Coincidence and Counterfactuality: The Multiple Plot Structure of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
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In this essay, we explore the multiple plot structure in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). In contrast with thematic analysis, our concern is with plot structure, specifically the manner in which the Meredith Logue and Peter Smith-Kingsley plotlines intersect with the main plot of Tom Ripley’s attempts to get away with murder. Absent from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and René Clément’s cinematic adaptation Plein Soleil (1960), the Meredith plot operates to heighten the significance of coincidence, while engendering new forms of suspense. In contrast, Peter temporarily opens the chance for an alternative future, one in which Tom might realize his social aspirations and a more authentic identity. Ultimately, it is the coincidental resurfacing of the Meredith plot that foils Tom’s attempt to escape his past, ensuring his own tragic defeat and a future of dwelling in counterfactuality.
Introduction: Double Plots in Literary Theory
Critical literature on the double plot is not particularly extensive. The traditions of comedy encouraged classical playwrights to utilize compositional schema that made provisions for more than one plot. Plautus, for example, used the convention of the double plot in Menaechmi (n.d.), which was later cribbed by William Shakespeare for The Comedy of Errors (1594). For his part, Terence employs a double plot in four of his major comedies: Heauton Timorumenos (163 BC), Phormio (161 BC), Eunuchus (161 BC), and Adelphoe (160 BC). Within the literature on classical tragedy, by contrast, most critics, at least until the Renaissance, subscribed to Aristotle’s injunction that a single action accords best with the nature of tragic drama. The development of English tragedy, particularly in the age of Shakespeare, however, entailed a decisive break with this Aristotelian precept. King Lear (1606), for instance, flouts the convention of a single action, introducing the subplot of Gloucester and his two sons to throw the central drama of Lear and his three daughters into relief. Consequently, John Dryden, writing during the Restoration, expressed the view that the subplot could be an integral part of the whole: it is not “difficult to imagine how the under Plot, which is only different, not contrary to the great design, may naturally be conducted along with it.”
In his major study The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (1971), Richard Levin notes that most critics nevertheless continued to lament the effects of the subplot in tragic drama. This was particularly the case when the subplot was a comic one, which was seen to distract from tragedy’s aesthetic seriousness. Starting in the 1930s, however, this dismissive attitude gradually gave way to a more nuanced and accepting position. In 1935, William Empson devoted a long chapter of Some Versions of Pastoral to double plots, or the interpenetration of heroic and pastoral plots in English Renaissance drama. Here, Empson argues that the device ought to be taken seriously, for it has the effect of “making you feel the play deals with life as a whole,” enabling “queer connections [to] be insinuated powerfully and unobtrusively.” The double plot in Elizabethan drama, then, was an “excellent vehicle” for allowing competing social forces and metaphysical ideas to interact, “suggest[ing] so powerfully without stating anything open to objection.” In this view, irony is integral to the double plot’s suggestiveness and its work of “complex character-building,” which provokes “partial, conflicting interpretations”: “one need not put hero and villain in black and white.” In the wake of Empson’s work, a number of critics continued to explore the range of subplots in English Renaissance drama, attempting to account for their structural, thematic, and characterological functions.
Critical discourse on the multiplot novel, particularly in Victorian literature, tends to resist the idea that the structure entails “one or more subplots held in firm subordination to a main plot”; instead, as Peter Garrett suggests, it is more productive to consider them as plural narratives that create a series “of possible analogies, of overlapping similarities and differences between characters and situations.” More precisely, “the dynamic intersection of parallel or interwoven stories,” which frequently “reflect or speak to each other,” facilitate complex exploration of “a coherent set of moral or social issues.”
