The Sherwood Effect

The Sherwood Effect

Written by Linda Xin Zhi Zhang

for Prof. Chad Lowe

In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, we follow a troubled young con artist sinking, not without consequences, into the decadence of the wealthy. Set in the 1950’s, the novel richly portrays many ideas arising from the psychologist Sigmund Freud, such as the unconscious, masculinity crises, and toxic masculinity. These elements are especially present in the relationship between Marge Sherwood and Tom Ripley, and help us understand why her presence is so unbearable to him. This essay will use Freud’s ideas to explore Tom’s relationship with Marge, specifically how they tie in with Marge’s social status, Tom’s masculinity crisis and subsequent contempt for women, and Tom and Marge’s competition for Dickie’s affection.

Marge is an unapologetic reminder of the social class Tom belongs in, and shows no embarrassment about belonging to a working class. Marge presents herself as a self-proclaimed average girl, while Tom is someone acutely aware of his status as a “nobody,” which is noticeable when he describes himself in the beginning of the novel as “living from week to week. No bank account. Dodging cops” (12). Tom is profoundly ashamed of his status, which can be seen when he refuses to let Mr. Greenleaf drop him off, since he “had not wanted him to see where he [Tom] lived” (14). On the other side, Marge can willingly share information about her ordinary life, such as when she tells Tom that she comes from Ohio and even shows him a picture of her house there: “A plain clapboard house, but it was home” (68). Tom is unable to understand how Marge feels no shame concerning her ordinary background, while to him, exposing the truth about his life would be unfathomable. Furthermore, he shows virulent contempt for details in Marge’s behaviour which he considers plebeian: for instance, when Marge is in a party and “it even seemed to Tom that Marge guzzled the martinis because they were free” (228) or when she uses the word “clabbered” to describe Dickie’s intoxicated state and Tom thinks that “her speech was abominable, both her choice of word and her pronunciation” (68). Using Freud’s ideas to analyze Tom’s opinion on status, we can see that on a conscious level, Tom is aware of his strongly materialistic tendencies, and how “possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence” (234). On an unconscious level, Freud would say that Tom is extremely sensitive to his low status, and strives to reach the high class that will allow him to own the possession he desires. This unconscious susceptibility to his background is the reason why Tom weeps when he receives a bon voyage basket from the Greenleafs, as it represents his entry into a world of privilege and wealth—a world where his susceptibility can thrive and where his conscious desire for material goods can be achieved (35). With Freud’s analysis in mind, it is obvious that Tom is unable to understand why Marge shows no sign of embarrassment about her social status, and the idea that someone can live unabashedly while parading her working-class status around—the very label he wishes so much to get rid of—deeply troubles him. One could even say that Tom views Marge and her ideas as “other,” as her life is devoid of a quest for status while his is guided by this quest; he is not only disgusted because they share a similar common background, but is also uncomfortable with the fact that she is unconcerned about said background.

Tom is unable to stand Marge due to his contempt for women and his insecurity about his own masculinity. Tom has always been insecure about his masculinity, as he recalls having been “a skinny, snivelling wretch” (40) in his childhood, and being called a sissy by his aunt (38). This suggests that not only has he viewed his younger self as a weak individual, but the woman that raised him has also ingrained in him the notion that he does not fit the mold of a capable, manly male. While on the boat to Italy, Tom mentions that he always thought that he had “a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase,” implying that his childhood perspective on his masculinity persisted into adulthood (35). Freud would argue that Tom is plagued by a constant masculinity crisis, as he has a keen awareness of his shortcomings when it comes to matching the societal criteria required to be a virile man. Because of those standards, Tom feels emasculated, and ergo, tries to show his masculinity by acting out on his manly, dominant impulses, which is a behaviour also known as toxic masculinity. A specific manifestation of toxic masculinity by Tom is evidenced in his contempt for women, especially when it comes to their sexuality. Marge, being the only main female character of the novel, is naturally the largest target of Tom’s disgust. We can observe Tom’s misogynistic behaviour when he sees Marge’s house for the first time, and notes “the feminine touch represented by her tomato-colored bathing suit, and a bra hanging over a windowsill” (56). Later in the novel, when she spills her drink on his expensive table in Venice, he distinctly recalls “her bra hanging over the windowsill in Mongibello […] her underwear would be draped over his chairs tonight […] the idea repelled him” (213), all while he is “watching the wood of the table turn white in spite of his wiping”(213). It is interesting to note that Tom’s memory and repulsion of Marge’s undergarments is triggered by watching his expensive table getting spoiled by the wine, as if, just like the beautiful wood table ruined by Marge spilling the wine, his masculinity and carefully constructed bachelor’s pad would be tainted by her underwear—something which can be viewed as a physical representation of female sexuality. Furthermore, this repugnance for Marge and female sexuality is expressed again later in the book, when Tom visits the tomb of Santa Rosalia: “he could hardly keep from giggling when he saw the statue: the lush, reclining female body, the groping hands, the dazed eyes, the parted lips […] he thought of Marge” (173). Tom has inherently associated Marge with a laughable image of female sexuality, which he considers as the absolute opposite of the stoic ideals he is striving to attain. Therefore, he is unable to take her seriously, and cannot help but be disgusted by any behaviour displaying her sexuality or reminding him of it.

