Every major character in Mr. Ripley is running from something: Dickie Greenleaf flees a life in New York that he doesn’t want, Tom Ripley runs from his poverty and self-loathing by escaping from his own identity, and Marge Sherwood escapes the realities of the writing life and the fear that her book won’t ever be published. Furthermore, by allowing Tom Ripley to make the ultimate escape at the novel’s end—an escape from justice—the novel configures escape as a moral question. Though readers are meant to root for Tom Ripley’s escape, Highsmith intentionally raises the question of what rooting for such a despicable person means—does it shirk responsibility, accountability, and decency? Thus, one of the novel’s central questions is whether a physical escape can ever equate with a moral one.
“His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them,” Highsmith writes of Tom. Tom’s escape into the stories he creates in order to cover up his abduction of Dickie’s life and identity demonstrates his ability to persuade himself of fiction upon fiction. He is such a seamless impersonator because he is able to use his vivid and twisted imagination to escape into a reality in which his falsehoods are truths—in other words, he comes close to actually believing that he is Dickie. However, this escape attempt fails when he is forced to return to living as Tom. Highsmith’s unwillingness to let Tom fully escape into Dickie’s identity forces Tom to grapple, to some extent, with what he has done. He must acknowledge that a part of his plan has failed, but instead of this accountability leading him to a moral revelation, it propels him into another means of escaping his own half-formed, loathsome identity: the thrill of creating another web of deception in which he lives as himself and covers up his previous actions while continuing to amass Dickie’s wealth.
Toward the novel’s end, it seems as if the jig is up and Tom’s capture by the authorities is imminent. When he arrives in Greece, Tom sees policemen waiting on the docks, and he accepts his fate—but the policeman do not pay him any attention. Thrilled by the realization of his final, ultimate escape from justice, Tom hails a cab and directs the driver to take him to the best hotel in town. The conventions of heist narratives, hero’s journeys, and neat resolutions have conditioned readers to root for this escape. Therefore, by allowing Tom to escape without facing justice for his crimes, Highsmith makes readers—who are on Tom’s side—complicit in supporting his immorality. Highsmith then holds readers accountable by forcing them to have the moral reckoning that Tom does not—what does it say about them that they have rooted for this villain against all common sense and decency? Furthermore, Highsmith subtly hints that Tom’s reckoning may come, too. Despite having pulled off his final escape, Tom is haunted by the prospect that he’ll see policemen—real or imagined—waiting for him wherever he goes. His conscience is not a healthy engine or a reliable one, but it exists nonetheless, and despite having physically escaped accountability for his crimes, readers are left with the impression that Tom will never truly escape from the magnitude of all the destruction he has caused.
Escapes 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.
He leaned in the corner of the elevator in an exhausted way, though he knew as soon as he hit the lobby he would fly out of the door and keep on running, running, all the way home.
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.
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.
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.
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!”