Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Mr. Ripley. Tom’s principal talent is presenting himself as other than he is, and this is the act from which he derives the most joy in his life. That shapeshifting quality, however, makes readers rightly suspicious of the outward appearances of several of the novel’s major characters and settings. Tom Ripley inspires intrigue, suspicion, unease, and disorientation at every turn and, through the lens of his experiences, Highsmith argues that secrecy and deception and the gulf they create between appearance and reality are integral components of society and the self.
Throughout the book, Highsmith charts Tom Ripley’s constantly escalating rejection of himself and his need to convince individual after individual that he is other than what he truly is. Tom represents himself as an IRS agent to the individuals he’s casually defrauding at the novel’s start, and he falsely represents himself as a close friend of Dickie’s to Dickie’s father, Herbert (though, in reality, they’re only acquaintances). This contributes to the sense that characters’ statements and appearances should not be taken at face value. Sometimes, however, Tom even uses the truth to be manipulative: upon his arrival in Italy, he admits to Dickie that Herbert has sent him, thereby manipulating Dickie into accepting him by invoking his father (and implying that Tom made the trip out of familial concern, rather than a desire for Herbert’s financial compensation). This further confuses the issue of appearance and deception, as even the truth is not off limits to manipulative twisting.
The outward appearance of Dickie’s life is one of luxury, intrigue, and a certain undeniable sensual allure. However, Highsmith imbues Dickie’s apparently charmed life with a sense of burden. He is the unwilling heir to his father’s shipping business—a burden he feels he must flee to Italy to escape—and his mother Emily is ill with leukemia. His abandonment of his family in their time of need is cruel, but Dickie’s inability to cope with the expectations of his family shows that the appearance of ease and luxury does not encompass the full picture of Dickie’s life and troubles. Furthermore, though he insists he’s “not queer,” Dickie’s lack of interest in Marge—and lack of more than a passing interest in any woman—combined with his tumultuous, codependent friendship with Tom belies a sexual insecurity, and perhaps even a repressed sexual identity. The undercurrents of Dickie’s personality—his need for solace, his moods, his apparent struggle with the implications of his close relationship with Tom—are shoved down, only perceptible to readers due to Tom Ripley’s watchful eye and careful intuition. The deception necessary in order for Dickie to keep up appearances drives a wedge between him and Tom and ultimately leads to Dickie’s demise.
In a novel preoccupied with its characters’ deceptions perpetrated for the sake of appearances, it’s important to consider the manipulations Highsmith makes in addition to—or alongside—those of her characters. Highsmith couches her somewhat anarchic, insidious tale of the vindication of a murderous, manipulative villain within the structure of a thriller or suspense novel—a genre in which she’d established herself as a master. Though the novel takes on the appearance of a suspense story, it wrestles with deeper questions of deception, secrecy, obsession, and denial, and it manipulates its readers into sympathizing with a sociopath. The novel itself, then, uses the slick appearance of a thriller novel to conceal the reality that it is a dark meditation on greed, violence, and human nature. Highsmith is using all the forces at her disposal to remind readers to be discerning about the disjunction between appearance and reality, lest—like Tom—we slip into complacency and become unable to discern the truth of either.
Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in The Talented Mr. Ripley
Tom’s heart took a sudden leap. He put on an expression of reflection. It was a possibility. Something in him had smelled it out and leapt at it even before his brain. He wanted to leave New York. “I might,” he said carefully, with the same pondering expression, as if he were even now going over the thousands of little ties that could prevent him. Tom stared at the gold signet ring with the nearly worn-away crest on Mr. Greenleaf’s little finger. “I think I might.”
In a large mirror on the wall he could see himself: the upright, self-respecting young man again. He looked quickly away. He was doing the right thing, behaving the right way. Yet he had a feeling of guilt. When he had said to Mrs. Greenleaf just now, I’ll do everything I can… Well, he had meant it. He wasn’t trying to fool anybody. He felt himself beginning to sweat, and he tried to relax.
