Tom Ripley: Psychopath or Sociopath? (“Ripley” Spoilers)

The core story is always the same: A wealthy man enlists fraudster Tom Ripley, his son’s distant acquaintance, to travel to Italy and woo his errant, playboy son back to the fold; but rather than returning Dickie to his family, an envious Tom disposes of him and assumes his identity. Other murders follow to cover the first. Carole V. Bell, NPR, regarding the various portrayals of Tom Ripley

Whether you’ve seen the new Netflix series Ripley or the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (or any other filmed or stage versions) or read any of the five novels by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) that originated Tom Ripley, you may have wondered about his psychopathology. 

Opinions abound on the internet: he’s either a psychopath or a sociopath. But don’t we tend as a culture to throw these terms around without much forethought or knowledge? Also, as Kristen Fuller, MD, Psychology Today, has pointed out, “The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, which causes much semantic confusion…”

Guess what? Neither term made it into the DSM-5, the current psychiatric diagnostic bible. Instead, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is the blanket term for both conditions. “Individuals with this personality disorder demonstrate behaviors that disregard the violation and rights of others and society.” Other traits can include lying and manipulation, impulsive behavior, irritability and aggression, a pattern of irresponsibility, and lack of remorse.

Bu, now back to common parlance. Winifred Rule, Psychology Today, recently stated, “Ripley has high psychopathic traits and generally exhibits a detached unemotionality as he plies his various schemes.” Indeed, Ripley’s creator herself called him her “psychopath hero.” Furthermore, she was, in fact, “openly enamored of her creation,” and not at all judgmental of him (NPR).

It may not be so surprising, then, that Highsmith was reportedly “a misanthropic and hateful racist with unrepentantly cruel views of basically every person she met….She referred to the Holocaust as either ‘Holocaust Inc.,’ or sometimes the ‘semicaust,’ because it killed only half of the world’s Jewish population” (The Ringer).

Having psychopathic traits doesn’t necessarily mean having full-blown psychopathy, though. Highsmith actually gave Ripley guilt feelings at times, Rule notes—which had the effect of lessening his degree of psychopathy and adding to his likability.

Speaking of guilt, those readers who wind up rooting for Ripley to get away with murder may deal with some of this.

Decades after the debut of Anthony Minghella‘s film The Talented Mr. Ripley, the best known of all the adaptations (which came out after Highsmith died), the psychopath/sociopath terms have continued, though with updated nuances. Hugh Montgomery, BBC, refers to young Matt Damon‘s Ripley as “a sociopath for our Instagram age”; Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “a psychopath made for social media.”

And now we have the new eight-episode Ripley. Among its generally positive critiques is some recognition regarding the character’s persona now being less likable, less sympathetic. (Also less youthful.) I have to agree. Regardless of which diagnosis you prefer, what matters most is that  Andrew Scott‘s Ripley is loathsome—attractive only on the exterior.

Christopher Willard, Medium, on the powerful ending all Ripley incarnations have: “Although Tom gets off scot-free, even financially set, goal obtained, he remains imprisoned by his sociopathy.” (Or whatever you now choose to call it.) “He’s a feral creature on the run…always beholden to his uncontrollable impulses.”

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