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Faced with a social system that has no place for him, Tom does not rebel or repress himself, but merely creates a place for himself by dissolving into the background, becoming part of the hidden (and criminal) world that is a de facto product of any inequitable social system.
As mentioned above, Highsmith wrote for a number of comic books in the 1940s, and almost all of them were concerned with white male superheroes who had been given extraordinary powers or technology. There is a subtle joke about this fact early on, when Tom notes that his most recent victim "was a comic-book artist. He probably didn't know whether he was coming or going" (Highsmith 14). Thus, almost from the beginning Highsmith has made a connection between Tom and the world of comic books, a connection that helps explain Tom's eventual narrative journey.
When looking at Tom's story in broad strokes, it is fairly easy to see how closely it corresponds to the traditional hero's journey. Tom is guided by a replacement father figure in the form of Herbert Greenleaf, and he is even given "magical" tools in the form of money, and later Dickie's rings and will, in order to aid him on his journey. Furthermore, while he relies on these aids to make his way, he also develops what Tuss calls "his imaginative genius," a power of imitation and improvisation that turns out to be so useful one might as well call it a superpower. Although Tom can be considered a subversive character or even antihero due to his queer identity and criminal actions, the fact remains that at a functional level his story does not deviate substantially from the trajectory of a more traditional hero, whether one is talking about a fairy tale prince, a super spy, comic book superhero. The only difference is that because his queer identity and lower-class status mark him as inferior or Other in the post-World War II world, he is forced to become a criminal, and thus takes on the role of the supervillain.
When viewed in this light, both Tom's rejection of his sexuality and class resentment can be seen as constituent factors of his larger process of becoming a kind of supervillain. While Tom's decision to kill Dickie can definitely be seen as the simultaneous consummation and rejection of his own sexuality, one need not read this as Tom rejecting his homosexuality in particular due out of conformity to 1950s standards regarding homosexuality. Instead, one may read it as a rejection of sexuality in general, because Tom has come to realize, through his painful interactions with Dickie, that sexual attraction itself is a kind of restriction. Thus, Tom's killing of Dickie is made even more tragic, because Tom is essentially killing his love in order to have his freedom.
Similarly, one may view Tom's desire for wealth and lack of conscience regarding how he acquires it not solely as a rejection of the economic and gendered humiliation experienced by white lower-class men after World War II, but rather a rejection of the hypocritical standards of determining dignity and humility in the first place. Tom both desires and despises Dickie's lifestyle precisely because it is the truth behind the fantasy of heroic super spies and millionaire playboys who fight crime. In reality, the playboys have no interest in fighting crime, and the powerful are more often than not responsible for the worst offenses. Tom, with his almost supernatural powers of observation and synthesis, sees this, and, having been told that there is no place for him within this corrupt society, simply opts to force open a space for himself in the same way that the powerful or violent have always made space for themselves.
Tom's making a space for himself is exemplified by the fact that he kills Dickie with an oar. While there are some obvious phallic overtones one could point out in relation to the oar's use as a murder weapon, in the context of this study the more interesting detail to note is the fact that an oar, first and foremost, is used to carve a path through the water. In other words, it is simultaneously a tool of excavation and transit, and Tom uses it in this sense, because he is essentially carving out a path for himself even as he caves in Dickie's skull. The oar is almost totemic, because Tom uses it in the commission of his first great crime, the crime that will turn him from a petty con-man into a full-blown international supervillain.
Following Tom's murder of Dickie, the plot is almost not even worth mentioning, because this is the point where Tom truly comes into his power, not foremost as a queer, or as a man, but rather as a supervillain, a kind of intentional rejoinder to the James Bonds, Hercule Poirots, and Batmans of the world. However, one may return to Tom's final thoughts of the novel, because they provide a nice capstone on the notion that Tom has, over the course of the novel, shed his previous identifications (such as queer or man) and instead adopted the mantle of a true supervillain, moving from crime to crime and adventure to adventure. As Tom is imagining going to Crete to claim his inheritance from Dickie, he wonders, "Was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached? In Alexandria, Istanbul, Bombay, Rio?" (Highsmith 290). Both Tuss and Haggerty interpret these thoughts as ominous signs, either of Tom's future fate or the lingering shame and paranoia about his actions or desires.
When considering Tom as a kind of supervillain, however, one realizes that this is not an ominous premonition or the sign of lingering guilt and shame, but rather a kind of excited musing about the potential for future adventures. The possibility that there might be policemen waiting for him in Crete does not make Tom imagine that this will be the end of his adventures, but rather causes him to wonder about the future places he plans on visiting. In this sense, these final thoughts are not so different from the lines at the end of James Bond stories informing the audience of the title of the super spy's next adventure, and indeed, Tom Ripley went on to feature in four more novels. Thus, Tom Ripley does not succeed because he has capitulated to his immediate political and historical context, but rather because he has embraced his literary context and adapted himself to the conditions available. More than anything, then, Tom Ripley is motivated by a desire for freedom, pure and simple, above and beyond notions of gender, class, or sexual freedom. In the context and logic of the adventure story, then, the only way for Tom to find this freedom is to embrace his hidden powers and become a supervillain.
Haggerty, George. Queer Gothic. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Print.
Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Tuss, Alex. "Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith's the Talented Mr. Ripley and…[continue]
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