Treacherous Waters: The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Cover of the 1st edition, published by Coward-McCann in 1955

Tom Ripley is a counterfeiter, con artist and murderous anti-hero, yet his journey of self-discovery is strangely compelling in Patricia Highsmith’s gripping crime novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, first published in 1955. There are many ways to regard this novel: as a portrait of human pathology, as an adventure story, as a travelogue, as a critique of American values of the 1950s. Today I approach this novel as part of a series of blogs on water imagery and symbolism in art & literature.

The cover of the first edition gives some hint to the meaning of water in the novel. It serves as a barrier separating characters, preventing their understanding of one another. Water also runs a meandering, unpredictable course–like the twisting plot that features false identities, murder, pursuit and cover-up.

Early in the novel, Highsmith upsets expectations of water signifying anything romantic. “The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on … As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage. Or maybe he was afraid. He hated water. He had never been anywhere before on water, except to New Orleans from New York and back to New York again, but then he had been working on a banana boat mostly below deck, and he had hardly realized he was on water. The few times he had been on deck the sight of the water had at first frightened him, then made him feel sick, and he had always run below deck again, where, contrary to what people said, he had felt better. His parents had drowned in Boston harbour, and Tom had always thought that had something to do with it, because as long as he could remember he had always been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim.” (p. 25)

The Queen Mary steaming down the Hudson River in 1946. Tom would have boarded a similar ship on his passage to Europe.  Photo by Andreas Feininger

The author connects water in Tom’s mind with childhood trauma. But the ocean voyage also has a liberating effect on Tom. “He began to play a role on the ship, that of a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him … He was starting a new life. Goodbye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. He felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and their relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America. A clean slate!” (p. 34-35)

Patricia Highsmith at work

The story reflects aspects of Highsmith’s own life. Her self-exile from the USA, restless travels, learning languages, making new friends and growth as a writer. The excitement of fresh encounters is tempered by memories of an unhappy childhood and the persecution she felt living as an openly gay woman in McCarthy-era America. She spent time in Mexico, Italy, and France before settling in Switzerland and finding a receptive ear at the Swiss publishing house Diogenes Verlag.


In Highsmith’s novel, the first function of water is to separate the characters into two realms: the worldly but rootless Europeanized Americans and the vulgar money-making stay-at-home Americans. The next function of water is to set Tom on his way to discovering what kind of person he is, identifying and developing his own unique talents. This is the classic hero’s journey, something the reader might well identify with. Perversely Tom’s talents involve lying, deception and murder–all socially unacceptable traits. Tom tries to fit in with the people he encounters, and is stung by their rejection of him. The rejection is largely based on class prejudice. Tom is not rich and independent like the others. He does not own a yacht. He lacks their education and knowledge of art and foreign languages. However he is a quick study and is able to mimic their ways quite easily. At first this mimicry amuses the superficial young aristocrats, who nonetheless feel themselves to be innately superior to Tom. This smug superiority arouses a murderous resentment.

The novel changes moods abruptly. These changes often occur around water.  The first murder takes place on water. Tom Ripley kills a man, but has trouble disposing of the body. In the process Tom is accidently knocked overboard. “He was in the water. He gasped, contracting his body in an upward leap, grabbing at the boat. He missed. The boat had gone into a spin. Tom leapt again, then sank lower, so low the water closed over his head again with a deadly fatal slowness, yet too fast for him to get a breath, and he inhaled a noseful of water just as his eyes sank below the surface. The boat was farther away. He had seen such spins before: they never stopped until somebody climbed in and stopped the motor, and now in the deadly emptiness of the water he suffered in advance the sensations of dying, sank threshing below the surface again, and the crazy motor faded as the water thugged into his ears, blotting out all sound except the frantic sounds that he made inside himself, breathing, struggling, the desperate pounding of his blood.” (106-107)

This terrible scene is followed by a couple of pages detailing Tom’s escape from death and his recuperation in a nearby town. He boards a train and feels himself begin to change. “The white, taut sheets of his berth on the train seemed the most wonderful luxury he had ever known. He caressed them with his hands before he turned the light out. And the clean, blue-grey blankets, the spanking efficiency of the little black net over his head–Tom had an ecstatic moment when he thought of all the pleasure that lay before him now … other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases, shirts, years of freedom, years of pleasure. Then he turned the light out and put his head down and almost at once fell asleep, happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.” (p. 111-112)

