When Tom Ripley Stares Into the Mirror, He Sees Us

Tom Ripley’s background is always sketchy. Patricia Highsmith provides only a few rudimentary details in the first few chapters of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” her 1955 novel that kicked off a series of five books about the elusive con artist. Tom lives in New York, in near-destitute circumstances. He has some friends — acquaintances, really — whom he hates, mentally labeling them “the riffraff, the vulgarians, the slobs.” He wants nothing more than to be rid of them, and after the first few chapters, he succeeds. He receives money from an aunt in Boston; she raised him after his parents drowned in the harbor there. He hates her, too.

When we meet Tom, he has been committing check fraud through the mail, amassing payments in the amount of $1,863.14 that he does not plan to cash. The con job was, he thinks, “no more than a practical joke, really. Good clean sport.” He’ll destroy the checks before boarding the ship that will take him to Europe, where he’s tasked with hunting down Dickie Greenleaf, the scion of a shipbuilding mogul who’s been wasting time, and money, in Italy.

The curious thing about these features of Tom Ripley’s life is that they add up to nothing. Highsmith structures them as telling details, the kinds of specifics that writers employ like shorthand to build a person in the reader’s mind. But in fact, we get very little from them, and at every turn our attempts to wrap our heads around this character are rebuffed. You might think Tom is a man of taste and talent, except he doesn’t exhibit any real taste, and the talent seems limited to a knack for forgery and impersonation. You might think he’s a malevolent mastermind seeking to bilk a wealthy family of their fortune, but he’s really just pathetic, far more concerned with making sure the Greenleafs view him as a man of their own social class. Unfortunately, he’s charmless.

Tom is not particularly handsome, clever or well-connected. He’s just miserable, but he doesn’t have much in the way of plans, or goals, beyond getting away from where he is.

This does not make Tom Ripley a screen-ready hero. He’s not even really a strong template for an antihero. But that has not stopped filmmakers from trying. Five films and now a Netflix series, starring a parade of alluring actors, have tried out various angles on the Ripley question. Who is this guy, really? A criminal? A climber? A sociopath? A thief?

Alain Delon in “Purple Noon,” which offers a French existentialist take on the character.Credit…Criterion Collection
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