by ZORA SANDERS
I first read The Talented Mr. Ripley on holiday in New York. While I was there my aunt arranged for me to meet up with an ex-student of hers who is now some kind of lawyer or investment banker or think tank sitter-on-er. In honour of my visit, the ex-student threw a party for me in her Chelsea apartment. We went up to her roof deck and drank cocktails and looked at the city. Beside me a lawyer asked a playwright what he'd written lately, and the playwright said he wouldn't have heard of it and the lawyer said "Try me" and then they exchanged business cards and we all went to some restaurant so expensive I never even saw a menu.
Would I kill for that life? Would I kill to belong to the young, wealthy elite who can afford apartments in Chelsea and for whom class and money are the exact same thing? Tom Ripley would have, Tom Ripley did. If, like Tom, all that stood between me and that life was one person, and that person was alone, with me, in a leaky boat in the Mediterranean, would I kill for it then?
Reading The Talented Mr. Ripley in New York, I became increasingly sympathetic to Tom. He murders people, sure, but he doesn't do it for sordid reasons, he does it because of his overwhelming longing for the cultured, leisurely lifestyle of the born-wealthy. Is it fair that Tom, a clever, sensitive, intelligent man must devote his life to menial work when all he desires is the freedom to pursue a cultured life, an intellectual life, a life of the mind?
In the first novel of the series, Tom is trying to escape the dingy lower Manhattan of the 50s, where it was still possible to be genuinely poor. Tom wouldn't recognise lower Manhattan today, nor would his creator Patricia Highsmith. For them, Europe was the place that evoked the longing of class envy, but for us it is New York. The city Highsmith spent her entire life trying to get away from.
Patricia Highsmith was by most accounts a startlingly strange and difficult woman. She made a particular sport of seducing married women and severing their relationships with their husbands. While working in the Bloomingdale's toy department Highsmith saw and became besotted with an older woman buying a doll. Highsmith got her address from her credit card details and went to the woman's home. She followed the woman several times, but never made contact. She wrote The Price of Salt shortly thereafter, rewriting her own experiences and giving her lesbian protagonist a happy ending.
She disliked people but liked animals, though not dogs (dogs often die in her stories, cats almost never). She kept snails as pets, and reportedly carried half a lettuce covered in snails around in her handbag. Upon immigrating to Europe, she smuggled her pet snails through customs by tucking them under her breasts.
Patricia Highsmith's mother Mary achieved a degree of gothic horror that parents just don't seem to aspire to anymore. Mary and Patricia disliked each other intensely, though not dispassionately. Mary attempted to abort Patricia by drinking turpentine, something which, if you're going to do, you probably should not later tell your child. And if you are you going to tell your child, you shouldn't start the conversation with "It's funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat" as Highsmith's mother reportedly did.
Not unreasonably perhaps, her stories are full of matricidal children. In "The Terrapin", a tormented boy stabs his mother to death after she boils his pet turtle alive. Much of Highsmith's writing appears in retrospect as a drawn-out cathartic scream. Here she could commit the crimes she dreamed of and get away with them. Highsmith identified very closely with Tom Ripley, going so far as to sign some letters 'Pat/Tom'. Through Tom she got her revenge on the people who irritated her, who prevented her from pursuing the kind of life she wrote for Tom.
In the opening scene of The Talented Mr. Ripley, jumpy, paranoid, petty criminal Tom Ripley is sent, on the strength of a fleeting acquaintance, to Italy to find Dickie Greenleaf and bring him home. It is Tom's first real encounter with the freedom of wealth. Dickie, son of a nouveau riche shipping magnate, lives in the tiny fishing village of Mongibello (Mongey to those who belong) and spends his days painting (badly), eating (too well), swimming, drinking and carousing with the locals. He is the magnanimous American abroad, smiling down from his humbly furnished house by the sea.
Once Tom tastes this life, he can't willingly go back to the petty crime and dingy apartments he knew before. Especially as Tom is much cleverer than Dickie, much more appreciative of the European lifestyle with its art and culture and style. Dickie is charming and attractive, and most importantly rich: a gift he wears with the infuriating lightness of all those born into unwitting privilege. If youth is wasted on the young, then wealth is most assuredly wasted on the wealthy.
Tom murders Dickie Greenleaf, a crime usually characterised as one of passion, motivated by Tom's smouldering repressed desire for Dickie. But isn't as simple as that. Probably the worst thing about Anthony Mingella's film is that it simplifies Tom Ripley's motives into "he's a psychopath because he's secretly gay" which is total bullshit. In the novels Tom's sexuality is ambiguous to the point of non-existence. What Tom really lusts after isn't Dickie, it is Dickie's life, his status, his charm, his callous freedom.
Tom Ripley is tolerated by Dickie and his girlfriend Marge for a while, and even begins to think he's passing for one of them. But he isn't. Money knows money and you can't talk you way in. But you can kill and steal your way in. Is it too much to say that murdering Dickie is an act of class warfare? Or perhaps just a redress to the universe's great unfairness in granting Dickie the gifts that Tom wants so badly?
Tom murders Dickie, he obtains his fortune, marries an heiress, buys a country house in France, oversees an elaborate art fraud. When forced by circumstance, he murders, he assassinates, he engineers suicides and drownings. But always with the exasperated sigh rather than the howl of rage. Why, he asks himself, can't these people just leave me alone to enjoy my life? If you think I'm being overly sympathetic, in the last book of the Ripliead, Tom is forced to engineer the deaths of a couple after they leave the headless remains of one of Tom's previous victims in a sack on his doorstep, as a kind of "We know what you did last summer." Such people have it coming.
It would have been so much easier for Tom to have entered the world wealthy. Can we blame him for trying to rectify this accident of birth? I don't. I envy him his tastefully furnished house in the south of France and his classic tailoring and his leisurely routine of reading, learning, thinking. Tom doesn't deserve this life, but Dickie didn't either. Dickie didn't earn a life of privilege, but Tom is willing to kill for it. Who then deserves it more?
If you are going to kill someone, money seems to me a much better reason than passion. Especially if, like Tom, you then put your victim's money to such careful and considered use. The idea of killing for money is considered tawdry in a way that killing for love is not. But if you've ever had a glimpse of what it's like to be truly wealthy, what it's like to have status, you don't forget that feeling of lustful avarice.
Zora Sanders is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Melbourne and the deputy editor of Meanjin Quarterly. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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