In film studies, David Bordwell likens “the multiple-plot drama” described by Empson to cinematic “network narratives,” which use causality, chance, and parallelism to evoke “mysterious synchronizations.” At first blush, network narratives, like Magnolia (1999) or Pulp Fiction (1994), and the multiple plot structure of Victorian novels and English Renaissance drama may seem remote from Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). We would contend, however, that these critical discussions are pertinent in addressing why the filmmaker chose to use a multiple plot structure for his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). In the first place, the plotlines involving Meredith Logue and Peter Smith-Kingsley function much as Renaissance subplots, fostering “partial, conflicting interpretations” of the main character, Tom Ripley. They also insert substantial dramatic irony, which alerts us to Tom’s desire, first, to become or be like Dickie Greenleaf and, subsequently, to return to being Tom Ripley. At the same time, their “dynamic intersections” with the main plot accentuate the fraught intersections of class and forbidden desire (homoerotic or otherwise), identity and self-making, coincidence and counterfactuals. Ultimately, the Meredith plotline, which is absent from both Highsmith’s novel and René Clément’s cinematic adaptation Plein Soleil (1960), makes Minghella’s film more like tragedy, to the extent that Tom’s “talent” for forgery and improvisation is what ensures that getting away with murder becomes, in the filmmaker’s words, “his punishment.” Balanced against this storyline, the one concerning Peter, a minor character in Highsmith’s text, holds the promise of affirmatively resolving Tom’s shifting identities, his conflicted emotions and unfulfilled desire, a dénouement foiled by the coincidental reemergence of the Meredith plotline.
Multiple Plots in Ripley
Curiously, critics writing on Minghella’s film have neglected to mention its multiple plot structure. When Meredith is identified, it is usually in terms of character: either as a minor one, “a casual acquaintance,” or as a more important one, but mainly used to mark a departure from the novel’s plot. Peter, by contrast, has received more attention, predominantly due to his role as Tom’s “lover and apparent soulmate.” By expanding Peter’s presence, critics argue, Minghella transforms Highsmith’s ambiguous, perhaps asexual, main character into an identifiable, if closeted, homosexual. These perspectives, then, are mainly invested in Meredith and Peter as characters. Our concern, by contrast, is structural, articulating the manner in which these plotlines interact with the plot involving Tom’s murders of Dickie and Freddie Miles and his efforts to get away with them.
In our analysis, the Meredith and Peter storylines function as distinct plots, or subplots, even as Tom is a central character in both. This approach accords, for instance, with Peter Brooks’ reading of Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which Pip’s multiple plots both intersect and repeat each other. Moreover, the film’s multiple plot structure obeys the dictates of Levin’s causal connections, which link separate storylines in a text, while, at the level of plot genotype, “overlapping similarities” and parallelism are established with the repeated execution of a near-identical set of plot functions.
For Levin, there are two ways different plotlines may be combined and two ways they may be related. The first form of combination is achieved by “material cause,” in which “a connection is made between individuals from different plots by means of some conventional relationship which is established in the initial situation.” The second results from “efficient cause,” occurring when “a character or event from one line of action directly affects the other”; these combinations include both “trivial incidents” and “entire episodes having the most profound effects upon one or both story lines.” By contrast, relation is achieved through formal or thematic similarity. The formal mode is “based on the comparison of two or more persons, events, or concepts in one plot with an equivalent set in the other.” Thematic relation, then, is affective, concerning “the emotional quality of the individual plots” and their combined effect on the spectator, which Levin likens to “a musical chord.”
Plot genotype theory, on the other hand, enables a method for describing how a plot functions, in Aristotle’s words, as a “probable or necessary succession of particular actions to produce a significant change in the fortune of the main character.” This functional approach derives from Vladimir Propp’s definition of a plot function as “the act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.” With an analogy to evolutionary biology, the plot genotype describes “the functional structure or compositional schema,” “a set of instructions, written in the language of the plot function,” for executing a particular plot, whether a fairy tale or screenplay. While Propp asserts an invariant fairy tale structure, in which thirty-one plot functions—from an initial situation to a final marriage—are executed in an identical order, plot genotype analysis is capable of accounting for sequential deviations from Propp’s morphology, as well as the repetition of plot sequences characteristic of longer forms, like novels and screenplays.
