“I’m not queer.”

This is the follow-up to yesterday’s post on The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s complicated central relationship between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf.

The scene is millionaire heir Dickie Greenleaf’s Italian villa where he has just walked in on his housemate Tom Ripley dressed in his clothes, imitating his voice. Dickie’s reaction?

“What’re you doing?”

They have a complicated relationship, these two characters. Does Tom want Dickie sexually? He, consciously at least, denies this connection – even when he’s just talking to himself. But seeing Dickie associate with women infuriates Tom, to the point that he even imagines murdering the girl that separates them. So when Dickie walks in on this playacting, he is understandably shocked. Seeing Tom wearing his clothes, down to his shoes, he asks, “Are you crazy?” To which Tom quickly replies, “No.”

Next, and having read a lot of fiction from the 50s my understanding is this is a bit of a shocking thing for a character to blurt out, Dickie says,

“Another thing I want to say, but clearly… I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not.”

“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer.”

Dickie started to say something else, and didn’t… “Well, Marge thinks you are.”

“Why?”… (Tom) felt faint. Nobody had ever said it outright to him…

“It’s just the way you act,” Dickie said…

Patricia Highsmith has created a great enigma of a character here. Tom is obviously used to people assuming he is gay, but he passionately denies it publicly and, it appears, also denies it to himself in private. Anthony Minghella, who directed the film adaptation of Mr. Ripley said in an interview, “The sexual navigation is strange.” Though I recall vaguely that Minghella had to play up that complexity with additional scenes not in the book, here in appears almost out of nowhere. Indeed, could you imagine Gatsby turning to Nick Carraway and telling him, “By the way, I’m not gay, Nick, if you were wondering.” Or how about some of the other great buddy novels of American literature: On the Road, All the King’s Men. It would be shocking if the charismatic lead in any of them turned to the forgettable narrator character and said, “Stop chasing after me; I’m not queer.”

What elevates this above conventional sexual back-and-forth is the ambivalence Tom Ripley has about his own sexuality. I wonder if he even really has a preference. As Tom recalls a page after he’s challenged by Dickie:

He remembered the humiliating moment when Vic Simmons had said, Oh, for Christ sake, Tommie, shut up! when he had said to a group of people, for perhaps the third or fourth time in Vic’s presence, “I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I’m thinking of giving them both up.” …As a matter of fact, there was a lot of truth in it, Tom thought. As people went, he was one of the most innocent and clean-minded he had ever known.

It is hardly giving anything away to say that we will see how “innocent and clean-minded”  Tom is in another twenty pages when he takes an oar to Dickie’s skull.

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