Tom Ripley

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For the English architect, see Thomas Ripley (architect).
Tom Ripley
Created by Patricia Highsmith
Portrayed by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Jonathan Kent, Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Barry Pepper, Ian Hart
Aliases None
Gender Male
Occupation Con artist
Spouse(s) Heloise Plisson (wife)

Thomas "Tom" Ripley is a fictional character in a series of crime novels by American novelist Patricia Highsmith, as well as several film adaptations. The five novels in which he appears - The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water, published between 1955 and 1991 - are referred to collectively as the "Ripliad".[1]

In the novels[edit]

Highsmith introduced the Ripley character in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) as a young man making a meager living as a con artist. The novel also supplies him with a back story: Orphaned at age five, he was raised in Boston by his aunt Dottie, a cold, stingy woman who mocked him as a "sissy". As a teenager, he attempted unsuccessfully to run away from his aunt's home to New York City before finally moving there at age 20.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he is paid to go to Italy by Herbert Greenleaf, a shipbuilding magnate, to convince his son Dickie (a half-remembered acquaintance) to return to New York and join the family business. Ripley befriends the younger Greenleaf and falls in love with the rich young man's indulgent, carefree lifestyle; he also becomes obsessed with Greenleaf himself. He eventually murders Greenleaf after the playboy tires of him and spurns his friendship. He then assumes Greenleaf's identity, forging the signatures on his monthly remittances from a trust fund. He rents an apartment in Italy and revels in the good life. He also assumes Greenleaf's style and mannerisms, imitating him so well that he essentially becomes him. However, the charade gets him in trouble whenever he is confronted by people who know both him and Greenleaf, particularly Greenleaf's suspicious friend, Freddie Miles, whom he eventually murders. Ripley ultimately forges Greenleaf's will, leaving himself the dead man's inheritance. The novel ends with Ripley, having narrowly evaded capture, sailing to Greece and rejoicing in his newfound wealth. However, the book's final passages hint that he will pay for his freedom with a lifetime of paranoia, as he wonders whether "he was going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached."

In Ripley Under Ground (1970), set six years later, Ripley has settled down into a life of leisure in Belle Ombre, an estate on the outskirts of the fictional village of Villeperce-sur-Seine in France, which is stated as being "some forty miles south of Orly",[2] "some twelve miles" from Fontainebleau,[3] and "seven kilometres" from Moret.[4] He has added to his fortunes by marrying Héloïse Plisson, an heiress who has suspicions about how he makes his money, but prefers not to know. He avoids direct involvement in crime as much as possible in order to preserve his somewhat shady reputation, but he still finds himself involved in criminal enterprises, often aided by Reeves Minot, a small-time fence. Ripley's criminal exploits include a long-running art forgery scam (introduced in Ripley Under Ground and consistently mentioned in later books), an entanglement with the Mafia (in Ripley's Game), and several murders. In every novel, he comes perilously close to getting caught or killed, but ultimately escapes danger.



Highsmith characterizes Ripley as a "suave, agreeable and utterly amoral" con artist and serial killer who always evades justice. In his review of Purple Noon, Rene Clement's 1960 film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Roger Ebert describes Ripley as "charming, literate, and a monster".[5] Book magazine ranks Ripley #60 on its list of the 100 Best Characters in Fiction since 1900.[6]

Ripley is epicurean and sophisticated, living a life of leisure in rural France. He spends most of his time gardening, painting, or studying languages. This is financed by a stolen inheritance, a small income from the Buckmaster Gallery, and his wife's allowance from her wealthy father. He is polite, friendly and cultured, and dislikes people who lack such qualities; When the Pritchards appear in Ripley Under Water, their poor taste and manners immediately offend him.


While Highsmith never explicitly portrays Ripley as gay or bisexual, certain passages in the Ripley novels imply that he harbors some unacknowledged attraction towards men. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he is obsessed with Dickie Greenleaf, and is jealous of Greenleaf's girlfriend Marge Sherwood to the point that he fantasizes about Greenleaf rejecting and hitting her. He is also afraid that others will think he is gay, and jokes that he wants to give up both men and women because he can't decide which he likes more.[7]

In Ripley Under Ground, he recalls "turning green" during his wedding, and going impotent with laughter while having sex with Heloise during their honeymoon. He also reflects that he and Heloise rarely have sex, and that sexual demands on her part "would really have turned him off, maybe at once and permanently."[8]

The Boy Who Followed Ripley, meanwhile, has been cited as portraying a homoerotic subtext between Ripley and the novel's supporting protagonist, Frank Pierson. For example, Frank sleeps in Ripley's bed without changing the sheets, and speaks of his happiness at being at Belle Ombre with "the words of a lover".[8]

Highsmith herself was ambivalent about the subject of Ripley's sexuality. "I don't think Ripley is gay," she said in a 1988 interview with Sight & Sound. "He appreciates good looks in other men, that's true. But he's married in later books. I'm not saying he's very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife." [9]


