The exquisite level of detail on which Patricia Highsmith observes the behavior of her anti-hero, Tom Ripley, is what gives this story its tense, claustrophobic tone, as though the narrative were pressing down upon the reader's brain. Tom gets stymied when Dickie, with whom he is obsessed, does not live out the fantasy of intimacy that Tom had in mind with him.
Dickie stopped in the road, looking at him. They were arguing so loudly, a few people around them were looking, watching.
'It could have been fun,' Tom said, 'but not the way you chose to take it. A month ago when we went to Rome, you'd have thought something like this was fun.'
'Oh, no,' Dickie said, shaking his head. 'I doubt it.'
The sense of frustration and inarticulateness was agony to Tom. And the fact that they were being looked at. He forced himself to walk on, in tense little steps at first, until he was sure that Dickie was coming with him. The puzzlement, the suspicion, was still in Dickie's face, and Tom knew Dickie was puzzled about his reaction. Tom wanted to explain it, wanted to break through to Dickie so he would understand and they would feel the same way. Dickie had felt the same way he had a month ago. 'It's the way you acted,' Tom said. 'You didn't have to act that way. The fellow wasn't doing you any harm.'
'He looked like a dirty crook!' Dickie retorted. 'For Christ sake, go back if you like him so much. You're under no obligation to do what I do!'
Now Tom stopped. He had an impulse to go back, not necessarily to go back to the Italian, but to leave Dickie. Then his tension snapped suddenly. His shoulders relaxed, aching and his breath began to come fast, through his mouth. He wanted to say at least, 'All right Dickie,' to make it up, to make Dickie forget it. He felt tongue-tied. He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him...
In this section of the book, the process of reassigning the nature of Tom's passion for Dickie, from love to hate, begins. It occurs not just through the miniscule details of Dickie's frown but through what Tom makes of it. And what is so masterful about the writing is that Highsmith doesn't explain everything, saying only that Tom felt this and Tom felt that, but she shows
us his thinking and his emotions changing through his physical actions and his dialogue. Tom look into those eyes and expects to see love...
the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror.
Intersting that Highsmith does not choose to write that Tom sees hate or that Tom sees nothing, but rather that he sees a mirror, that is, himself, which is emptiness personified. And with Dickie's eyes no longer revealing his soul, but rather cold nothingness, the dehumanizing begins - in fact, they aren't really eyes at all, but rather 'little pieces of blue jelly.'
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