From the perspective of plot genotype theory, it is the execution of certain repeated plot functions that forge the combinatorial and relational connections linking the film’s multiple plots. The coincidental encounter, in particular, is a key device that both weaves the storylines together and gives rise to the set of existential choices Tom must navigate. For instance, it is in the initial, chance encounter with Meredith that Tom first assumes Dickie’s identity, and each subsequent meeting forces Tom to reassume this identity and improvise. We can thus conceive of Minghella’s cinematic text as employing conventions of the “coincidence plot” in the interaction of different plotlines. These conventions propel the development of Tom’s character on screen, while subverting the coincidence plot’s “major form,” which, as Hilary Dannenberg writes, “narrates the initially divergent but ultimately convergent paths of individual family members and culminates in recognition and reunion.” By reuniting Meredith with Tom-as-Dickie, convergence prevents closure, a happy ending in the union of Tom and Peter. It also means that Tom must permanently be Dickie, an identity, it seemed, he had at last escaped.
Minghella’s insertion of these storylines enables him to structure the film like tragedy and, in the process, forge a distinct moral vision. The structure is complemented and reinforced by Tom’s status as “a tragic figure, a closeted homosexual not at one with himself,””--someone who, unlike in the novel, has a “conscience.” Equally, Tom’s partial ascent into the world of wealthy American expatriates is driven by events and encounters which largely seem beyond his control. And, importantly, the murder of Dickie is framed as a mistake, the product of Tom’s fateful recognition of Dickie’s actual feelings for him. The Macbeth-like maneuvers that follow, in which Tom plays both Dickie and himself, are spurred by necessity, fateful coincidences to which he must react. This plot, then, is supported by the two subplots, which concern his performed interest in Meredith and his real but conflicted interest in Peter. The first allows Tom to enact his desire to be like Dickie, having wealth and living with style. Nonetheless, this false identity ultimately foils the chance at happiness offered by the second, achieving intimacy and genuine self-awareness with someone who reciprocates his feelings. In making the existential choice to kill Peter at the film’s end, Tom gains his tragic recognition, the torment of dwelling in counterfactuality.
The Meredith plot and main plot are combined through an intricate parallel plot substructure. This involves Tom’s disguised or lying encounters with Meredith and his equally deceptive interactions with Marge Sherwood, Freddie Miles, Mr. Greenleaf, the police inspectors, and a private investigator. The Peter plotline breaks with this pattern to a degree, offering, for a time, a more authentic form of interaction. Tom’s use of disguise and deception does enable him to exert some control over how these strands do or do not interact. However, when the deception threatens to be exposed, disrupting the “equality among the people involved,” Tom resorts to murderous violence to rebalance the “marked disparity in social status or mode of life.” James Keller asserts that Minghella “had to simplify the byzantine plot of the novel, stripping it to a succession of real and attempted murders”; the introduction of these plotlines, we argue somewhat differently, creates a complex, crisscrossing structure characterized by repetition and delayed recognition. The strikingly different thematic and ethical coherence of the film, we claim, is largely a function of Minghella’s structural adaptation, which, after the first murder, makes each plot sequence a variation of a previous one.
Plot Genotype of Ripley
Minghella’s film opens with a voiceover from the boat taking Tom to Greece. The first shot of Tom shows him alone in a ship’s cabin, with mirrored doors doubling his reflection, signaling the multiplicity of his identity. He is rehearsing his situation shortly after killing Peter (something only learned at the film’s end), the handsome Englishman whom he seemingly loved: “If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out. Starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket.”
Figure 1. Tom Ripley’s counterfactual
The insertion of this prologue alerts the spectator to the disastrous turn things have taken, primarily by means of the counterfactual, which is frequently triggered by “traumatic or negative outcomes” and involves mental efforts “to produce an outcome or consequent contrary to reality.” The question is, for both spectator and Tom: How did he get from a borrowed jacket to here? The film, then, constitutes an extended flashback, revealing the web of events and coincidences that have left him in this condition.
The preparation sequence, the first seven plot functions of a Proppian morphology, spans a handful of scenes in New York City. The first function occurs immediately after the prologue, where we see Tom, who is wearing a Princeton jacket, accompanying the singer Fran on the piano at a silver wedding anniversary celebration. Because of the jacket, the shipping tycoon Herbert Greenleaf assumes Tom is a Princeton graduate; in truth, he has only spent time there as a piano tuner. As we come to learn, Tom is sitting in for Fran’s boyfriend, who has injured his hand and is unable to play the piano himself. The first function executed, then, is the arrival, rather than departure, of Tom. In this respect, Tom is positioned functionally as the anti-hero, with the film consistently tracking him, inviting the spectator to form strong sympathies for him, whatever awful things he eventually does.
