The Talented Mr. Ripleychallenges notions of fixed and separate identity by blurring the lines between characters. When Tom disguises himself as Dickie, he does not merely trick others: he alters his own sense of who he is, and feels more confident, generous, and interesting, since he believes that Dickie has all of these attributes. This shift is so acute, in fact, that Tom dreads the prospect of returning to his own identity. With this narrative, Highsmith suggests that self-perception is the primary driver of personality—not the other way around. However, while identity may be fluid, identification in this novel doesn't necessarily lead to empathy, and nor does desire. Though Tom both identifies with and desires Dickie, he kills him. As a matter of fact, Highsmith suggests, having an extremely fluid sense of identity can be destabilizing.
The theme of justice (or the lack theoreof) conspicuously intersects with the theme of identity in this novel. In spite of Dickie and Tom's many differences, the two have a great many underlying similarities. They are both charming, uncomfortable with open discussions of emotion, and artistically oriented. Yet, perhaps because of their wildly different upbringings, they lead radically different lives. Tom, orphaned and raised in a seemingly loveless middle-class home, makes his living in New York by committing petty crime. Dickie, brought up wealthy by doting parents, enjoys a life of travel, leisure, and art. Highsmith suggests that their differences may come down to the differences in their upbringings, which came about randomly and seemingly without justice or reason but had lasting results. Yet later in the novel, their fortunes shift: Dickie winds up murdered and his friends are left to mourn him, while Tom gains a great deal and pays no price for his death. In this instance, luck swings in Tom's favor, but justice is still absent from the equation—bad behavior is rewarded handsomely, and good behavior is punished.
While Tom kills Dickie in part because he wants to be like Dickie and take possession of Dickie's wealth, his violence is also a reaction to his own feelings of attraction towards his friend. By killing Dickie, Tom makes it impossible for Marge to be with him, meaning that he has in a sense "won" his competition with Marge. Moreover, killing Dickie is the most efficient way for Tom to simply do away with him entirely, and therefore to avoid confronting his own homosexuality. Just as Highsmith shows that identification with another person does not necessarily result in kindness towards them, and can in fact easily devolve into violence, she also shows that attraction to or love for another person does not necessarily lead to treating them kindly or empathetically. In fact, Tom's attraction, when unexpressed, turns into a desire to overpower and control. While most gay characters in fiction and pop culture at the time of this book's writing were violent or villainous, Highsmith treats Tom's own violence more complexly. She suggests that the homophobic taunting Tom has endured at the hands of his aunt, and the rejection and disgust with which Dickie treats his desire, are destabilizing forces that drive him to secrecy and violence.
For Tom Ripley, becoming Dickie isn't merely about having money—it's about climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Highsmith suggests that the truly upper-class—those born into money—have the unique privilege of confidence. It is this confidence that allows Dickie to coolly remain in Europe, committed to a painting career in spite of his lack of qualifications or artistic skill. Dickie's father also enjoys this confidence, and in this case it extends to other people: he is so trusting and sure of his control that he pays a near-stranger to go to Europe on his behalf. While Tom can buy all he needs with Dickie's money, he isn't able to gain that confidence, though he can fake it. He sees his identity and his middle-class past as his greatest obstacle to becoming an upper-class person. In order to shed that past and the self-doubt that accompanies it, Tom literally tries to change his identity. This is clearly an unwise choice, given that it involves killing another person, but his instincts aren't entirely incorrect, Highsmith hints: it's simply too hard to think and behave like an upper-class person if you have not been raised as one.
Tourism and travel
In Italy, Tom, Marge, Dickie, and their various friends and acquaintances don't live like locals. They inhabit a self-contained realm of wealthy Americans and Brits who pursue an expensive life of leisure, with Europe as a mere backdrop. While Dickie and his friends aren't in pursuit of authenticity per se, they also don't want to be mistaken for tourists. To Dickie, a brief trip to Europe as a honeymooner or budget traveler is almost shameful. Travel, for Dickie and for many of his peers, is a way to build an identity and a persona. In order to turn their trips abroad into aspects of their identity, Dickie and his friends stay for extended periods of time and amass property.
Tom adopts this upper-class perspective on travel, and to him as well, owning, or at least renting, an impressive home in Italy or France seems the height of personal achievement. At the same time, Tom rather looks down on the everyday Italians he meets, dismissing them as crude and unsophisticated. This habit of distancing himself from the people around him allows Tom to feel more elevated by comparison, and also gives him a convenient way to downplay the threats of the Italian police and media during the investigation into his murders. In general, Highsmith points out, traveling abroad isn't always a way to understand the world better. Sometimes, as it is for many characters here, it's simply an expensive change of scenery.
Artistry and Creativity
Most of the wealthy Americans living in Europe in this novel hone some sort of artistic skill. Dickie paints, Marge writes prose, and Freddie writes plays. These artistic pursuits are central to these individuals' identities, but, just as being well-traveled is primarily used as a way to adorn a reputation, presenting oneself as an artist is mostly a way to strengthen a bohemian persona. With the possible exception of Marge, these characters neither work very hard on their art forms nor seem to have any extraordinary skill—rather, Dickie, for instance, is able to playact as an artist, using his parents' money to magnify a hobby into a career. The truest artist in the novel, oddly, is Tom himself. He crafts complex plots and adopts roles, rehearsing his acting and becoming totally absorbed in his impersonations. Like the idealized bohemian artist his peers mimic, Tom is completely absorbed in his "art form," to such a degree that he seems to lose control over his actions once his imagination gets to work. Highsmith is fairly straightforward about this parallel, using metaphorical language to compare Tom to an actor. Ironically, Tom's artistry—that is, his murder of Dickie and subsequent impersonation—is geared towards earning him a higher status and more admiration, just as Dickie's hackneyed paintings primarily serve to help him appear more interesting and thus boost his reputation.
Imagination and Violence
When Tom Ripley commits an act of violence, he does not feel as if he is acting spontaneously or making a series of decisions. Instead, he feels as if he is uncontrollably enacting an inevitable event which he has already vividly imagined. Tom feels driven to hurt other people after he imagines doing so. In this conception of violence, imagination is far from a harmless virtue that allows people to let off steam. Rather than providing an outlet for disturbing thoughts, Tom's imagination nurtures and intensifies these thoughts, transforming them into actions. In fact, Highsmith portrays imagination as far more dangerous, and far more interesting, than physical brutality: the latter merely works at the bidding of the former, performing the final step in a long-developing process.
The Talented Mr. Ripley Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.