Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf: Just Friends?

In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, our morally and sexually ambivalent hero Tom Ripley meets the man he’s been sent to recall home to New York from Italy, Dickie Greenleaf, on page 47.

[SPOILER ALERT]

He kills him 54 pages later. In a book of less than 100,000 words, these two young men spend only a fifth of its length in each other’s company.

What happens in that brief period of the narrative is, like Ripley’s character in general, open to interpretation. As I wrote before, Tom’s initial meeting with Dickie is inauspicious. Dickie doesn’t recognize him, is not interested in having him around. Dickie has an undeclared relationship with the other American in their small Italian town, Marge. But it is not a classical physical relationship. Dickie holds Marge, kisses her brotherly, but it is clear to Tom that Marge loves Dickie but the feeling is not reciprocated. After a bumpy start, Tom believes that he has usurped Marge as Dickie’s favorite. Tom and Dickie bond over a mutual dislike for the senior Mr. Greenleaf. He impresses him with his varied and peculiar talents (forging a signature and impersonating others among them) and before long he is invited to live with Dickie in his home.

Marge grows “cooler toward both of them” and Tom enjoys having Dickie to himself. On an impromptu trip to Naples and Rome, they pass out together in a park and later Tom resists telling Marge “anything they had done. Let her imagine what she pleased.”

What Marge imagines is that Tom is gay.

In a game-changing scene, Dickie tries to patch things up with Marge.  Tom sees the two of them kiss and then, feeling rebuffed, he rushes to Dickie’s room, “wanting to scream… his mind stunned and blank.”  He starts throwing Dickie’s art materials out the window.

He had a curious feeling that his brain remained calm and logical and that his body was out of control.”

Next, he dresses up in Dickie’s clothes, even adopts his voice and manner, starts telling the mirror, in Dickie’s voice, that he does not love Marge. Then, in his playacting, Tom (and here it is interesting), impersonating Dickie murders an imagined Marge:

“You know why I had to do that,” he said, still breathlessly addressing Marge, though he watched himself in the mirror, “You were interfering between Tom and me – No, not that! But there is a bond between us!”

The “that” he refers to is the love that dare not speak its name. (It bears repeating at this point that Highsmith herself was a lesbian known for falling in love with straight women.)

What happens next is Dickie enters the room. We’ll look at that exchange tomorrow…

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