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The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (88)
Everybody's searching for a hero
Because the greatest love of all
When the Modern Library's list of the Top 100 English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century came out, it struck me as absurd that Ulysses was #1 and that two other Joyce novels made it too : Finnegan's Wake and Portrait of the Artist. After all, you can trudge your way through Portrait, but no more than a handful of folks have ever read all of Ulysses and nobody, I mean nobody, has ever read Finnegan's Wake in its entirety. How could they possibly justify putting such unreadable dreck on the list ? But, upon reflection, I'll acknowledge, grudgingly, that if you put together a list where you were giving great weight to considerations such as which novels were most influential, or which best captured the zeitgeist, then I suppose you would have to include Joyce somewhere, even if the books are horrid.
Now, Patricia Highsmith has none of the readability problems of Joyce--her novels are compulsively readable--but you do have to wonder about the propriety of recommending an author whose fiction is quite as amoral and repulsive as hers is. Sure, The Talented Mr. Ripley grabs you from the first page and won't let go, but Tom Ripley is one of the most repugnant characters in all of fiction, a 1950s version of Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer as protagonist. If one of the central purposes of art is to edify, and I would argue that it is, then is it proper to celebrate a novel whose anti-hero makes his way through the world by thievery, fraud, impersonation, and murder ? And who, unlike the poor wretches in noir fiction, succeeds in practicing evil, even thrives ?
I think the answer to the question is that The Talented Mr. Ripley is a most important novel, one which deserves a wide readership, because it brilliantly captures the spirit of the age. Once upon a time, our moral sensibilities, the ethos of the culture, would have required that a Tom Ripley get his comeuppance. As the Century opened, few people would have imagined that a Tom Ripley could exist, never mind that he could prosper. At the close of the Century, a Tom Ripley was President of the United States.
This will I'm sure sound too harsh to some, but as I read the book, one quote kept coming to mind; ironically enough, it was Jesse Jackson who said of Bill Clinton :
I can maybe work with him but I know now who he is,
what he is. There is nothing this man won't
Similarly, Tom Ripley is nothing but selfish appetite. And his appetite is for the things that people have. He doesn't so much want to become someone else, as to have the things that they have. For Ripley, all is surface. He can ape other people, but he can't even begin to comprehend them :
It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all
time, true for the people he had known in the past
Truly becoming someone else would require that he take on not just the surface gloss, but their interior too, that he occupy their soul, that he adopt their moral character. Not for Ripley anything this demanding.
Samuel Johnson said : "No man ever yet became great by imitation." But the Ripleys of the world don't care about "greatness," at least not if it's understood as a quality of one's character. For this would require them to develop character in the first place. No, we live in a time when people are unwilling to make the sacrifices required to make themselves great, instead they seek ways to obtain the adornments which have always followed greatness. So, Tom Ripley does not wish to learn how to build ships, does not want to develop his own business, does not want education or breeding or grace or virtue; he wants the lifestyle that those things have earned for the Greenleafs. Having no interior himself, he understands everyone else to be all exterior, and so, if only he can look and talk and write like Dickie Greenleaf, can dress and spend and eat like him, he imagines that he will "be" Dickie Greenleaf :
He wanted to see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf with
Dickie Greenleaf's money, Dickie's clothes,
As if all we are is our clothes, our wallets, and a few mannerisms...
Patricia Highsmith has somewhat stacked the deck in Tom's favor here, by making the Greenleafs and Madge into particularly vapid rich nitwits. She is naturally trying to win Ripley our sympathy so that we'll root for him. And it is indeed hard to mourn the loss of Dickie, or Freddie. But, even if the inherent drama of the narrative catches us up, we never really root for Ripley because, as he himself notes, there is no Ripley; he is a hollow man.
Sadly though, this is the age of the Hollow Men. Tom Ripley--deceitful, treacherous, murderous, sociopath that he is--Tom Ripley is in many ways the perfect hero for the 20th Century. It was a century that belonged to the Tom Ripleys, the Joseph Stalins, the Adolph Hitlers, the Ted Bundys, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum, those hollow little men who had nothing within themselves to offer the world. All of them avatars of acquisitiveness, they were the necessary product of a culture which elevated the self, denied the validity of morality, encouraged greed and envy, portrayed Man as merely an animal, aimed at celebrity rather than achievement, celebrated wealth rather than gravity, status rather than stature...
No, let us not quibble about the moral implications of a novel which makes a hero out of Tom Ripley. He is actually the quintessential hero for the time. He wants. He takes. The rest--the consequences to himself, to those he takes from, to society--be damned. It is altogether fitting that Patricia Highsmith borrowed the plot of the book from Henry James's turn of the century novel, The Ambassadors. James was one of the authors who turned literature inwards, into a claustrophobic examination of the interior lives of twisted, repressed people. Highsmith has carried this tendency to its ultimate conclusion with Tom Ripley, who is solely concerned with himself. The problem is that when you focus on the self, to the exclusion of all of the external world, you find nothing inside but a vacuum. A soul does not develop in isolation. All that develops is avarice, desire, appetite. A soul, by its very nature, reaches beyond itself, seeking connection with others. The self seeks only its own satisfaction. This is the truth that Highsmith has captured and, though it is particularly ugly, we would do well to recognize it. With apologies to Jacques Barzun, whoever wants to know the heart and mind of modernity had better learn Ripley.
See also:Patricia Highsmith (3 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers
-REVIEW ESSAY: THE CREEPIEST: John Malkovich as Tom Ripley (ANTHONY LANE, 2004-02-09, The New Yorker)
Book-related and General Links:
-Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) - Mary Patricia (née Plangman, stepfather's name Highsmith); has also written as Claire Morgan (kirjasto)
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "patricia highsmith"
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Highsmith, Patricia
-BOOK SITE : The Talented Mr. Ripley (Random House)
-EXCERPT : from The Talented Mr. Ripley (Random House)
-PROFILE : A dark view (Susan Adams, Forbes Magazine, 06.15.98)
-The Knitting Circle: Literature : Patricia Highsmith
-Patricia Highsmith (1921 - 1995) (Queer Theory)
-Patricia Highsmith AllReaders Club
-xrefer : Highsmith, Patricia
-ESSAY : Poet of Apprehension (John Gray, New Statesman, June 19, 2000)
-ESSAY : Dead writers: Movies spur Highsmith revival (JEFF BAKER, 08/05/01, THE OREGONIAN)
-ESSAY : The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You : Everyone is a potential murderer in the malleable moral universe of Patricia Highsmith (John Freeman, City Pages)
-BIBLIOGRAPHY : PATRICIA HIGHSMITH (Stop You're Killing Me)
-ARCHIVES : "patricia highsmith" (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : "patricia highsmith" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Bob Wake, Culture Vulture)
-REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley ( Robin Brenner, Rambles)
-REVIEW : of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Michelle LeBlanc , Literal Mind)
-REVIEW : of The Ripley novels (Ian Lace)
-REVIEW : of Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (Alice K. Turner, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Selected Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Penelope Mesic , Book)
-REVIEW : of Selected Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle)
-BOOK LIST : "Death in Venice" is No. 1 gay novel #36 The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (HILLEL ITALIE, Salon)