Patricia Highsmith | Critical Essay by Anthony Channell Hilfer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Patricia Highsmith.
This section contains 4,301 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Anthony Channell Hilfer

SOURCE: "'Not Really Such a Monster': Highsmith's Ripley as Thriller Protagonist and Protean Man," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer, 1984, pp. 361-74.

In the following essay, Hilfer characterizes Tom Ripley as a particularly "subversive variation on the possibilities of a suspense thriller protagonist" as well as a "strikingly original exemplar of a contemporary character type, protean man."

Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's most memorable character, is a problem from the conventional point of view, an opinion enunciated, for instance, by Simone Trevanny, a character in Highsmith's Ripley's Game, for whom his appeal makes no sense: "'I cannot understand. I cannot,' she said. 'Jon, why do you see this monster.'" Her husband, Jon, surrogate to Highsmith's bemused reader, reflects, "Tom was not really such a monster. But how to explain?" How indeed? Tom may not be a monster or at least such a monster but Simone's view of him has some warranty. She has, after all, found him hosting two bodies, the death of whom she rightly suspects him of having facilitated. Luckily, Simone is unaware of four earlier murders Tom has accomplished but Tom's attempt to reassure her becomes rather counterproductive when circumstances force him to dispatch two mafiosi with a hammer before her very eyes: "Of all times, Tom thought when he'd meant to create a peaceable impression on Simone."

What to make of a character like Ripley is not a problem peculiar to the four novels Highsmith devoted to Ripley but one central to the suspense thriller genre. The best definition of this genre is that of Julian Symons, one of its leading practitioners, who emphasizes the genre's concentration on psychology, its unconventional morality (unlike the classic English detective novel, it puts "justice" into quotation marks), and the defining absence of a central detective hero. The protagonist of the suspense thriller is more likely either the victim or perpetrator of violence—sometimes both. So the problem of evoking sympathy where not conventionally placed is intrinsic to the genre. In this essay I shall explore Highsmith's Ripley as a particularly subversive variation on the possibilities of a suspense thriller protagonist and, simultaneously, as a strikingly original exemplar of a contemporary character type, protean man, more usually to be found in high than popular fiction.

First to the problem of a murderer-protagonist. As Highsmith herself puts it, in her how-to book on writing suspense fiction, "I think many suspense writers … must have some kind of sympathy and identification with criminals, or they would not become emotionally engrossed in books about them. The suspense book is vastly different from the mystery story in this respect. The suspense writer often deals much more closely with the criminal mind, because the criminal is usually known throughout the book, and the writer has to describe what is going on in his head." If this is imperative for the writer, is it not so, a fortiori, for the reader? Not entirely, according to Highsmith. The reader must care about the protagonist but this "is not the same as liking the hero. It is caring whether he goes free, or caring that he is caught rightly at the end, and it is being interested in him, pro or con."

The questions then in the Ripley books are: who is Ripley, what makes him interesting, why do we care about him, and, not least, why does Highsmith protect him always from being "caught rightly at the end." I shall answer these questions by means of a commentary on the first and best of the Ripley novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with cross references to others in the Ripley series when relevant.

The Talented Mr. Ripley begins with Tom being followed by a man whom he fears is about to arrest him. (Tom has constructed a minor scam with I.R.S. forms. Though criminal, Tom's scam is more a form of play since he has not had the nerve to get money from it. Tom's nerve improves during the course of the novel and the series, but it is important to recognize that he is always playing at crime.) The man turns out to be Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie Greenleaf, whom Herbert mistakenly supposes to be a close friend of Tom's whereas they are merely slight acquaintances. Even after being apprised of his error, Greenleaf proposes that Tom take a leave of absence from his job in order to retrieve Dickie from the Italian seacoast town where Dickie is living a pleasant expatriate life and return him to his responsibilities as scion of a large shipbuilding concern. This presents no problem for Tom since the job he must leave is fictitious, but when he arrives in Italy he finds it more appealing to insinuate himself into Dickie's enjoyable lifestyle than to persuade him to renounce it. The spanner gets into the works when Dickie falls out with Tom due to Tom's jealousy of Dickie's girl friend, Marge. Ultimately, Tom solves the problem by replacing Dickie; he murders him, impersonates him, and forges a will leaving his money to Tom Ripley. He is also forced to murder Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles, who discovers the impersonation.