Ripley is portrayed as devoid of conscience; in The Boy Who Followed Ripley, he admits that he has never been seriously troubled by guilt. Though he sometimes feels "regret" about his earliest murders — he considers the murder of Dickie Greenleaf "a youthful, dreadful mistake", and that of Freddie Miles "stupid" and "unnecessary" — he cannot remember the number of his victims.[8] He is not without redeeming qualities, however. He feels genuine affection (if not love) for several characters throughout the series, and has his own code of ethics; in Ripley's Game, Highsmith writes that Ripley detests murder unless it is "absolutely necessary".[10] He has typically been regarded as "cultivated," a "dapper sociopath", and an "agreeable and urbane psychopath".[11]

Not all critics label Ripley "amoral" or a "psychopath," however. Grey Gowrie writes, "He is not amoral (which is how he describes his wife Heloise) because he is aware of his own immorality and harbours a detached interest in the morality and the ethical behaviours of others. But the finger of guilt only lightly brushes his shoulders. It caresses him almost. He is not psychopathic for he is able to imagine the lives and feelings of others."[12]

In his book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revealed, however, Sam Vaknin writes that Ripley (as portrayed in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley) fits the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, and displays narcissistic traits.[13]


Across the five books, Ripley commits homicide nine times, and indirectly causes an additional four deaths.

Novel Direct Murder Causes Death Indirectly
The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Dickie Greenleaf
  • Freddie Miles
  • (Peter Smith Kingsley in film version only)
Ripley Under Ground
  • Thomas Murchison
  • Bernard Tufts
Ripley's Game
  • Vito Marcangelo
  • Angelo Lippari
  • Fillipo Turoli
  • Alfiori
  • Ponti
  • Gautier
  • Jonathan Trevanny
The Boy Who Followed Ripley
  • "the Italian type kidnapper"
Ripley Under Water
  • David Pritchard
  • Janice Pritchard


Highsmith's first three Ripley novels have been adapted into films. The Talented Mr. Ripley was filmed as Purple Noon (French: Plein Soleil) in 1960, starring Alain Delon as Ripley, and under its original title in 1999, starring Matt Damon. Ripley Under Ground was adapted into a 2005 film, starring Barry Pepper. Ripley's Game was filmed in 1977 as The American Friend, starring Dennis Hopper, and under its original title in 2002, starring John Malkovich.

The Ripley novels have also been adapted for television and radio. The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted for a January 1956 episode of the anthology television series Studio One,[14] and Jonathan Kent played Ripley in a 1982 episode of The South Bank Show titled "Patricia Highsmith: A Gift for Murder", dramatizing segments of Ripley Under Ground.[15][16] In 2009, BBC Radio 4 adapted the complete Ripliad with Ian Hart as Ripley.[17]

Of the Ripley portrayals that Highsmith saw in her lifetime, she praised Delon's performance in Purple Noon as "excellent"[18] and described Jonathan Kent as "perfect".[16] She initially disliked Hopper's Ripley in The American Friend, but changed her mind after seeing the film a second time, feeling that he had captured the essence of the character.[19][20]

In Joanna Murray Smith's 2014 play, Switzerland, a young man comes to visit an aging Patricia Highsmith in her remote mountain home, claiming to represent her publisher. However, in a major twist towards the play's end, it is revealed that the youth is in fact Tom Ripley, come to life to destroy his creator. In the 2014 Sydney Theatre Company premiere production of the play, he was portrayed by Eamon Farren.


  1. ^ Urban Dictionary: Ripliad
  2. ^ Ripley Under Ground, Chapter 1
  3. ^ Ripley's Game, Chapter 3
  4. ^ The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Chapter 1
  5. ^ ":: :: Reviews :: Purple Noon (xhtml)". Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  6. ^ Christine Paik (2002-03-19). "100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900". NPR. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  7. ^ The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chapter 4
  8. ^ a b c Dirda, "This Woman is Dangerous", New York Review of Books, Vol. 56 No.11
  9. ^ Peary, Gerald. "Interview: Patricia Highsmith" Sight & Sound. Spring 1988 (Vol.75, No.2), pp.104-105
  10. ^ Ripley's Game, chapter 1
  11. ^ "Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley". Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  12. ^ Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game. Everyman's Library (12 October 1999) ISBN 978-0-375-40792-5  — introduction by Grey Gowrie, page xi
  13. ^ Vaknin, S. "The Talented Mr. Ripley". Malignant Self Love. Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  14. ^ "Studio One" The Talented Mr. Ripley (1956) The Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  15. ^ "The South Bank Show" Patricia Highsmith: A Gift for Murder (1982) - The Internet Movie Database
  16. ^ a b Andrew Wilson 12:01AM BST 24 May 2003 Comments (2003-05-24). "Ripley's enduring allure". Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  17. ^ "BBC Radio 4 page for the series". 2009-02-28. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  18. ^ Interview with Patricia Highsmith by Gerald Peary
  19. ^ Schenkar, page 485-6
  20. ^ The American Friend DVD - Commentary by Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper - Starz / Anchor Bay, 2003


  • Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. St. Martin's Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-30375-4