The second and third functions, which provide an unusual example of the marked inversion of a pair of functions, are delivery and spying. A guest at the ceremony, Mr. Greenleaf is impressed by Tom, so much so that he forms the plan to use him to bring Dickie home. Initially, it is Mr. Greenleaf who appears to be carrying out the function of spying when he comments to Tom: “I see you were at Princeton. Then you’ll most likely know our son, Dick. Dickie Greenleaf . . .”. This is because in plot genotypes in which the story is told from the typical point of view of the hero, it is the villain who speaks first. However, in this case, Tom turns the question back on Mr. Greenleaf, replying: “How is Dickie?” While Tom’s question appears to involve a delivery, it is Tom who is positioned as a spy, with Mr. Greenleaf freely delivering important information about himself and his son.
As Tom takes his leave of Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf, the spectator sees that Tom has been requested to fill in for Fran’s boyfriend, and Tom has accepted. The inversion of scenic order is strategic, for it establishes a greater level of sympathy for the central character. Had the events been shown chronologically, the spectator would have known that Tom has not attended a prestigious university and is willfully deceiving the Greenleafs. Due to the device of plot inversion, therefore, the spectator momentarily shares Mr. Greenleaf’s misplaced confidence in Tom. But since Tom is doing everyone a favor by performing for the injured pianist, it is unlikely the spectator will judge him too harshly. Indeed, we may even consider the deception to be justified, preserving the warm ambience of his meeting with the Greenleafs. Nonetheless, the spectator should now be alert to Tom’s ease with lying. The second misunderstanding is Mr. Greenleaf’s belief that Tom and Fran are a “lovely couple,” introducing the theme of mistaken (sexual) identity marking the entire film.
The next two scenes establish Tom’s initial situation. The first occupies a highly marked position, offering a sharp contrast with the Central Park ceremony. This is the much grimier world of working as a toilet-room attendant at an upmarket theatre, where Tom serves the well-heeled clientele. In this way, the two poles of Tom’s relationship to the American upper class are established: (honorary) guest and (faithful) servant. Shortly thereafter, we see two small examples of the desire to change his situation: his peeping in on a piano recital whilst working and his furtive after-hours playing of Bach on the auditorium piano. In these scenes, both Tom’s double identity and his disregard of protocol are subtly prefigured.
The meeting between Mr. Greenleaf and Tom at the shipyard involves a complicated act of deception. On the surface, the generous, highly-spirited offer of a financed trip to Italy overwhelms Tom such that he is unable to openly refuse.
But, with the mirrored plot functions, it is crucial that Mr. Greenleaf’s confidence in Tom be misplaced: there is an apparent bargain, in which Mr. Greenleaf enlists Tom’s help in getting Dickie back, and actual complicity, in that Mr. Greenleaf mistakenly believes Tom has a connection to his son. The apparent agreement takes place when Tom concedes he has always wanted to go to Europe, while the actual trickery is that Tom has convinced Mr. Greenleaf of his ability to persuade Dickie, someone Tom does not actually yet know, to return home.
Over the next few short scenes, there is a marked change in Tom’s attitude, signaled by his successful struggle to get to know and begin to like jazz, Dickie’s favorite music. This is also suggested by a growing recognition of the dinginess of his basement apartment, where he endures loud disputes from a pair of lovers upstairs. By the time he departs, Tom is awakening to the possibilities of a different world opened by a trip to Italy. As the credits end, with Tom gazing at Dickie’s photograph, the spectator might be forgiven for failing to recognize that Tom’s desire now encompasses not only Dickie’s lifestyle but Dickie himself. Nevertheless, the engine of the main plot has been established: Tom’s desire to find social acceptance and love, his fateful eagerness to be a “fake somebody” rather than a “real nobody.”
