The universality of Tom Ripley

I’m writing this to tell you a little about myself and more to encourage you to read the Ripley series–known by fans as ‘the Ripliad’–by Patricia Highsmith.

As is interestingly posited on Amazon’s pages for the five Ripley books, Tom Ripley “is an unmistakable descendant of Gatsby, that ‘penniless young man without a past’ who will stop at nothing.”

You might term him a serial killer but in truth he’s only an occasional killer and only when the need arises.

What need does he have to commit murder?

In the first book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, we are presented with a young Tom Ripley who uses his penchant for deception, lying, fabrication, charm, and calm to subsist in New York City.

Per chance he’s hired by the wealthy father of a distant acquaintance, his job: To find the father’s son, who has gone off with his girlfriend to the Mediterranean, and convince him to return home.

Ripley enthusiastically agrees, no doubt more because the father has offered to pay him and cover all his expenses rather than out of any genuine concern for his so-called ‘friend.’

He easily finds the son, Dickie Greenleaf, and his girlfriend and together the three lounge in the lap of luxury. Greenleaf, of course, takes it for granted while Tom is infatuated with this new lifestyle.

Thus is born the true Tom Ripley, who uses his aforementioned wiles to get and maintain a wealthy, though not obscenely opulent, lifestyle and does not hesitate to dispose of anyone who threatens to take it away from him.

I identify with this character so much, as I think we all can on some level.

For my own part, I have always considered myself extremely skilled at deception and ‘wiggling through the cracks of society’ in order to get what I want, need, etc. (Anyone who knows the story of how I got my dogs when my apartment complex at the time had a no-pet policy knows this, as does anyone who knows the story of how I passed my high-school chemistry final. If you don’t, ask.)

Moreover, like Ripley, I have a host of pseudonames: In addition to Liam Llewellyn, I’ve been known as Billy, Bill, William, Will, Tom, Thomas Monroe, Thomas Nesbitt, and, on various email accounts, as John Jacobson, John Laster, and surely others I’m not remembering at the moment.

Why create all these different names?

For various reasons, of course. To satisfy one step of a plan to achieve various goals.

I did this long before reading the Ripliad (and continue to do so today, obviously). I never had a crisis of conscience regarding my deceptive ways but in finding Tom Ripley, I found a kindred spirit, fictitious though he is.

Jay Gatsby is also fictitious, yet I defy you to say you don’t identify with that character’s spirit, that so longs to reclaim a piece–a beautiful though flawed–piece of the past.

Ripley doesn’t long for the past, he longs for the present, and in this readers, you and I, can connect with as easily as Gatsby.

Ripley’s spirit is primitive: To get what he wants and protect it.

While some people today may say a productive society is built on the principles of working for what you have. That’s how society is maintained but society was built by the cavemen, who sought out the food and shelter, stole from and killed each other, were forced to survive according to their genetic strength.

Ripley’s spirit, which defines ownership thusly: If you steal it and can keep it, it naturally becomes yours–is as pure and relatable as Darwin’s theory of nature: survival of the fittest.

I can’t say that I would ever kill anyone to get something but I’ll certainly lie, deceive, and otherwise plot–not for any pleasure in it–but simply to get around stupid laws, regulations, or other inconvenient obstacles.

What about you? Comment below.

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