This brief plot outline necessarily focuses on Tom's actions, especially his murders, but Highsmith's interest is less in Tom as murderer than in Tom as actor, performer, role player, in Tom's ability not merely to escape the limitations of his identity, but the identity itself. Tom is pleased with himself in direct ratio to his ability to stand outside this self, objectify it, play it as a role. Thus, early in the novel we get the first of many mirror images: "Slowly he took off his jacket and untied his tie, watching every move he made as if it were somebody else's movements he were watching. Astonishing how much straighter he was standing now, what a different look there was in his face. It was one of the few times in his life that he felt pleased with himself." On the ship to Europe he signalizes his "starting a new life" with the purchase of a cap reminiscent of the mythical helmet of invisibility: "A cap was the most versatile of headgears, he thought, and wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, he thought. The cap changed all that." Appearance takes priority over reality or, to be precise, for Tom it becomes an effective reality, creating class, moral, and national identity.

Tom's very defects turn out to be functional in his eventual transformation—his other-directed oversensitivity to others, his diffidence, his self-dislike all make it easy for him to shuck off his rather minimal self and become the other he has so well observed. His initial blunder with Dickie is to approach him at the beach in a bathing suit, a self-exposure which goes against Tom's genius and has the reverse effect to that of the versatile cap: "Tom stood there, feeling pale and naked as the day he was born. He hated bathing suits. This one was very revealing." But Tom's other-directed responsiveness soon has him unconsciously copying Dickie's walk as he becomes more and more Dickie's double:

They sat slumped in the carozza, each with a sandalled foot propped on a knee, and it seemed to Tom that he was looking in a mirror when he looked at Dickie's leg and his propped foot beside him. They were the same height, and very much the same weight, Dickie perhaps a bit heavier, and they wore the same size bathrobe, socks, and probably shirts.

Dickie even said, "Thank you, Mr. Greenleaf," when Tom paid the carozza driver. Tom felt a little weird.

At this point in the novel, Tom has no thought of murdering Dickie. What he aspires to is a kind of cross between a blood brother and mirror image of Dickie, living Dickie's life concurrently with him. He fantasizes murdering not Dickie but Dickie's friend, Marge, who is the reality principle interfering with Tom's dream of sharing Dickie's life. In the most bizarre scene of the novel, Tom, alone in Dickie's room and dressed in Dickie's clothes, fantasizes himself as Dickie murdering Marge: "'Marge, you must understand that I don't love you,' Tom said in the mirror in Dickie's voice, with Dickie's higher pitch on the emphasized words, with the little growl in his throat at the end of the phrase that could be pleasant or unpleasant, intimate or cool, according to Dickie's mood. 'Marge, stop it!' Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge's throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp on the floor…. 'You know why I had to do that,' he said, still breathlessly, addressing Marge, though he watched himself in the mirror. 'You were interfering between Tom and me—No, not that! But there is a bond between us!'"

What Tom has not yet realized is that he cannot be Dickie or even effectively play Dickie so long as Dickie is alive to be and do so. There cannot be two Napoleons in the same asylum. The conclusion of the scene above is that Dickie explodes Tom's act by catching him in the performance of it. Shortly thereafter Tom has an epiphany of Dickie's (and everyone's) irremediable otherness: "He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and 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 away 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 the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future…." To sum up, Tom now envisions relations with others as external and illusory, a matter of surface appearances. His initial response to this vision is to wish to die.

In a way he does this. He dies to himself as Tom and becomes Dickie, after murdering the original claimant to that identity. Tom so throws himself into being Dickie that his Tom-identity becomes more distant to him; he imagines telling Marge something "in Tom's voice." In becoming Dickie, he appropriates not only the latter's clothes but his smile, he packs like Dickie, paints like Dickie, even tries "to think about what Dickie would be thinking about." In sum, "Now, from the moment when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was Dickie, brushing his teeth with his elbow jutted out, Dickie invariably putting back the first tie he pulled off the rack and selecting a second." Being Dickie is a vast improvement over being Tom: "it was impossible ever to be lonely or bored, he thought, so long as he was Dickie Greenleaf." Finally, in one of Highsmith's nicest moments, Tom-as-Dickie is asked about Tom and responds not untruthfully, that he doesn't know him very well.

But there are problems. As Tom splits Dickie's money between his own and Dickie's bank account, he reflects that "after all, he had two people to take care of." He can only be Dickie to people who have never seen Dickie and he is forced to murder Freddie Miles for stumbling across his impersonation. Worst of all, he must go back to being Tom when Dickie becomes the main suspect in Freddie Miles's murder. This prospect of becoming a real Tom as opposed to a fake Dickie is highly depressing: "He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new." He becomes upset at catching sight of himself in the mirror: "He looked as if he were trying to convey the emotions of fear and shock by his posture and his expression and because the way he looked was involuntary and real, he became suddenly twice as frightened" (my italics). It should be remembered that Tom enjoys mirrors when he is practicing a role before them. At this point, Tom arrives at his second major revelation—that "Tom Ripley" is like "Dickie Greenleaf" a role and that he controls the performance of it: "It was senseless to be despondent, anyway, even as Tom Ripley…. Hadn't he learned something from these last months? If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture." Settling into the role of Tom Ripley, he finds enjoyment in hamming it up: "He began to feel happy even in his dreary role as Thomas Ripley. He took a pleasure in it, overdoing almost the old Tom Ripley reticence with strangers, the inferiority in every duck of his head and wistful, sidelong glance." Later, Tom sets himself off from the lighter haired Dickie by dyeing his hair "so that it would be even darker than his normal hair." Tom even pulls off the tour de force of successfully playing Tom to the same policemen to whom he had earlier played Dickie.

