book by Patricia Highsmith
Annotation by Tina Rubin
When I read The Talented Mr. Ripley the first time, I was captivated by Highsmith’s classy, clever, quick-thinking psychotic, Tom Ripley. I wanted to reread this book for a couple reasons: one, because I was working on a critical paper about creating empathetic villains like Tom; and two, because Eve, the protagonist in the novel I’m writing, also has a psychotic breakdown and attempts murder. I wanted to study the way Highsmith unravelled Tom’s psychosis, see if and how she foreshadowed the murders, and pick up tips on how to keep my character empathetic as she tries to kill her husband.
I wasn’t disappointed. Highsmith is a master of suspense and the psychotic mind. She starts right out on page one showing the reader some of Tom’s symptoms, later amplified, that are indicative of mental illness. The primary signal is his pretense. When childhood didn’t go well for Tom, he began putting on acts to gain acceptance, later realizing that he was funny and could entertain people with made-up stories. As the story opens, he’s pretending to work for the IRS in a scam to rip people off, which is nothing more than a silly game for him, because he’s smart enough to know that he can’t cash their checks without getting caught. (So right away, we might think, “Aw, he’s not so bad. I knew people who did stuff like that in college.” Empathy, ta dah!) Pretense not only runs throughout the book but is the irony of it, because after the murder of his friend Dickie Greenleaf, Tom takes on his identity (just long enough to be the recipient of Dickie’s forged will).
This aspect, pretense, is one that I’ve put into place with Eve in my novel: she’s been pretending to be other than who she is since she was twelve, to please her father. So I was gratified to realize that I was on the right track with this.
Another symptom is frequently feeling humiliated. Highsmith unfolds Tom’s feelings of humiliation slowly and consistently, from his aunt taunting him for being a sissy to Dickie confronting him about being gay (which sets off a long stream of memories about similar confrontations that Tom has blown out of proportion). When Tom and Dickie argue in the street, Tom realizes a “horrible truth:” that he was deluded in thinking he knew certain people, and that for all eternity, he would never know them. For Tom, little things that a healthy person could process aggravate his negative self-image. Easily feeling humiliated was not a characteristic I had consciously chosen for Eve, but it is present during a significant moment for her, and I can make her husband’s behavior feel that way to her. (Ah, the joy of creating your world any way you want.)
Highsmith does foreshadow Tom’s becoming a murderer, which I hadn’t remembered from my first reading. It happens first in a scene early on, in which Tom thinks about fantasies he used to have about stabbing Aunt Dottie to death with the pin on her brooch; and later in Mongibello, when Tom, alone in Dickie’s room, pretends he is Dickie strangling Marge for coming between them. Good lessons in foreshadowing. I also see that Highsmith takes her time in setting up what’s coming. Dickie’s murder doesn’t occur until page 104, which made me realize that I don’t have to rush into this. It’s those delicious details up front that make it work so well.
Another technique I want to incorporate into my novel is Highsmith’s use of long passages inside Tom’s head, where the reader gets the full impact of his suffering and his thought processes—elements that make him appealing. This is tricky to do (unless you’re Virginia Woolf), but it’s going to be fun trying.