Like all good fictions of the American cultural elite in the 1950s, The Talented Mr. Ripley is best enjoyed with a pitcher of martinis. It’s fantastic without the martinis, too, but you’ll sit there wishing you had them. Trust me.
Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a study in middle-class obsession with upward mobility and its attendant anxieties about social inferiority and insignificance. The creepiest thing about Tom Ripley is that his neuroses—which eventually bloom into a murderous psychosis—seem so normal. He resents the rich while still being attracted to them; he envies them and desires the ease with which they live while remaining contemptuous of how boring and stupid that ease has made them. His relationship to Dickie Greenleaf has all the intensity and contradictory passion of a sexual obsession (which is how it gets read by Dickie’s suspicious friends), but Highsmith seems to be suggesting that class envy, not sex, is the real stuff of American human drama. One of the book’s juiciest ironies is how dull Dickie is as an object of desire, which is precisely why it turns out Tom doesn’t want to have him so much as be him.
What it means to “be” Dickie Greenleaf in this story is quite literally to have his stuff. While the novel looks askance at the members of the upper classes, it looks with unadulterated longing at their possessions. This is why you’ll want those martinis—also those leather suitcases, those tailored suits, that silk bathrobe, those casually gaudy rings and shelves of leather-bound books, not to mention the Italian-speaking servants and the beach house they come with. Highsmith draws you into a fantasy about possessing things more easily, more completely than a common consumer ever could. Like Tom, we are seduced by the prospect of owning things without thinking about it, inhabiting a world where money flows so naturally that there is no purchasing, no getting, no acquiring, but only coming to have what has always, in some sense, belonged to you.
The most delightful aspect of this novel, though, is Highsmith’s arch narrative voice. Tom’s targets are also the novel’s targets; the class of young, cosmopolitan Americans whose incomes are inversely proportional to their intellect and talent are already victims from the moment Highsmith describes them. And like other female masters of wry social commentary, from Mary Wortley Montagu to Dorothy Parker, Highsmith is cruellest when assessing members of her own sex. In this case, we have Marge Sherwood, Dickie’s friendly, polite, utterly mundane not-quite-girlfriend whose only cultural purpose seems to be to perpetuate the dullness of the ruling class by putting a cheerful face on it. She is the embodiment of American inoffensiveness. And yet, through Highsmith’s prose (which is also Tom’s perspective), she becomes repulsive:
Marge was optimistic, he could see that. Even now she had that energetic buoyancy that made Tom think of the typical Girl Scout, that look of taking up a lot of space, of possibly knocking something over with a wild movement, of rugged health and vague untidiness. She irritated him intensely suddenly….
Though it’s no longer the ’50s, I think I still understand the type: if the girls in the J. Crew catalog were a clique, Marge would be their less pretty though equally wealthy friend. (Here again is the point about the belongings of those slightly but significantly wealthier than you: you hate the J. Crew models, but you wish you were wearing their clothes—that you could wear them the way they do, wrinkled, scrunched into beach bags, attractively torn and frayed as if they cost nothing at all, as precious yet unthought-of as your own skin.) Highsmith makes you complicit with Tom’s crimes by luring you into the vicious sense of humor underlying it:
Marge was … dressed in slacks and a sweater, black corduroy slacks, well-cut and made-to-order, Tom supposed, because they fit her gourdlike figure as well as pants possibly could.
And later, describing the steps of his house in Venice that lead straight into the canal:
The moss [on the steps] was a slippery, long-filament variety, and hung over the edges of the steps like messy dark-green hair. The steps were repellent to Tom, but Marge thought them very romantic. She bent over them, staring at the deep water of the canal. Tom had an impulse to push her in.
Anyone who has ever had a run-in with a middlebrow sense of the “romantic” must, at this moment, also want to push Marge in. To get the satire is to be an accomplice of Tom’s crimes.
Perhaps that is why Tom seems, in the end, not only compelling but totally understandable, as if his psychosis is somehow the sanest way of dealing with this world in which he has immersed himself. Again, Highsmith makes the point through Marge:
She smiled her broad smile, her eyes glowing with an optimism that struck Tom as completely insane.
In the world of the novel, her optimism—buoyed by her ignorance of everything that Tom has done, but also of everything that Tom sees, thinks, and understands about her people—is insane. But it’s also the organizing principle of her brand of American culture. This is perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement: how it flips American common sense on its head, revealing that all forms of social power are varieties of functional madness.