If Ripley Were Real: Antisocial Personality Disorder in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley

Ever since Patricia Highsmith introduced the world to her character of Tom Ripley in 1955, literary critics have had a field day in analyzing the many different and complex aspects of Ripley’s personality. Highsmith published five novels centered around Ripley between 1955 and 1991 (known as the Ripliad), inspiring a number of film re-creations and adaptations establishing Tom Ripley as a fairly well-known fictional character. While most people can agree that Ripley possesses some rather unique and dangerous traits, and, in fact, a large number of critics and writers have focused on these traits and labeled him as a psychopath or sociopath, very few have analyzed his psychological processes in accordance with an actual psychological disorder — most seem to leave it at sociopath and nothing more. The more recent reviews of Ripley’s character focus solely on the film representations of himself: Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Alain Delon in Purple Noon (1960), John Malkovich in Ripley’s Game (2002), and still others.


It is important to note that at the time of publishing, the field of psychiatry was still fuzzy about personality disorders, and studies observing individuals with aggressive, psychopathic tendencies (most of whom were confined to a mental institution) offered little insight and vague conclusions concerning antisocial behavior. Not until the publishing of the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952 did the public have a better understanding of a sociopathic personality type. Casey et al. describes the DSM (and other major categorical classification systems in the medical field) as “classification systems that were designed primarily for clinical purposes, specifically to provide a common language in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with psychiatric disorders” (2013). While psychiatrists and psychologists reference the diagnostic criteria of disorders in the DSM when diagnosing or assessing individuals, the DSM is still rather subjective in its essence, and many of the disorders within it require much more research and understanding. Casey further explains, “Such subjective impressions of complex phenomena can lead to diagnostic inconsistencies across patients and practitioners”; therefore, it is important to consider that the criteria to be discussed in this essay as it pertains to Ripley, while statistically and empirically supported, are still rather theoretical approaches to explaining psychopathy and personality.


Dr. Donald Black accredits two psychiatrists, David Henderson and Hervey Cleckley, for having greatly influenced the features and subtypes of this personality disorder as established in the first DSM (26). Henderson’s establishment of three subtypes of psychopaths at the time (the predominantly inadequate psychopath, the aggressive psychopath, and the creative sociopath) and Cleckley’s list of the sixteen traits of a psychopath (e.g., superficial charm and “good” intelligence, fantastic and uninviting behavior with drinking and sometimes without) are the features that make up a diagnosis of a psychopath and may have largely influenced Highsmith’s own concept of her character of Ripley. However, for the purpose of this essay, Ripley will be analyzed in conjunction with the necessary criteria as established by the newest and most recently revised DSM-V (2013) for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and this essay will evaluate specific examples of Ripley’s character in accordance with the different features of ASPD (i.e., impairments in personality and pathological personality traits). Specifically, Ripley will be evaluated in respect to four major criteria, which he meets, as established by the DSM-V as necessary for a diagnosis of ASPD: A1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior, A3) impulsivity/failure to plan ahead, A6) consistent irresponsibility, and A7) lack of remorse.  


The novel begins with Ripley being contacted by a wealthy businessman, Mr. Richard Greenleaf, who in a desperate attempt to regain his son Dickie, employs Ripley to travel on a voyage to Europe in hopes that he may have some leverage in bringing Dickie home, since Ripley was once an acquaintance of his. Practically every piece of personal information that Ripley provides to Dickie’s parents in a meeting with them before he heads out on the trip is a lie or fabrication of some kind (Criterion A6), and it is here that we find out both of Ripley’s parents drowned when he was very young, which increases his risk factor for ASPD. Ripley agrees to travel to Italy where he becomes infatuated with Dickie’s lifestyle and, in fact, Dickie himself; Ripley goes so far as to murder Dickie and to adopt Dickie’s identity as his own (Criterion A1).  After killing Dickie, the new plot focus becomes Ripley’s predicament of avoiding suspicion by the police, Dickie’s father, Dickie and Ripley’s friend Marge Sherwood, and Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles. Freddie Miles is the only one who is on to Ripley, and, as a result, Ripley suddenly and impulsively kills Freddie (Criterion A3 & A7). Afterwards, Ripley successfully convinces the police, Marge, and Mr. Greenleaf that Dickie must have committed suicide, relieving Ripley of all suspicion and ultimately leaving him free to do whatever he pleases with Dickie’s money that he acquired from constructing a fake will of Dickie’s and forging the signatures on it.


