The Talented Mr. Ripley is an enduring work. Published over half a century ago, it covers the same territory as Henry James’s many novels about Americans abroad. This is planned: The Ambassadors, James’s late masterpiece, is mentioned in passing when the narrative launches–that moment when the protagonist Tom is given his mission to go to Europe and bring back the heir to a ship-building fortune.
Tom keeps intending to read the book and doesn’t.
The plots of Henry James’s novels are always the same: older gentleman is sent to fetch a fairly handsome, wayward heir. Somewhere there lurks a not-so-important third party that then completes a love triangle. The artistry in James comes in the way he makes such a simple story happen in the attic-works of the noggin. Simple events—a man standing as a woman sits—are reworked over and over again: they achieve deep meanings in what James terms a “mental calculus.” Reading Henry James has frustrated a century of readers because there is little action, there’s just a lot of thinking, of anticipation, of anxiety–and this is the mood that saturates the narrative.
From the start, we know that this is a familiar story: the story of a rich American, Dickie Greenleaf, who refuses to return from post-war Europe to the life as an heir to a fortune. Tom, a small-time, social climbing con-artist who barely has any connection to Dickie, is dispatched—a family messenger—to bring him back to the States. Marge, a middle class American girl, fills out what becomes a love triangle: one with barely muted homoerotic flashes and undercurrents of jealousy, class-envy, desperation.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a superbly crafted book: the language is tight, the characters economically drawn, the scenarios highly probable, and infused with the horror that can only come from a tale of ratiocination. There is a savagery that barely lurks–a tiger– beneath the highly crafted surface of the liquid prose.
Tom is a closet homosexual and crippled by the anxiety that he be seen as a “queer.” And in this, there is genius, too; for Henry James—a life-long celibate—was widely considered a repressed homosexual, especially by writers of Highsmith’s generation, many of them queer like her, caught in the pre-Stonewall moment, who often looked around to whatever was available to recast in an image that dare not reveal itself.
For these writers, James’s signature style—that constant, reflexive examination of people looking at people looking at people—was the protective shell that encased the velvet lined room of his closet. Henry James was the kind of man who loved to speculate about what happens behind closed doors, simply by looking at the shoes outside a hotel room. He writes about this peculiar pleasure. It is an image that Max Beerbohm memorializes quite well.
This is precisely the position that Ripley always feels himself to be trapped in–that of helpless, outsider.
The best scene occurs when Tom gains Dickie’s confidence. Dickie is well-aware of Tom’s role as family agent but he doesn’t let on. Tom, a quick study, realizes that Dickie has drawn a curtain between them—that Tom is about to fail miserably even before his task has begun. He takes a chance–a wild, fumbling Statue of Liberty Play: he reveals that he is being paid by Dickie’s father to simply deliver a message.
This revelation recasts the original mission into a joke and the two, into conspirators. In this moment, the two are suddenly joined: now the pair can have a great laugh at the father’s expense. They can squander Tom’s money (which is really Dickie’s money, which is really Daddy’s money) together. All this takes place within seconds and suddenly Tom is moving into Dickie’s villa. And Dickie is soon to be dead.
Brilliant. Simply brilliant.