Introduction of the Meredith Plot
The next scene, in the customs area of Naples Harbor, introduces the first of the film’s subplots. In structural terms, this introduction parallels the set-up of the main plot, with Meredith taking the place of Mr. Greenleaf. While Tom stands in line, Meredith, a wealthy young American, comes up next to him, her luggage piled on a cart, and asks: “What’s your secret?” This seemingly innocent question, referring to his single suitcase, startles Tom, for, as we are learning, he has many secrets; he thus hesitates and, in a fashion similar to his reaction to Mr Greenleaf, asks a question of his own: “Excuse me?” Tom recovers quickly, and when the young woman offers the name, Meredith Randall, by way of introduction, Tom, almost reflexively, replies: “Dickie, Dickie Greenleaf. Hello.” While ostensibly insignificant, this act of deception proves to be crucial, as Meredith, part of the American expatriate circle in Italy, is acquainted with Dickie’s name by reputation and knows several of his friends.
In her subsequent question: “You’re not the shipping Greenleafs?,” Tom appears to realize that the lie was ill-conceived; he therefore tries to lessen its impact, suggesting that he wishes to remain incognito. Meredith, though, pushes him on this story, inquiring why he retrieved his suitcase from the “R stand.” Tom, characteristically, improvises making use of details gleaned from Mr. Greenleaf, while surreptitiously gathering information from her:
Ripley: My father wants me in New York. He builds boats. I’d rather sail them. I travel under my mother’s name.
Meredith: Which is?
Ripley: Emily. . . . Just kidding.
Meredith: The funny thing is, I’m not Randall either. I’m Logue.
Ripley: As in the . . . ?
Meredith: As in the textile Logues. Trying to shrug off the dress. I travel under my mother’s name, too.
In this exchange, the deceptive motif of the Meredith plot is struck; at the same time, as with his meetings with Mr. Greenleaf, the functions of delivery and spying, trickery and complicity, are executed.
Tom’s claim to be Dickie, traveling under a pseudonym, results in forging a bond with Meredith, who, coincidentally, is also “Trying to shrug off the dress.” As they part, Meredith to Rome, Tom to Mongibello, she offers her hand, prolonging the moment: “So, partners in disguise.” These words prove prophetic, for Tom will be compelled to continue partnering with Meredith due to her mistaken belief that he is Dickie. In this apparently innocuous lie, Tom has entrapped himself; for her part, Meredith has discovered a desire for this wayward member of her extended set. Ultimately, this combination of desire and entrapment tragically complicates Tom’s desire to be a “fake somebody,” necessitating a series of existential choices involving continued deception and eventual murder.
In condensing and revising Highsmith’s material concerning Tom and Dickie’s time together, Minghella creates a taught plot sequence, in which the two test each other: Tom’s powers to improvise and deceive are tested, while Dickie is tasked with seeing through Tom’s duplicity. On another level, the struggle is an erotic one, with Tom seeking, disastrously, to be loved by Dickie, and Dickie, in turn, trying to put a comfortable distance between them. While Tom initially appears to succeed, Dickie unmasks his deception during their trip to San Remo, apparently putting an end to Tom’s struggle to access the wealthy American expatriate circle. The defeat is underscored the next day, as they sail around the bay; Dickie reveals that he doesn’t love Tom and would prefer not to see him again, subsequently mocking him in an effeminate voice. In contrast to the novel’s premediated murder, Minghella frames this scene such that Dickie provokes an excruciating recognition, causing Tom to reflexively smash his face with an oar. Appalled by what he has done, Tom nevertheless bludgeons Dickie to death when a mortal struggle ensues. That this existential victory comes at the price of personal defeat is signaled in a shot of Tom lying with Dickie in a bloody embrace at the bottom of the boat.
After the murder, Tom needs to create an alibi to avoid arrest. Returning to the hotel in San Remo, Tom, wearing Dickie’s jacket, asks for his key. Commenting that he must be cold, the receptionist asks: “Signor Greenleaf? Yes?” Tom’s startled, stuttering response: “No, it’s... I’m . . . ,” before accepting the key, reveals that, to this point, he has not intended to impersonate Dickie. This plot point, the misrecognition that makes him realize he can pass for Dickie, both reiterates Tom’s adaptability and enables the hitherto separate plotlines to come together.
