At the start of the novel, Tom Ripley is unhappy in every aspect of his life. He lives in a rundown apartment, which is the latest in a long series of rundown apartments, and he is working as a low-level con man. He is ashamed of and embarrassed by every aspect of his existence, and he feels that he deserves more from life. Tom’s gifts as a forger, as well as his ingenuity and cunning as an impersonator, grow out of this deep insecurity in his own personal identity. As a result, Tom’s obsession with Dickie provokes him to reject his own identity and claim Dickie’s identity, thereby gaining the life, wealth, and possessions that Tom has come to believe are rightfully his.
The word “obsession” does not appear once in the novel, but the book is saturated with questions of what creates obsession and what calamity can come of it. Tom’s difficult childhood, spent under the watchful eye of his cruel Aunt Dottie, has rendered him “naïve” in many ways and without “enough time to learn and grow.” This contributes to Tom’s sponge-like persona, and his ability—or even desperation—to absorb the knowledge, qualities, and characteristics of others, such as Herbert, Marge, and Dickie. Through Tom, Highsmith is constructing a cautionary tale regarding the dangers—to oneself and to others—of not ever forming a true or concrete identity. Without a clear identity, Highsmith suggests, the individual has no choice but to consume the identities of others, to dangerous and maddening ends.
Throughout the novel, Marge repeatedly calls into question the true nature of Tom and Dickie’s relationship, believing their connection to each other to be toxic and obsessive, and perhaps more than platonic. Dickie tells Tom “clearly” that he is “not queer,” though Marge believes Tom is “queer,” and, as Dickie and Tom grow closer, Marge’s suspicions only deepen. The sexual tension between Tom, Dickie, and Marge throughout the novel fuels each character’s obsession and vanity. Tom’s obsession with Dickie creates within Dickie an obsession regarding his own appearance, and causes Marge to fixate on her own rejection. This triumvirate of obsessions, all linked and all centered on Dickie, is engineered by Highsmith to illustrate not just the danger of obsession with another, but also obsession with the self—just as it’s important to have a self, it’s equally important not to worship the self, because it makes fools of Marge and Dickie, blinding them to their dangerous circumstances.
Highsmith often makes reference to the uncanny physical similarities between Tom and Dickie. She creates this doppelganger effect between the two men both for the sake of narrative convenience (Tom can easily convince people that he is Dickie) and narrative intrigue (seeing themselves reflected in one another creates tension, curiosity, and mutual attachment). However, this confusion of Dickie and Tom’s identities sets the stage for the novel’s central tragedy. As soon as Tom feels that Dickie is becoming distant, the magnitude of his panic leads him to the extreme conclusion that “he could become Dickie Greenleaf.” In a way, this is simultaneously an attempt to make sure he isn’t ever completely cast off by Dickie, and a way to soothe his bruised ego after Dickie’s rejection by becoming someone he considers to be better than himself. The doppelganger effect confuses and deepens the motives and desires that lead Tom to become Dickie; is Tom trying to protect Tom, destroy Tom, or both? The line between the two men is so fine and so porous that crossing it becomes, to Tom, a kind of deadly game in which the rewards of winning are as alluring as the thrill of the charade itself.
Obsession, Identity, and Imitation ThemeTracker
Obsession, Identity, and Imitation 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.
Tom sat opposite [Dickie], staring at his hands with the green ring and the gold signet ring. A crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration was swelling in him. He wanted to kill Dickie. It was not the first time he had thought of it. He had failed with Dickie, in every way. He hated Dickie. He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. If he killed him on this trip, he could simply say that some accident had happened. He could—He had just thought of something brilliant: he could become Dickie Greenleaf. The danger of it, even the inevitable temporariness of it, only made him more enthusiastic. He began to think of how.
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.
Tom saw Dickie smiling at him, dressed in the corduroy suit that he had worn in San Remo. The suit was soaking wet, the tie a dripping string. Dickie bent over him, shaking him. “I swam!” he said. “Tom, wake up! I’m all right! I swam! I’m alive!” Tom squirmed away from his touch. He heard Dickie laugh at him, Dickie’s happy, deep laugh. “Tom!” The timbre of the voice was deeper, richer, better than Tom had even been able to make it in his imitations. “I swam!” Dickie’s voice shouted, ringing and ringing in Tom’s ears as if he heard it through a long tunnel.
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 loved possessions. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.
In a way it was asking for trouble, Tom thought. But that was the mood he was in. The very chanciness of trying for all of Dickie’s money, the peril of it, was irresistible to him.
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!”