Actor Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley in the French film, Plein Soleil, 1960 (directed by René Clément), the first of many adaptations of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Water suggests a reversal of fortunes. From grovelling subservience to wealthy independence. A powerless working-class youth, unrecognized by the world, becomes a resourceful self-confident criminal. But Tom’s confidence periodically gives way to paranoia. Just as water covers up evidence of Tom’s crime, the fear arises that either the body or the stolen boat will wash ashore or resurface in some incriminating way. It is part of Highsmith’s perverse genius that she encourages the viewer to root for the villain, to cheer when he eludes capture, keeping this addictive story going.

The novel ends as it begins on a passenger ship. The sea as barrier and divider of people, as deadly, deceptive, ever-changing in its moods, is an appropriate symbol for this reckless adventurer who counts on luck and his own devious improvisational skills to make his way in the world.


Water & Photography

Street photography pioneer André Kertész (1894-1985) brings a poetic surrealism to everyday activities. My discussion of three photographs in which water appears in Kertész’s work is Part 2 of a series on treatments of water in art. (Part 1 here)

André Kertész. Underwater Swimmer, Hungary, 1917

The Underwater Swimmer shows water as a source of recreation. It is integral to good health, self-renewal, an image of rebirth. We are not shown the edges or confines of the pool: it is a microcosm, a mini-universe. The man adapts so perfectly to these conditions that he seems almost amphibious. The water both reflects light and is a medium through which light travels. Both of these properties elicit a sense of wonder and surprise in the viewer and add to the magic quality of the image. The water produces playful patterns, while the thrown shadow makes the figure appear to soar above the bottom of the pool.

André Kertész. Homing Ship, Central Park, 1944

Moving from Budapest to New York via Paris, Kertész, a Jewish refugee, turned his back on the horrors of the Second World War, though the image of a sailboat on the run does hint at his own precarious immigrant status at this time. A puddle in a city street or cobbled square produces momentary mirror-like effects of a fantastic upside-down world through which characters pass as in a dream. Part of this dream quality comes from the fact that the characters themselves are unaware of how dream-like their world is. The boat that runs away from a vanishing pool of water seems to affirm reality is stranger than fiction.

Kertész  had trouble selling photographs in America. Editors told him his compositions were too complex, often with the key action of the picture happening in the distance rather than in the foreground. (Pierre Borhan, André Kertész: His Life and Work, 1994, pp. 24-28) But this deep-focused multi-planed world is precisely what makes the images so charming and so charged with irony, as one character is oblivious to a telling aspect–the signs and symbols–of the city around them.

It is highly characteristic of Kertész that he uses a puddle as his source of water imagery. What could be more transitory, more humble, more ignored, even scorned than a puddle in the street! Yet these fortuitous pools help the photographer transform an ordinary street scene into a scene from a dream.

André Kertész. Rainy Day, Tokyo, 1968

In this hillside parade of teetering umbrellas, Kertész uses a high angle view to create a humorous effect. The pedestrians, diminutive and anonymous underneath their bulky shields, appear to be corralled and herded by the signs and signals of the urban environment. Water is an important part of this environment. Though invisible in the photo, water conditions this absurd behaviour. Kertész encourages us to laugh at ourselves, but there is no shame or superiority in this laughter. Rather there is a sense of empathy and understanding, delight and transformation.

Kertész skillfully exploits the properties of water–luminance, reflectivity, mutability, invisibility–to add poetry to mundane situations. In his image of the swimmer, he shows water as a source of health and renewal. In his picture of the sailboat on the run, he shows water as a transient and vanishing substance whose presence should not be taken for granted. In the picture of the umbrellas following an arrow, he shows water as an invisible part of life to which we make necessary adaptations. In all, water is an important element of this photographic dream diary of the 20th century played out on the streets of its greatest cities.



The Young Man and the Sea

Water and ocean appear frequently in the art of Robert Pope. They reflect his need to connect images with a sense of place, his native Nova Scotia, a peninsula surrounded by the North Atlantic. The artist presents his environment as an ever-changing water-world, open to voyages of the imagination. This blog looks at different uses of this water imagery, and how these changes affect the meaning we read into them.

