Highsmith’s descriptions of Tom and Dickie’s romps through Europe are alluring—they are some of the most lushly-worded parts of her book—and they make clear that wealth enables Dickie to do whatever he pleases. His life as a “painter” in Mongibello comes with a home, servants, and lavish lunches, dinners, and trips across Europe—often on a whim. By creating a portrait of excess and allowing readers to view it through the eyes of a poor man (Tom Ripley), Highsmith both venerates and decries life lived in the lap of luxury.
Highsmith renders Dickie’s existence in Europe in such high detail that the prose becomes overwhelmed and saturated with luxury; she creates excess in her writing the same way Dickie experiences excess in his life. The beautiful prose and the glut of detail invite readers into a relationship with wealth and excess that mirrors Tom’s. Just as Tom is overwhelmed and entranced by Dickie’s life, the reader is inundated by alluring details and pulled into an admiration of luxury through Highsmith’s gorgeous descriptions. In addition, the many privileges of Dickie’s life are rattled off in a blur, so that none of the details alone even seem to matter—this formless ambiance of wealth and materialism attracts Tom more than any individual aspect of Dickie’s life does. The way privilege is taken for granted—by Dickie, by Marge, and, eventually, by Tom himself—is Highsmith’s tongue-in-cheek indictment of the blindness of the upper class to their own privilege and to the plight of those who are worse off. Her portrait of luxury also reveals the wastefulness, pettiness, and false sense of security that wealth, in Highsmith’s estimation, can create.
As the novel unfolds, Tom’s covetousness and sense of entitlement become a large part of how he justifies Dickie’s murder, and how, once the murder is done, he assumes Dickie’s life and identity while feeling remarkably little regret or remorse. Toward the end of the novel, when it seems as if Tom is about to be caught in his enormous lie, he wonders: “Supposing they got him and gave him the electric chair—could that death equal in pain, or could death itself, at twenty-five, be so tragic, that he could not say that the months from November until now had not been worth it? Certainly not.” Even on the verge of a death sentence, Tom feels that his murderous, deceitful ways are “worth it” in order to glimpse, for even just a few months, the luxurious life of Dickie Greenleaf. Highsmith highlights this egregious immorality as a way to demonstrate the corrupting power of wealth, and she allows Tom to go unpunished to reveal the unfair protective powers wealth can bestow. Tom is so beholden to wealth and greed that he does unspeakable things in pursuit of it—it’s a double bind for justice, then, that once he becomes wealthy through murder, his wealth protects him from facing the consequences of his reprehensible actions. Tom’s ability to sneak by his acquaintances and the authorities is Highsmith’s indictment not just of Tom’s actions in pursuit of wealth, but of the vapid, destructive, and unjust underbelly of wealth itself.
Wealth, Luxury, and Excess ThemeTracker
Wealth, Luxury, and Excess 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!”