of the "elements" of the story as "the deleterious effect of exposure to brutality in prison, and how this can lead to anti-social behavior after release"). Her next two novels, excluding the 1970 Ripley under Ground and the 1974 Ripley's Game, continue the new interest in social forces: The Tremor of Forgery (1969) depicts the effects of the alien view of criminality in Tunisian society on an American, and A Dog's Ransom (1972) is an obsessive portrait of a crime-ridden New York City which corrupts and destroys decent human beings. Three of Highsmith's four most recent novels (The Boy Who Followed Ripley is the exception) are set in the United States (and the latest Ripley novel ends there), and none focuses primarily on criminals. All (Edith's Diary, 1977; People who Knock on the Door, 1983; and Found in the Street, 1986) depict a society in which most people are either obsessed with fanatical religious or political beliefs or are turned inward toward totally self-serving, socially irresponsible behavior. Both orientations can lead to criminality, and they do so in these books. The evolution of the picture of crime and society which occurs in the Ripley novels is consistent with the evolution occurring in Highsmith's other works. But, while Ripley's perception of society seems to parallel Highsmith's, his perception of himself does not.

One must remember the irony: Tom Ripley may be right about the world, but he is still thoroughly lacking in insight into Tom Ripley. His motives are, ultimately, the strictly personal ones of his need for the stimulation of danger and, still, for occasionally losing his identity in a masquerade of some kind. These last Ripley novels are not works of social criticism. Patricia Highsmith remains the novelist of the psychological portrayal of criminal behavior. She simply has moved, over the years, toward a more social orientation—to a greater awareness of the effects of society on behavior.

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This section contains 2,905 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Noel Dorman Mawr