The first criterion to be analyzed in comparison to Ripley’s behavior is a “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest” (DSM-V, 659). As is typical in individuals with ASPD, Ripley is no stranger to stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in accordance with typical social norms, whether it be scamming people on their taxes or committing acts of murder. Throughout the course of the novel, Ripley murders two people, a not only illegal criminal act but one that also disrupts the balance of social harmony within the realm of societal conventions. However, our Ripley does not stop there—he goes so far as to completely embody the identity of one of his victims, Dickie, by forging the signatures on Dickie’s monthly inheritance checks to claim them for himself, and he even forges and signs a will in Dickie’s name, bequeathing Ripley with his entire life’s inheritance. While all these behaviors are grounds for arrest, it is Ripley’s conscious, cognitive decision to actually act on them that suggests an impairment of his understanding and consideration of social boundaries between himself and other individuals.  Not only is this evidence of malicious, atypical behavior, but it is also a pattern of behavior common in those with ASPD who ordinarily end up in a correctional facility or mental health institution as a direct result of their actions similar to Ripley’s. Additionally, Ripley displays a lack of judgment in terms of assessing social contexts and interactions appropriately and, therefore, exemplifies very little restriction of his behavior in response to the presence of “situational determinants” (i.e., the current mood of another person and regulating his behavior in accordance with it). In a study that investigated the behavioral processes underlying social interactions between antisocial adolescents, Van den Bos et al. concluded that delinquents with antisocial personalities display understanding of when social norms are violated yet experience difficulty in consciously attending to the spontaneous relevant features of the social context during interactions (2014). Accordingly, in an episode in chapter ten, Ripley trespasses into the confines of Dickie’s room and closet, puts on an outfit of Dickie’s, and even pretends to act as Dickie himself. What Ripley neglected to consider is the possibility that Dickie may enter the room at any moment and catch Ripley in the act, which is exactly what happens. It is highly plausible that Ripley understands what he is doing is a clear violation of one’s privacy and possessions, however, consistent with the findings of the presently discussed study, Ripley fails to observe the immediate implications of his actions within the social context of his situation—ultimately creating major conflict in his relationship with Dickie.


Ripley’s cognitive and behavioral processes could very well be characterized as extremely impulsive at times, which is a key feature of diagnostic criterion A3, or otherwise expressed as a “failure to plan ahead.” For instance, when Marge discovers Dickie’s rings in Ripley’s possession, which could have easily placed all suspicion onto Ripley, a thought suddenly crosses his mind to kill Marge. He haphazardly considers a solution by disposing of her body in the canal, explaining to the police that he did nothing to help her, because he believed her to be a good enough swimmer. All of this would have been of little consequence in Ripley’s mind, considering having killed two other people, yet the narrator confesses on behalf of Ripley: “He could say he hadn’t wanted to do [the killings], but he had done them. He didn’t want to be a murderer” (239). Typically, people who display antisocial behavior do not make plans to become serial killers or violent offenders in the future and nor does Ripley. However, in tense situations Ripley loses the ability to suppress impulsive thoughts or actions, and, as a result of his inability to filter his own cognitive processes, he acts upon the basis of immediate responses thus facilitating his deviant, antisocial behavior. Another example is the spontaneous and (somewhat) unintentional killing of Freddie Miles that Ripley had never planned for but rather carried out because of an immediate impulse based on the idea that Freddie could compromise Ripley’s current position of being Dickie Greenleaf. After having killed Freddie, Ripley is left with the predicament of composing a cover-up for Freddie’s dead body and concocting some explanation for the murder, all of which was never considered before actually acting upon his impulse. Ripley’s tendency to engage in impulsive behaviors in reaction to immediate stimuli in situations without a plan after the fact and without considering the outcomes certainly meets the diagnostic requirements specifically for criterion A3.


As an individual with ASPD might, Ripley displays a large amount of personal disinhibition throughout the novel that is characterized by irresponsibility and engaging in risk-taking behaviors. For starters, the beginning of the novel informs the reader of Ripley’s wildly unstable and almost non-existent work experience. In chapter six, Highsmith writes, “He tried to take an objective look at his past life. The last four years had been for the most part a waste, there was no denying that. A series of haphazard jobs, long perilous intervals with no job at all and consequent demoralization because of having no money” (40). Though this description implies that Ripley is unhappy with his current employment status, or lack thereof, he has no plans of acquiring a job or profession in the future and proceeds to leave his level of personal responsibility unaltered. Additionally, the reason why Ripley is in Europe is due to an arrangement he and Mr. Greenleaf have for Ripley to persuade Dickie to return home to his family in America; however, Ripley quickly abandons this responsibility and maintains a close relationship with Dickie for his own personal advantage of living a high-classed life at the expense of Mr. Greenleaf’s money and Dickie’s own lifestyle. Lastly, Ripley’s tendency to purposefully get himself involved in dangerous and risky situations, despite the potential consequences, exhibits an impressive amount of disinhibition and disregard for personal safety within the socially acceptable limits. While there are several examples that support this claim, perhaps most notably is when Ripley decides to write up and sign a false will in Dickie’s name, leaving Ripley with of all of Dickie’s personal wealth, and sending it to Dickie’s father in hopes that his scheme will work. This decision comes at a time when, in spite of all of the atrocities that had been committed, Ripley is seemingly off the hook and out of the police’s scope in the investigation. Even while all of Ripley’s suspicions of being found out are relieved, he goes out of his way and risks it all in one last act of unnecessary spontaneity.