It is not surprising that Tom "had wanted to be an actor" since the main thematic pattern in The Talented Mr. Ripley is Tom's confirmation in the belief that acting creates reality. At this point, a distinction is necessary. It is possible to construe a determinate identity for Tom in terms of two culturally talismanic terms: "Homosexual" and "Schizophrenic." The reader has doubtless picked up intimations of these identities simply in the quotes I've given, especially the one in which Tom, playing Dickie to the mirror, justifies himself to an imaginary Marge. "You were interfering between Tom and me—No, not that!" That obviously refers to homosexual attachment and we may suspect that Tom doth protest too much. Both earlier and later, Tom shows notable anxiety about being perceived as effeminate or homosexual and, in the scene where Dickie finds Tom playacting in Dickie's clothes, Tom is accused to his face of being "queer." In what is so far the latest in the Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Tom dresses in drag partly as a disguise but more just for the experience. Most suggestive of all, Freddie Miles, before it dawns on him that Tom is impersonating Dickie Greenleaf, suspects that Tom's presence in what is supposedly Dickie's apartment wearing Dickie's cloths and jewelry must indicate a homosexual relation between them. After murdering Freddie, Tom thinks "how sad, stupid, clumsy, dangerous and unnecessary his death had been, and how brutally unfair to Freddie. Of course, one could loathe Freddie, too. A selfish, stupid bastard who had sneered at one of his best friends—Dickie certainly was one of his best friends—just because he suspected him of sexual deviation. Tom laughed at that phrase 'sexual deviation.' Where was the sex? Where was the deviation? He looked at Freddie and said low and bitterly: 'Freddie Miles, You're a victim of your own dirty mind.'"

The above passage also can be read as evincing Tom's schizophrenic tendencies. Tom's indignation at Freddie's suspicions seems curiously displaced. After all, Tom has murdered Dickie, surely rather more unfriendly an act than sneering, however unjustly, at supposedly deviant tendencies in him. Equally odd is that Tom, when he returns to his Ripley identity, feels free of guilt for Freddie's murder: "Being Tom Ripley had one compensation at least: it relieved his mind of guilt for the stupid, unnecessary murder of Freddie Miles." This is because Tom was being Dickie at that time. Later, when Marge asks Tom where he had been that winter—we know, of course, that he spent it playing Dickie—Tom suffers a slight identity slippage: "'Well not with Tom, I mean, not with Dickie,' he said laughing, flustered at his slip of the tongue."

But to anchor Tom's identity in latent homosexuality and schizophrenia is to read against the clear indications in Highsmith's novel that Tom's strength is in his indeterminacy of identity, in an emptiness of self that allows the superior performance of roles, eventuating in Tom's finest performance—the role of himself. So my answer to the question I raised at the beginning of this essay, the question of who Tom is, why we are interested in him and care about him is that we are interested in and care about Tom precisely because he is not anybody. It is this negative capability that exempts Tom from detection and exposure. Along, that is, with the author's sympathy for what Tom isn't. Ripley's non-essentiality, his lack of a determinate identity, is the making of him. It is his talent, his vocation, and we may recall that, as Falstaff pointed out, "'Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation." Ripley's interest is, in fact, paradigmatic; he refers back to the trickster archetype while traversing the narrow field of post-modern identity, beginning as a sleazy version of Riesman's other-directed man and developing into a sinister version of Lifton's protean man, a player with his own and others' destinies.

Tom's transformation begins with his other-directed need "to make Dickie like him," progresses to imitating Dickie, playing Dickie, and finally to the protean triumph of playing himself. The central feature of protean man, Robert Lifton notes [in "Protean Man," History and Human Survival (1971)], is the "repeated, autonomously willed death and rebirth of the self," associated with the theme of "fatherlessness." Tom, whose parents conveniently died in his early childhood, leaving him to the care of an aunt he detests, has carried the protean tendency to its logical extreme, reflecting at one point, "this was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person." Divested of past and parentage, Tom is remarkably free of the conventional constraints of superego, again matching Lifton's definition of protean man: "What has actually disappeared … is the classical superego, the internalization of clearly defined criteria of right and wrong transmitted within a particular culture by parents to their children." Alisdair McIntyre, in a less sanguine view of protean man than Lifton, could have been describing Highsmith's creation [in After Virtue (1981)]: "The self thus conceived, utterly distinct on the one hand from its social embodiments and lacking on the other any rational history of its own, may seem to have a certain abstract and ghostly character." One recalls Iago, whose motto is "I am not what I am not what I am."

