The titular character of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley is driven by what might be called a pathological desire for commodities. Tom Ripley has essentially bought into the promise of post-war capitalism to the point that he is willing to kill for it, thus undercutting the hegemony of capitalism itself by demonstrating the powerlessness of wealth in the face of simple physical violence. When examining Tom's desire for commodities, consumer goods, and material pleasures, it becomes clear that this desire, which is the main symptom of a dedication to capitalism, serves to repress the unconscious, unexpressed knowledge that money is ultimately meaningless, an ephemeral stand-in for other commodities, which are themselves ultimately stand-ins for real power, which is to say physical violence. Thus, Tom's murder of Dickie represents a kind of psychological trauma resulting from the violent eruption of the unconscious, a trauma that can only be rectified through the revaluation of commodities that occurs through the subsequent narrative importance of Dickie's rings. By the end of the novel, Tom has reaffirmed his belief in the ascendancy of capitalism and commodities, but the threat of physical violence nevertheless lingers at the edge of his perception in the form of an ever-present fear of the police.
That Tom values commodities, consumer goods, and material pleasures is certain; in fact, when he is introduced to the reader, his thoughts almost always return to the issue of wealth or possessions. When Tom first recalls who Dickie is, the first thing he remembers after Dickie's height and hair color is the fact that "he had quite a bit of money" (Highsmith 4). Later, when he pauses to reflect on the conversation, Tom thinks that "Dickie was probably having the time of his life over there. An income, a house, a boat" (Highsmith 7). Tom compares this to his own situation of "living from week to week. No bank account. Dodging cops now for the first time in his life" (Highsmith 7-8). Despite the somewhat unique perspective that Tom's intelligence and sociopathic tendencies grant him, he is nevertheless entirely engaged by capitalism's insistence on the value and importance of commodities and wealth.
It is important to point out that Tom's valuation of commodities and wealth is not born out of class jealousy, but rather is the result of Tom's uncanny ability to mimic and adapt to whatever situation he finds himself in. Tom has a knack for telling people what they want to hear, and is so chameleon-like in this ability that once he gets going, he could be maniacally polite for perhaps another whole hour" (Highsmith 9). In the same way, Tom has simply adapted to the situation he finds himself in, using his considerable talent for adaptation to become the ultimate capitalist, unhindered by morality or conscience in his quest for wealth and consumption. When Tom imagines that "Dickie was lucky," he is not criticizing or questioning the underlying social, political, and economic conditions that account for that "luck," but rather is acknowledging that Dickie has a privileged position within consumer society (Highsmith 8). As a result, Tom is not jealous of Dickie or Mr. Greenleaf, but rather realizes that he could be a better capitalist than either of them.
However, the very thing that allows Tom to be such a good capitalist is also the thing that threatens to undermine his faith in capitalism, because his amoral approach to life (which includes a willingness to resort to physical violence) implicitly demonstrates the inferior, imaginary (in the sense of being socially-constructed) power of wealth in the face of the concrete power of physical violence. One cannot say that Tom's desire for commodities "corrupts" him in the sense that he would have necessarily been moral even without his materialism, but instead one can note that his materialism, and the rules of capitalism more generally, reward his amorality to the point that it makes logical sense for Tom to act the way he does. However, by rewarding this amorality, capitalism sews the seeds of its own ideological undoing by planting in Tom's unconscious the knowledge that capitalism's power is not inherent, universal, or immutable.
At the beginning of the story the threat of physical violence overcoming the imaginary power of commodities is hinted at by Tom's physical reaction to his mental comparison of his life and Dickie's. After thinking about the difficulties of his present life compared to Dickie's position and possessions, "Tom realized that all his muscles had tensed, that the matchcover in his fingers was mashed sideways, nearly flat" (Highsmith 8). It is easy to read this as mere jealously, but in reality Tom's physical reaction goes deeper than this. Instead, one may read it as physical rupture of a knowledge that Tom keeps repressed, and knowledge that capitalism is ultimately rooted on an arbitrary collective delusion regarding the importance of commodities above and beyond what it takes to survive or even flourish. When faced with the arbitrary nature of capitalist "luck," Tom unconsciously responds with physical force even as his conscious mind attempts to keep Tom engaged with the world of commodities.
In contrast, Dickie resolutely refuses to value commodities and wealth in the same way, to the point that he seems almost amused by the fact that other people have to care about them. Dickie absolutely enjoys the privileges of wealth, as he can paint and travel at his leisure, but because he has simply been born into his wealth, he does not know the same kind of desire as Tom. Tom recognizes as much during his early interactions with Dickie, and uses this his advantage. Once he has given Dickie everything he brought with him, Tom knows that he has "one last chance to amuse Dickie or repel him," and he ends up amusing him by telling him that Dickie's father paid his way (Highsmith 56). As Tom predicts, Dickie is amused, and he even tells Tom not to feel guilty about taking the money because it all goes on his father's company's expense account (Highsmith 56).
More than anything it is this indifference to the costs of capitalism that seals Dickie's fate, because from Tom's perspective Dickie is essentially asking to be taken advantage of. While Tom is perfectly willing to take advantage of everyone in the story to the point of killing multiple people, in his own mind he at least values what everyone else purports to value, namely, wealth. According to the actual (rather than the stated) values of the society around him, Tom is being a good citizen by desiring commodities and valuing wealth. Dickie, on the other hand, has no such desire for wealth precisely because he already has it, and thus in Tom's eyes could be considered something like prey.
The moment that Tom realizes Dickie's indifference to wealth, verging on disdain for the pursuit of it, comes when Dickie refuses to go in with Tom on a scam involving drug smuggling by way of some coffins. Although Dickie enjoys buying things, he only enjoys it because there is no effort to it, and because he does not need to buy things if he does not want to. Tom, on the other hand, is always on the lookout for a job, and so attempts to set up a job for he and Dickie. However, Dickie is completely uninterested, and it is here that Tom realizes the fundamental difference between the two of them:
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. (Highsmith 89)
For all the time they spend together as Dickie and sometimes Marge buy new and different things, the difference between Tom and Dickie's respective approaches to commodities and consumer goods could not be more different. Dickie buys into the appeal of capitalism by default simply because he enjoys the spoils of wealth, but because he has never been forced to desire it, he has never been forced to confront the gap between the power that capitalism imbues wealth with and the inferiority of that power in the face of physical violence or deprivation.
Once Tom fully realizes this unbridgeable difference he and Dickie's responses to capitalism's call, Tom's interest in Dickie turns into a kind of loathing so intense that it has been (both in the book and by readers) misinterpreted as a kind of unrequited love or lust. Tom feels "a crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration" towards Dickie (Highsmith 100). Hate, because Dickie is essentially failing to be a "good capitalist" according to the rules that Tom observes in society; affection, because Dickie can embrace the joys of capitalism and materialism unproblematically, without the threat of physical…