Robert Pope. Study for Harbour, 1985.

In 1985, Robert developed an image called Harbour. A couple seen from above view a dazzling array of irregular shapes and foamy swirls in moving water. The hypnotic patterns invite a state of reverie, reflection and daydream.  Robert wrote in an artist’s statement from this time: “I believe we take aspects of our physical environment as metaphors for our experience. Our lives are directly affected by the economic and environmental benefits of the sea. We are drawn to its beauty and danger. Its ancient rhythms reflect our notions of life and eternity.”


Robert Pope. Surf, 1988

In his painting, Surf, an enormous wave crashes between a couple. The water voices their sense of  exhilaration, passion, annihilation. The painting is from a series based on Elizabeth Smart’s experimental novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Here is a sample quotation: “But I have become part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as the trees, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all or any of these. I can metamorphose at will.” (p. 43)

In this context, the word “metamorphosis” indicates the transformative power of love, both in its positive inspirational aspects and its obsessive, self-destructive aspects. The painting uses water as a symbol of this transformation. The crashing wave also alludes to Hokusai, the great Japanese artist (1760-1849) who worked in the genre known as ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures from the floating world,” meaning the in-between world, the not-quite respectable world of pleasure, travel and adventure opening up to the newly prosperous middle class. In Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai contrasts the violent and transitory effects of water with the calm permanence of the distant Mt. Fuji. Robert looked for similar contrasts in his own work, but with more of a focus on human psychology.

Robert Pope. Metamorphosis, 1986

Robert Pope. Sketchbook studies for Metamorphosis, 1988

In the studies at right for the painting Metamorphosis, the water’s abstract patterns turn a woman’s face into a jigsaw puzzle–a woman drowning in love. Smart writes how she “craves violence for expression, but can find none. There is no end. The drowning never ceases. The water submerges and blends, but I am not dead. O I am not dead. I am under the sea. The entire sea is on top of me.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 118-119) The mood becomes darker here, though Robert’s image suggests birth as well as death. The water functions almost as a mask. Through psychological projection, the water becomes symbolic of a state of mind, the unconscious and its powerful effects on human character.


Robert Pope. Patient Daydreaming, 1986

Robert was being treated for cancer at this time. (He died in 1992 of the side effects of the treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease.) Above is a sketchbook drawing done from his hospital room in Princess Margaret’s Hospital in Toronto. He is dreaming of escape to another place, turning his confined room into the cabin of a fantastic ocean voyage.

Robert Pope. Intravenous Solution and Ocean, 1991















In Robert’s subsequent series “Illness and Healing,” the ocean landscape gives way to a hospital landscape filled with busy doctors, staff, technicians, patients and visiting family. Yet water imagery reappears in one key image. An I-V pole stands before a window, with the ocean visible beyond. The painting contrasts interior with exterior, contrasts vertical pole with horizontal waves, contrasts medical instrument (science) with nature, contrasts the liquid in the solution bag (feeding into the patient’s bloodstream) with the limitless waters beyond.

In a sketchbook Robert copied the passage: “God come down out of the eucalyptus tree outside my window, and tell me who will drown in so much blood.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 35) Underneath, Robert noted: “Blood is a simultaneous symbol of birth, life and death. Water operates the same way, a life-giving substance that one can drown in.” The picture Intravenous Solution and Ocean shows no patient, but indicates a dream-like interior where an awkward instrument provides an artificial life-line. The image suggests end of life, which mysteriously may not be the end. The water encourages the viewer to think of infinity, continuity, cosmic forces transcending the limits of our perspective of individual being.

Water appears in different ways in the art of Robert Pope. Water provides a sense of place. Water is playful, transformative, unpredictable and dangerous. Water is composed of patterns that are hypnotic and graphically compelling. Water assists the psychological projection of mental states. Water serves as a kind of mediation of unspeakable feelings between two figures. Water evokes a dream of escape, an invitation to daydream and imagination. Water suggests new perspectives on our fixed notions of time and being. These new perspectives have religious overtones, as well as being a statement of creative possibilities for artist and viewer.