“The Talented Mr Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith: Novel Review “There’s Something about Marge”
So, we have Tom Ripley, our anti-hero, and we see things from his point of view. He is presented as a kind of ordinary and flawed young American: down on his luck and involved in petty fraud. He wants a better life, and he has the opportunity when he is hunted down my Mr Greenleaf, who sends him to Italy to search for and return with his son, Dickie.
We are therefore set up for a plot where there is a goal of our protagonist Tom (to collect Dickie) and a goal of our antagonist Dickie (to stay in Italy) and an ensuing conflict…
Except, in the dim and distant past, we have seen the movie and we know that that is not the way it turns out…
Tom arrives to meet Dickie and his good friend Marge. The conflict arises between Marge and Tom, both of whom vie for Dickie’s attention. Tom’s arrival disrupts their easy sun-kissed friendship, and the platonic triangle grates along with Dickie being pulled away from Marge’s company to fulfil Tom’s dream: staying with Dickie for ever, touring Europe and having fun.
In the movie, Marge is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who I think was too thin to play the character Highsmith created, but it is really hard to visualise Marge as being anyone other than Paltrow, so that was annoying casting:
“She wasn’t bad looking Tom supposed, and she even had a good figure, if one liked the rather solid type. Tom didn’t himself.”
As I was reading the book I could remember two murders that had to take place. What I couldn’t remember was whether or not Marge gets it. She certainly is presented as if she is in the firing line. Tom dresses in Dickie’s clothes and imagines a scene where he plays Dickie, murdering Marge because she doesn’t understand the bond between Dickie and Tom:
“Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge’s throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp, on the floor. “
Dickie rumbles Tom at the end of this episode and is perturbed as to why his houseguest is wearing his clothes. As a result, Tom soon begins to despair:
“They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know, time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.”
This realisation leads Tom to the turning point of the novel: the murder of Dickie Greenleaf. Tom mashes him to bits in a boat, dumps him overboard and assumes his identity. In this way, the goal of our protagonist alters. Instead of living in and touring Europe with Dickie, he wants to continue in the same path but being Dickie.
There are two problems here. One is Marge, who knows he is Tom. The other is Freddie, a friend of Dickie’s that knows he is not Dickie. Freddie puts two and two together, so Tom has to kill him. It seems only sensible for him to have to kill Marge too. She is close enough to both of them to figure it out, and it is this tension that Highsmith carries all the way until the end of the novel.
As the reader, in one way, you hope that Marge will manage to piece together the jigsaw, while on the other hand hoping she won’t so that she won’t be killed. When she skirts around it, Tom is more than ready to put an end to her.
“He was holding the shoe in both hands in a position to use the wooden heel of it as a weapon. And how he would do it went quickly through his head: hit her with the shoe, then haul her out by the front door and drop her in the canal. He’s say she’d fallen, slipped on the moss.”
After this second imaginary murder of Marge, Tom ‘kills’ Dickie for a second time. Dickie is suspected of the murder of Freddie that Tom committed while being Dickie – so Tom sets about giving weight to the theory that Dickie has killed himself, or at least disappeared for ever.
I won’t discuss the actual end of the book here.
What I though was interesting about the book is the anti-hero thing – where there is a morally corrupt character that you find yourself kind of rooting for, despite their failings and crimes.
I think that the reader roots for Tom Ripley for two reasons:
He is a weak and unhappy character trying to find happiness and follow his dreams. He is shattered by the realisation that Dickie does not really like him. He is emotionally stunted and had a difficult past. He is confused about his own sexuality and does not seem to understand relationships.
He doesn’t kill Marge. We “like” Marge as we read and we are worried about her. We worry because he thinks through her murder twice. We are glad that Marge escapes a violent end. But because of Marge’s failure to put two and two together, Tom also escapes discovery – so their fates are linked. By rooting for Tom’s anatagonist, we are drawn into rooting for the novel’s anti-hero.
Have you read this book?
Whose side were you on?
How would the novel have been different if written from Marge’s point of view?