Tom's sexual anxieties, then, can be best explained as compounding a conventional enough shame at a socially derogatory label (the novel was published in 1956) with an emergent protean man's dislike of getting fixed in any identity. In accord with Diderot's paradox of the actor, Tom is able to be anyone or anything only by way of being detached from the acts and identities he performs. Marge may well be on the right track when she comments in a letter to Dickie—which Tom in his Dickie-role actually receives and reads—"All right, he may not be queer. He's just nothing, which is worse." In the later books, we find Tom happily married to a lady as amoral and as relatively passionless as himself. And though Tom's self-detachment may be taken as schizophrenic, it is questionable if he is any more so than other literary adumbrations or fulfillments of the protean self—say, for a short list, Gide's Lafcadio, Mann's Felix Krull, Barth's Jacob Horner ("In a sense, I am Jacob Horner"), among others. In all these characters, as in Tom, indeterminacy of identity seems, as Lifton argues, less a dysfunction than a survival mechanism. Even when most absorbed in his role of Dickie, Tom never completely loses himself in his role: "He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolutely confident he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made."

Finally, within the conventions of the suspense thriller, Tom's survival and triumph is an evident authorial endorsement. The structure of Highsmith's book is built on the tension between Tom's potential exposure and punishment and his actual evasion and exemption. The novel begins with Tom's fear of arrest and throughout the novel Tom varies between fear of "nemesis" and confidence in luck: "Something always turned up. That was Tom's philosophy." After his murder of Freddie, Tom imagines all the possibilities of disaster he must face in carrying a dead body down several flights of stairs; he "imagined it all with such intensity, writhing upstairs in his apartment, that to have descended all the stairs without a single one of his imaginings happening made him feel that he was gliding down under a magical protection of some kind, with ease in spite of the mass on his shoulder." His magical protector is, of course, Highsmith, a protection she extends on condition that Tom play his roles audaciously and with a kind of artistic lightness. Tom's initial blunder with Dickie is to have come on too seriously, heavily: "Tom cursed himself for having been so heavy-handed and so humorless today. Nothing he took desperately seriously ever worked out. He'd found that out years ago." (Note, again, the paradox of the actor.) Tom's virtù is his joy in risk taking: "Risks were what made the whole thing fun."

Highsmith deliberately and shamelessly evades the conventional morality of crime and punishment. Toward the end of the novel she presents us with a barrage of signs that Tom has pushed his luck too far, has risked too much, that nemesis is finally, if a bit belatedly, approaching. Tom "considered that he had been lucky beyond reason"; he speculates "something was going to happen now … and it couldn't be good. His luck had held just too long." Certainly this is the way it ought to be and in the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (Purple Noon is the American title), Tom is exposed at the end as Dickie's body literally surfaces. In her how-to book on suspense fiction, Highsmith comments that it "makes a book altogether more eligible for television and movie sales if the criminal is caught, punished, and made to feel awful at the end." So Tom's exemption is a thoroughly calculated flouting of moral and literary expectations, a play against genre since even in the relatively subversive suspense genre a murderer-protagonist usually ends by being hoist on his own petard. Simone Trevanny in Ripley's Game stands in for readers shocked by any play with, evasion of, or undercutting of such expectation, though Highsmith rather unfairly characterizes Simone as hysterical and unreasonable for reacting with predictable shock and outrage to the bodies she keeps finding Tom stacking like cordwood. Highsmith can, however, turn back the accusation of immorality on more conventionally proper writers and readers: "The public wants to see the law triumph, or at least the general public does, though at the same time the public likes brutality. The brutality must be on the right side, however. Sleuth-heroes can be brutal, sexually unscrupulous, kickers of women, and still be popular heroes, because they are chasing something worse than themselves, presumably." Tom Ripley, it is true, has never achieved the popularity of Mike Hammer.

Still, he does all right for himself and Highsmith does all right by him. At the conclusion of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom has gotten off clear from two murders and found his forged will accepted with almost magical ease. It should not be too surprising that Highsmith's ending resembles that of Gide's Lafcadio's Journey (Les Caves du Vatican) where by a chain of extraordinary coincidences Lafcadio escapes the consequences of a gratuitous murder he has committed. Both endings imply a quasi-providential endorsement of the protagonists' actions with the respective authors in the role of deus ex machina. The deity is, of course, Proteus. Both these novels adumbrate a long reign for this usurper deity, an appropriate modern replacement for Zeus with his obsolescent baggage of nemesis and superego. In the last lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley, we see Tom instructing a taxi driver, "'To a hotel, please…. Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!'"

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