The last four years had been for the most part a waste, there was no denying that. A series of haphazard jobs, long perilous intervals with no job at all and consequent demoralization because of having no money, and then taking up with stupid, silly people in order not to be lonely, or because they could offer him something. It was not a record to be proud of.
His aloofness, he knew, was causing a little comment among the passengers. He imagined [their] speculation: Is he an American! I think so, but he doesn’t act like an American, does he? He’s terribly serious, isn’t he, and he can’t be more than twenty-three. He must have something very important on his mind. Yes, he had. The present and the future of Tom Ripley.
“And these—a lot of landscapes,” Dickie said with a deprecatory laugh, though obviously he wanted Tom to say something complimentary about them, because obviously he was proud of them. They were all wild and hasty and monotonously similar. “My surrealist effort,” Dickie said, bracing another canvas against his knee. Tom winced with almost a personal shame. It was Marge, undoubtedly, though with long snakelike hair, and worst of all two horizons in her eyes, with a miniature landscape of Mongibello’s houses and mountains in one eye, and the beach in the other full of little red people. “Yes, I like that,” Tom said. It gave Dickie something to do, just as it gave thousands of lousy amateur painters all over something to do. He was sorry that Dickie fell into this category as a painter, because he wanted Dickie to be much more.
Dickie walked in his slouching, downhill gait that made his bony knees jut out in front of him, a gait that Tom had unconsciously adopted, too.
He suddenly felt that Dickie was embracing her, or at least touching her, at this minute, and partly he wanted to see it, and partly he loathed the idea of seeing it. He turned and walked back to Marge’s gate. Tom stopped as Marge’s window came into view: Dickie’s arm was around her waist. Dickie was kissing her. Marge’s face was tipped up to Dickie’s, and what disgusted Tom was that he knew Dickie didn’t mean it. What disgusted him was the big bulge of her behind in the peasant skirt below Dickie’s arm that circled her waist. Tom turned away and ran down the steps, wanting to scream.
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. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other.
This was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming over from America. 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… He felt as he had on the ship, only more intensely, full of goodwill, a gentleman, with nothing in his past to blemish his character.
What had he said about risks? Risks were what made the whole thing fun. [And] anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than his experiencing. Was it always going to be like that? When he spent evenings alone, handling Dickie’s possessions, simply looking at his rings on his own fingers, or his woolen ties, or his black alligator wallet, was that experiencing or anticipation?
He definitely wanted to see Greece. He wanted to see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf with Dickie’s money, Dickie’s clothes, Dickie’s way of behaving with strangers. The idea of going to Greece, trudging over the Acropolis as Tom Ripley, American tourist, held no charm for him at all. He would as soon not go.Tears came in his eyes as he stared up at the cathedral, and then he turned away and began to walk down a new street.
He was lonely. He had imagined himself acquiring a bright new circle of friends with whom he would start a new life with new attitudes, standards, and habits that would be far better and cleverer than those he had had all his life. Now he realized that it couldn’t be. He would have to keep a distance from people, always. He was alone, and it was a lonely game he was playing. He altered his behavior slightly, to accord with the role of a more detached observer of life. There was a faint air of sadness about him now. He enjoyed the change. He imagined that he looked like a young man who had had an unhappy love affair or some kind of emotional disaster, and was trying to recuperate by visiting some of the most beautiful places on the earth.
Were [the authorities] going to pounce on him soon with every bit of evidence they needed? It gave Tom the feeling that he was being followed. Tom did not know who would attack him, if he were attacked. He did not imagine police, necessarily. He was afraid of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies.
He saw four motionless figures standing on the imaginary pier, the figures of Cretan policemen waiting for him, patiently waiting with folded arms. He grew suddenly tense and his vision vanished. Was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached? In Alexandria? Istanbul? Bombay? Rio? No use thinking about that. He pulled his shoulders back. No use spoiling his trip worrying about imaginary policemen. Even if there were policemen on the pier, it wouldn’t necessarily mean—
“A donda, a donda?” the taxi driver was saying, trying to speak Italian for him.
“To a hotel, please,” Tom said. “Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!”