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Tom Ripley's Psychopathic Game

Conning acts and unemotionality are roots of psychopathy.

Key points

  • "The Talented Mr. Ripley" by Patricia Highsmith reveals psychopathy in the actions of its main character.
  • A psychopath has blunted emotions and only limited emotional reactivity.
  • A psychopath defines relationships by power gradients.

Often, we can learn much about psychopathology by studying characters drawn from novels. The Talented Mr. Ripley 1 by Patricia Highsmith is one such work. It reveals various dimensions about psychopathy in the actions of its principal character, Tom Ripley.

Yogendra Singh/Pixabay
Source: Yogendra Singh/Pixabay

High psychopathic traits with misplaced emotional characteristics

Ripley has high psychopathic traits and generally exhibits a detached unemotionality as he plies his various schemes. The author, however, imbues him occasionally with unexpected “human” qualities such as giving him a “feeling of guilt2something the psychopath never has.3 At one point, she describes, “The sudden weight of guilt made sweat come out on Tom’s forehead, an amorphous yet very strong sense of guilt.”4

In the story, Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy owner of a shipbuilding company, seeks to get his son Dickie to return home to run the family business. Conned to believe that Ripley was a friend of his son Dickie, Greenleaf puts his faith and trust in Tom while financing his voyage and living expenses. He sends Tom to Europe where Dickie lived so that Tom might influence his son to return home. Tom, upon entering his stateroom on the transatlantic ship and witnessing the wealth and splendor he coveted, displays emotional incongruity. When he discovers a “bon voyage” fruit basket from his benefactor, he breaks down. “Now he found himself with tears in his eyes, and he put his face down in his hands suddenly and began to sob.”5

Blunted emotions and limited emotional reactivity

What would make a cold, calculating psychopath like Tom Ripley cry? Was he crying out of self-pity that he was enjoying a life that he never had? Did he now see himself as having finally arrived and would that bring him to tears? The truth is that the psychopath has blunted emotions and only has limited emotional reactivity.6

While Tom knew he was handed a wonderful situation by his benefactor, Herbert Greenleaf, he would never feel any love or affection for him since love and affectional bonding do not exist for the psychopath. According to Meloy, “The psychopath’s relationships are defined by power gradients, not affectional ties.”7

The great pretender … the great imposter

The truth is, for all of Greenleaf’s generosity and kindness, Tom Ripley felt nothing for Herbert Greenleaf. To continue living the “good life,” Ripley even kills Greenleaf’s son and his son’s friend. The psychopath is the great pretender or the great “imposter,”8 and this could not be more true of Tom Ripley.

At one point, Ripley mentions his natural talents to Dickie, reciting them with an intent to impress. The list suggests his psychopathic prowess: “I can forge a signature…impersonate practically anybody…shall I go on?”9 He seeks to ingratiate himself to Dickie by cleverly insinuating himself into his trust. As Drs. Babiak and Hare point out in Snakes in Suits, “The psychopath sends out four messages: The first is, ‘I like who you are.’ The second message is, ‘I am just like you.’ The third message is, ‘Your secrets are safe with me.’ The fourth message is ‘I am the perfect friend for you.'"10

Planning to deceive and scheming to succeed

Ripley’s psychopathic talents are evident from what he says and does. In addition to executing two cold-blooded murders, he brags that he can con others. He could disguise his work credentials to create an air of credibility that could not be easily penetrated. He could pump people for information, “foreseeing a time when he might be able to use this information in a fraudulent scheme.”11 He assumed the identity of Dickie Greenleaf so that he could take his money after killing both Dickie and Dickie’s friend. He was a convincing liar to the police and investigators and managed to get away with a double murder. He forged signatures and won access to Dickie’s accounts, living high on Dickie’s money. He even had the temerity to fraudulently draw a will for Dickie that gave him all of Dickie’s money and possessions.

He walked away from all this a rich, free man. This is the talent of a psychopath and how Ripley played his psychopathic game.


1. Highsmith, Patricia. (1953). The Talented Mr. Ripley. New York: Vintage Books.

2. Highsmith. 20.

3. Meloy, J. Reid. (1988).The Psychopathic Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc. 317.

4. Highsmith. 76.

5. Highsmith. 33.

6. The Psychopathic Mind. 75.

7. Meloy. J. Reid. (2001). The Mark of Cain: Psychoanalytic Insight and the Psychopath. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press. 173.

8. The Psychopathic Mind. 132.

9. Highsmith. 58.

10. Babiak, Paul and Hare, Robert D. (2006). Snakes in Suits. New York: Collins. 74–78.

11. Highsmith. 18.

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