‘Ripley Under Ground’: How Patricia Highsmith Makes Sociopathy Look Reasonable

Tom Ripley is a fascinating character. It is no wonder that he has found himself existing on both television and cinema screens, as well as on theatre stages and radio broadcasts. Everything about him is just on the edge of making sense. We follow his thoughts logically unfolding, almost nodding as we go along. And then, at some point, he’ll kill someone, leaving us wondering how we could ever relate to such an obviously deranged man. That is, until he starts making sense again, trapping us in the same endless cycle that he has trapped every single one of his acquaintances in.

Six years have passed since the events of Patricia Highsmith’s first look inside the life of the most charming murderer in literature. Tom lives off Dickie’s fortune, which he passed on to himself after forging his will, as well as his (very alive) wife’s. They both live in a beautiful estate in rural France. Tom spends his days painting, gardening, reading, learning about languages, and generally living a leisurely lifestyle. His wife, Héloïse, spends most of her time away, on fancy cruises and luxurious vacation trips. Surprisingly enough, Tom does seem to feel affection for her, and voices genuine appreciation for her multiple times throughout the book. Against all odds, it is a rather successful marriage. As a rich girl living off her parents’ money, she has to have a bit of crookedness inside of her, and had to learn how to hide it well. Although she never reaches Tom’s level of detachment from the rest of the world, she is the closest thing to a perfect match for him. Even their private life isn’t too bad, although this might have been simply been added either by Highsmith or the publisher to quiet down rumors of Ripley’s homosexuality (note that they aren’t completely shut down either — we’re talking about the woman who wrote Carol!) which would have been too controversial for the time.

Of course, Tom, no matter how hard he tries, can’t just stay away from trouble for too long. He gets a small percentage of an art forgery company named Derwatt Ltd. The full explanation of who and what the ploy that the company has been using for years consists of is a bit too elaborate to sum up in a couple of sentences. Simply put, a famous painter named Derwatt killed himself five years ago, and some of his closest friends have been trying to convince the world he’s still alive and well by selling fake paintings that he supposedly sends from a small village from Brazil where he lives as a hermit. It sounds absolutely insane, which is exactly why people keep believing it. Ask Ripley — he’s the one that came up with the idea.

Obviously, things can’t stay as idyllic as they are for too long. Soon enough, an American collector starts having doubts as to the veracity of some of Derwatt’s recent work, and everything starts spiraling down. Ripley is determined to help the company so much that we start to wonder why. After all, he has but a small part in the fraud, and could easily live without the small income he gets from it. If Derwatt Ltd did happen to go down, he most likely would be the one that gets away with the less injuries. The worse thing it could do is slightly tarnish his reputation… But even the slightest stain on his perfect image would ruin Tom.

Ripley has no moral problem with cheating, lying and killing to get his way. What he does have a problem with is the perspective of being any less than a great man in anyone’s eyes. He’s not driven by success in the traditional sense of the term — after all, it is public knowledge that he lives entirely off money that he didn’t make himself. However, he is driven by perfection. If Tom Ripley is involved in something, it’s not allowed to go off the rails. Not now, not ever.

Of course, Ripley will go to lengths very few of us would go to in order to protect his image — but isn’t there something in his attitude that makes him dangerously relatable ? Describing perfectionism as a flaw is often mocked and only seen as something you’d say in a job interview; however, the nefast consequences of a constant drive to be perfect deserve to be explored as well. It’d be easier to distance yourself from Highsmith’s protagonist if only his motivations weren’t so relevant to today’s times. If his friends (if they can be called this way) were to describe him, they’d probably say he’s highly intelligent, competitive, driven, cultured. And sometimes a murderer. Doesn’t that just sound like the perfect resume ?

Some part of us does want to reject Ripley, tell ourselves that he’s nothing like us. This soon reveals itself to be futile. He’s the most likeable type of sociopath — the characters that surround him reveal it just as much. When he admits to murdering those that stood in his way, he is met with surprise, even shock, but rarely disgust. Ed and Jeff, the main figures behind the Derwatt fraud, respect Tom so much they barely flinch when he admits his crimes to them. The same thing goes for Héloïse. She’s disturbed for sure, but she understands. Do what you gotta do, right ?

Underneath all the complex ploys and the deep holes that Ripley keeps digging for himself are painfully relevant questions about the price of success and how far certain people would go to get it. As we move slightly away from the purely written word into a world of visual media, the importance of maintaining an image is hard to negate. As the other characters, Bernard (one of Derwatt’s closest friend who is now forging all of his “new” paintings) especially, struggle to find the balance between what’s real and fake, Tom offers another answer: it doesn’t matter, as long as it looks good from the outside. All of these characters are closer to Ripley than they’d like to admit. More importantly, every reader is. Ripley’s increasingly complicated escapes from justice are entertaining to read for sure — but the most frightening part is realizing how much he would thrive in our current climate. Even worse, we’d probably like him a lot. Highsmith makes sociopathy look reasonable because, as it turns out, it often is. Feelings are deemed unnecessary, art is manufactured, fortunes keep growing bigger, and all the Ripleys in the world love every single second of their time on here.

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