MR RIPLEY’S GREAT TALENT? MAKING US LIKE A KILLER AND HIS CRIMES
By Sam Jordison
Tuesday 9 June 2015 16.45 BST
The Reading group verdict is in: Patricia Highsmith’s amoral protagonist in The Talented Mr Ripley offers a queasy kind of entertainment – and an armchair psychologist’s perfect case study.
“I couldn’t make an interesting story out of some morons,” said Patricia Highsmith in 1981. She explained: “The murderers that one reads about in the newspaper are, half the time, mentally deficient in some way, or simply callous. There are young boys, for instance, who pretend to be delivering, or who may help an old lady carrying her groceries home, and then hit her on the head when she invites them in for tea and rob her. These are forever stupid people, but they exist. Many murderers are like that, and they don’t interest me enough to write a book about them.”
Ripley, however, is a different case. He, Highsmith says, is “reasonably intelligent” and, crucially, amoral. “I suppose I find it an interesting contrast to stereotyped morality, which is very frequently hypocritical and phony. I also think that to mock lip-service morality and to have a character amoral, such as Ripley, is entertaining. I think people are entertained by reading such stories.”
The fact that the Talented Mr Ripley has now been in print for 60 years proves that last point. But it’s a queasy, uneasy kind of entertainment. Ripley may not be a typically moronic murderer. But that doesn’t make him any less real or believable. In the comments about last week’s Reading group article, for instance, a contributor came in with a pathological diagnosis, as if Ripley were a genuine case study:
“He is a perfect example of the narcissistic personality disorder. Swinging between the poles of excessive self-criticism and grandiosity, easily to take offence and vicious in retaliation – all to make up for a lack of core self.”
You can find scores of similar attempts to define Ripley’s symptoms on the internet. Plenty of them are sincerely technical:
“We are subtly introduced to the two overriding themes of the antisocial personality disorder (still labelled by many professional authorities “psychopathy” and “sociopathy”): an overwhelming dysphoria and an even more overweening drive to assuage this angst by belonging.”
Some kind soul has even devised a treatment plan for Tom:
“I would perform an MRI, complete blood work … to rule out comorbidities, as well as run a toxicology screening, STD/HIV screening … and MMPI (personality test) to evaluate the extremities of his personality and discover if other fluctuations other than his ASPD [antisocial personality disorder] could be treated with medication or effective psychotherapeutic techniques.”
Of course, all this presupposes the possibility of catching Ripley. Easier said than done.
There is something more serious going on here, too. Ripley feels like a real threat. In 1949, when Highsmith was addressing the issue of how to present a true-to-life psychopath on the page, she wrote in a notebook: “The psychopath is an average man living more clearly than the world permits him.” After she had realised her vision in 1955, she made another note: “It felt like Ripley was writing it.”
The challenge and fascination of the novel lies between those two observations. Ripley feels real – but in living more clearly than the world permits, he is also able to play out some dangerously enticing fantasies.
In a previous article I suggested that there was a moral challenge in the fact that Highsmith has made Ripley both a likable character and a cold-blooded killer. I’m now having to refine my opinion. Quite a few people who commented below the line rightly pointed out that there’s a certain satisfaction to his crimes. Nilpferd said: “Any of us who have seen less talented, more stupid people get ahead of us in life probably experience a certain frisson of pleasure at the way Ripley recalibrates these inequalities.” And Justanoldfool wrote: “Yes, Tom is a likable character for all sorts of reasons, but as much as anything, we like him because he does what he wants – and gets away with it.”
Anthony Minghella, the director of the film of The Talented Mr Ripley, stressed the same thing when he wrote about the book in the Guardian:
“His actions are an extreme response to emotions all of us recognise: the sense that there is a better life being lived by somebody else, somewhere else, someone not trapped inside the hollow existence in which we find ourselves. It’s one of the things which makes us human. We’ve all been Tom Ripley, just as we’ve all known a Dickie Greenleaf, the man who has everything, whose attention makes us feel special. We’ve all basked in the sunshine of that attention and felt the chill of losing it.”
The books don’t just make us like a killer, they make us like his crimes. Writing in the Paris Review, her biographer Joan Schenkar says that Highsmith’s novels “suck [the] reader into their bottomless vortex of moral relativities, transferable guilts and unstable identities”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the very next sentence, Schenkar suggests Highsmith herself was “more than a little on the psychopathic side”.
When the author was asked how close she felt to being a criminal, she replied:
“I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very freewheeling; he has to forget about his personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don’t understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand …”
Even as she denied any moral ambiguity, however, she brought in bucket-loads:
“I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them, and it is even sick to try … Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it, really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn’t to say it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.”
Naturally, as upstanding people we all agree that murder is the opposite of freedom. Even if we have a powerful counter-example in the shape of Tom Ripley …