Tom cannot stand Marge because, while he considers himself superior to her, they are both competing against each other for Dickie’s attention and affections. As mentioned previously, Tom’s masculinity crisis makes him particularly self-conscious about the image he projects as a male. Consequently, Tom tries to show his masculinity and manliness through his perceived superiority over the “weaker sex” and their emotional sensitivity, something that he, as a man, evidently mocks. Tom views his gender as a reason why he should have an advantage compared to Marge in the battle for Dickie’s attention. For example, when Dickie and he return from Naples, Tom thinks that Marge “seemed to know that Dickie had formed a closer bond with him in twenty-four hours, just because he was another man, than she could ever have with Dickie” (67). Therefore, he reacts violently when he sees Dickie kissing Marge, as Marge, the overly sentimental and transparent peasant girl, is obtaining something from Dickie that Tom can never obtain. The idea that Dickie and Marge might truly share a closer bond in the form of a romantic relationship is so deeply irrational to Tom that he goes as far as interpreting the kiss as an act of friendship: “he knew Dickie didn’t mean it, that Dickie was only using this cheap, obvious, easy way to hold on to her friendship” (74). Furthermore, Marge attacks Tom’s masculinity by insinuating that “she thought he was queer […] just by the way he acts,” which creates a rift in Tom’s relationship with Dickie (76). By killing Dickie, Tom is reasserting his masculinity by acting out on his toxic, manly impulses and showing his dominance over Dickie. Subsequently, by keeping the murder to himself, and writing letters to Marge leading her to believe that Dickie is avoiding her, Tom is retaliating against Marge. Tom not only manipulates and wrecks Marge and Dickie’s relationship, but claims from Dickie something invaluably intimate that Marge would never obtain: his life. Clear evidence that Tom considers himself the victor of the battle for Dickie’s attention is presented when Marge finds out that Dickie “gave” Tom the rings, and Tom, seeing her devastation, “put his arm around her […] He smelled her perfume. The Stradivari, probably” (236). The passage shows that Tom is not only playing the role of a kind, supportive friend, but also gloating internally. It is the first time that Tom somehow willingly shares physical proximity with Marge, and the first time he makes a comment about her appearance devoid of passive aggressive rudeness. Curiously, the comment is about the Stradivari, the same perfume he extracted from the pockets of Dickie’s corpse to give to her: it is the ultimate proof that Tom is jubilant about fooling Marge and controlling the entire situation in the palm of his hand just like a “real” man. Nevertheless, Tom still feels jealousy and hatred towards Marge, because even if he considers himself superior to her as a man, she posed a worthy opponent when it came to Dickie’s interest, and exacerbated his masculinity crisis by telling Dickie she thought he was queer.


Works Cited

Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. Norton, 2008.


About the Author:

My name is Linda Zhang. I am a second-year Commerce student in Dawson College, and a Collège-Jean Eudes graduate. I discovered the Dawson English Journal through my 102 English teacher, who was the one that kindly encouraged me to submit this essay. I enjoy going through used book shops to find new reads, taking naps, and watching reality television of questionable taste. Some of my hobbies include reading, trying new restaurants with my friends, and swimming. I would like to continue my studies in law or finance, and am looking forward to what is waiting for me after cegep.

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