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Tom Ripley - Villain or Hero?

Olivia Avery is going into her third year of BA (Hons) Creative Writing and English Literature. She is looking to become a scriptwriter.

How I Found Tom Ripley

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith is a book that continues to play with the emotions and morality of its readers, such as myself. I was introduced to this book by a Crime Fiction module that I did in my second year of university, which I have just finished. I must say, even though I handed in my analysis of it a while ago, I am still left thinking about how it made me feel and I am still trying to make up my mind about one character in particular - Tom Ripley himself.

Plot Summary

I am doing this section purely for those English Literature students out there (like myself) who either have forgotten the context of the novel or simply have no time to finish it. This novel revolves around the character of Tom Ripley, who is looking for a way out of his seemingly dull -- yet criminally-fulfilled -- life in New York. His desire to live a wealthy lifestyle leads him to Mongibello in Italy, where he is to convince Dickie Greenleaf, an old friend, to come home. However, he decides to befriend him and ends up living with Dickie in his house. When his new life is put into jeopardy, he ends up killing Dickie and assuming his identity. Progressively, he becomes more and more obsessed with being Dickie until he eventually stops being Tom altogether. However, he has to escape the questions and investigations from those looking for Dickie, such as his father and Marge, Dickie's former flame. In his attempt to cover up his lies, he also kills Dickie's friend, Freddie Miles, as he uncovers the lies that Tom has told. Despite almost being caught several times, the novel ends with Tom heading to Greece and inheriting Dickie's estate and all of his money.

To Root For or Not to Root For

For those of you who have just read the plot summary above and have just learned about the content of this novel for the first time, I am sure (and I hope) that the first reaction you have to Tom Ripley is that he is an evil sociopath who deserves to be found out and go to jail. I hope you feel furious that he got away. Now, think about the way in which the novel is written. Patricia Highsmith decided to write this novel from Tom's point of view, which is rather an interesting choice. This is because typically, a character like Tom would be the antagonist - the murderer after money and wealth. However, because Highsmith decided to write from Tom's point of view, this makes him the protagonist. By definition, a protagonist is the leading character/one of the main characters of a novel. Usually, the protagonist is the person in the story that the reader roots for as the story is told from their point of view. This is where the confusion comes in. Tom Ripley is a bad man who murdered people and manipulated others into gaining Dickie's wealth, for crying out loud! Why on earth should we root for him?

Is Tom Ripley good after all?

When I read the novel for the first time, I naturally felt confused as to how Tom gets away with his crimes and angry that he does. However, when I began analysing the novel, my perspective started to change. I started to think about how the story would have been different if it had been told from someone else's perspective, such as Mr Greenleaf, Dickie's dad, or Marge. If told from anyone else's perspective, finding Tom out to be the guilty one would be an enormous shock to both the characters and the audience. Since it is from Tom's point of view, we as readers already know what he has done and continue to witness his crime spree. He has many narrow escapes from the law, which is quite unbelievable. After a few of these instances, do not be surprised if you end up marveling at Tom's quick wit and intelligence. I began to even root for Tom when I perused the book for the second time whilst writing my essay for university. However, I stopped myself short. Why would I be rooting for the clear villain of the story? I should despise him, yet I admire how he can so easily lie and continue on in this wealthy lifestyle living as Dickie.

How Tom reaches through the pages

As a wannabe writer myself, I admire the way in which Highsmith has written her novel. It brings about complex feelings of morality in the reader and gives them something to really think about. She has managed to create a character in Tom who confuses the reader and makes them unimaginably root for the villain.

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Tom Ripley is a literary character that not only manages to successfully manipulate those around him in the novel but also the readers he has wound into his trap. Do not let him fool you, for he is still a sociopathic man. He just happens to be rather charming.

© 2022 Olivia Avery

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