In alignment with Criterion A7 in the DSM-V, a major personality trait displayed by individuals with ASPD is callousness (Criterion A7), or lack of guilt and remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others. While the same cannot be said about the murder of Dickie, the murder of Freddie Miles did not afford any remote feelings of guilt or remorse in Ripley’s mind. Rather, Ripley attributes his reasoning in doing so completely to Freddie himself in saying, “Freddie Miles, you’re a victim of your own dirty mind” (140).  Not only is the slightest feeling of repentance completely absent in Ripley’s attitude about the crime he has just committed, but he even goes so far as to cast all blame and reasoning on his innocent victim without any consideration of his own atrocious contributions to the situation. Velotti et al. suggest aggressive behaviors of persons with antisocial behavior is due, in part, to a deficit in their mentalization abilities or “the process by which we make sense of each other and ourselves, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of subjective states and mental processes” (2016). In this manner, Ripley exhibits no conscious awareness of his actions on another person, only reflecting on the other person’s actions as it pertains to Ripley—consistent with the attitude and diffusion of responsibility that is common among psychologically distressed individuals of this degree. Additionally, in stringing along Dickie’s parents (who are unaware that Ripley has murdered their son) by writing them letters as Dickie, as if he were still alive, to protect himself in his own precarious predicament, not once does Ripley acknowledge or recognize the emotional devastation that is to be placed upon Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf as a direct result of Ripley’s actions, thus displaying no signs of guilt or remorse. However, perhaps the most startling evidence of Ripley’s ability to engage in murder while experiencing very little conscious emotional empathy can be found in one of Highsmith’s other novels, Ripley Games. James Campbell summarizes this instance in one of his literary reviews, explaining that “he once watched with satisfaction as a couple of unscrupulous Mafiosi roasted in their own car. It was part of a scheme to help … Jonathan Trevanny fulfill a Murder Incorporated-type commission, which Ripley was instrumental in setting up” (2017).  The keyword here is “satisfaction.” If the scene were written with Ripley feeling somewhat ashamed of what he had done, then his actions may possibly be better justified. Yet, considering Ripley allegedly feels actual gratification in burning a car full of men alive, it is appropriate to conclude that he no longer is inhibited by feelings of empathy or remorse when committing violent acts against others. 


Whether Patricia Highsmith had the intention of inventing a disturbed character whose thoughts and behaviors closely resemble those of a typical psychopath or not, Tom Ripley is most definitely an individual of said nature. In accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, as revised in 2013, which is the golden standard for diagnosis of all current psychological disorders in the field of clinical psychiatry, Ripley satisfies enough of the criteria established in the DSM-V for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Through his personality and behavior as examined in the novel, Tom Ripley displays a disregard for social norms, impulsive cognitive and behavioral processes, gross irresponsibility, and a lack of remorse—all of which, as previously mentioned, are essential traits of antisocial personality disorder.


Works Cited

Balon, Richard. “Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy).       Revised and Updated.” Annals of Clinical Psychiatry (American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists (AACP)), vol. 28, no. 1, Feb. 2016, pp. 73-75. EBSCOhost, libproxy.nau.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=119375782&login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.


van den Bos, Wouter, et al. “Neural Correlates of Social Decision-Making in Severely Antisocial Adolescents.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 9, no. 12, Dec. 2014, pp. 2059-66. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/scan/nsu003.


Campbell, James. “Happy Birthday, Mr. Ripley.” The New York Times Book Review, 8 Feb. 2009, p. 23(L). Literature Resource Center, libproxy.nau.edu/login?url=http://go.galegro up.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=nauniv&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA193267028&it=r&asid=801adf6a64b57242cc4f52b6a8d24de1. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.


Casey, B. J., et al. “DSM-5 and Rdoc: Progress in Psychiatry Research?” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 14, no. 11, Nov. 2013, pp. 810-14. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/nrn3621.




Joseph Meza

Joseph Meza is a graduating Senior at NAU majoring in Psychology with a minor in English. Plans on career as a Clinical Psychologist and Addiction Treatment Specialist.
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