The majority of the remaining scenes, which comprise three distinct sets, are remarkably similar. The first set, which belongs to the main plot, concerns Tom’s encounters with Marge and Freddie, Mr. Greenleaf and his private detective, and the Roman police investigator. The second set focuses on Tom-as-Dickie and Meredith; the third, which offers some deviation from the pattern, follows Tom and Peter’s burgeoning relationship. The structural similarity of these scenes is enacted, to a significant extent, by using coincidence, whether real or manufactured, to execute a near-identical set of plot functions. It is this powerful crisscrossing of plotlines that enables Minghella’s film to achieve a modern-day tragic form.
Each of the parallel scenes begins with the arrival of one character, often in a manner that causes surprise to another. The subsequent interaction involves one character pressing a set of claims on the other. In response to these claims, the second character seeks a solution, which can either mean acceding to, or temporarily thwarting, their settlement. A moment of recognition often emerges, in which one character believes, correctly or incorrectly, that she or he understands the true nature of the situation. The scene then concludes with the departure of one or both characters; because the solution is impermanent, the dynamic is reiterated from scene to scene. Tom can function as either the first or second character, but he is, with one exception, always the focal point. It is this structural device, then, that calls forth Tom’s duplicity and deception, while creating significant suspense.
For example, in the first main scene in Mongibello after Dickie’s death, Tom’s arrival startles Marge who is busy working at the typewriter in her garden. Almost immediately, she presses Tom, seeking news about Dickie’s whereabouts. Tom’s temporary solution is to present Marge with a bottle of perfume, which he says is a gift from Dickie. He explains that he has been sent to collect Dickie’s saxophone and clothes, as Dickie plans to stay in Rome for some time. Tom further delays a settlement of her claims by feigning uncertainty: “I don’t understand Dickie, Marge, so your guess is as good as mine.” The scene ends with Marge temporarily giving up the claims in bafflement. Nevertheless, she has registered something problematic in Tom’s story, which is inconsistent with her fiancé’s personality. In their subsequent scenes, Marge will more insistently assert her claims, strenuously testing Tom’s deceptive capacities as she comes ever closer to uncovering the crimes Tom has committed.
Settling in Rome, Tom continues his complex plan to convince the world Dickie’s life did not end in San Remo. He impersonates both Dickie and himself to create a series of virtual meetings between them, while fabricating a series of near-meetings between Marge and Dickie. In this way, the plot genotype describes a complex set of relations between Tom’s initial white lie in Naples and the situation with which he is now faced. Having innocently claimed to be Dickie Greenleaf, Tom must become Dickie to save himself from being arrested for Dickie’s murder.
It is while Tom is in a Gucci store in Rome, purchasing the clothes he needs for his transformation into Dickie, that he is spotted by Meredith. If, in the scene above, it was Marge who suffered an initial shock, here Tom does. Nonetheless, Tom quickly composes himself, performing Dickie and creating a plausible narrative in which he has left Marge, while appearing to reciprocate Meredith’s romantic interest. This encounter, like their first, also bears the hallmarks of the coincidence plot, as, again, the two “are brought together under remarkable and apparently random circumstances.”
In the following brief scenes, Meredith and Tom appear to grow closer, visiting the American Express, where Tom confidently forges Dickie’s signature, and conversing familiarly in Tom-as-Dickie’s hotel suite during and after a tailor’s fitting. It is here that Tom agrees to attend a performance of Eugene Onegin with Meredith, even though, she notes, “I know you’re a jazz fiend.” (Tom, in fact, much prefers classical music.) By means of more coincidence, the scene in the opera house weds the different plotlines together at multiple levels. On his way to the men’s room during intermission, Tom encounters Marge, who is attending the performance with the young Englishman, Peter Smith-Kingsley. Once again, the unexpected arrival of one character, Marge, causes the other a shock; Tom is forced to become Tom Ripley again, hiding his hands to remove Dickie’s rings secretly, and inventing a plausible explanation for Dickie’s continuing absence. The situation also reveals itself to be more perilous than before, as Marge perceives his growing resemblance to Dickie, remarking on the absence of his glasses.
The danger posed to Tom by this encounter is intensified by the unearthing of what Dannenberg terms “coincidental relationships,” “a network of links between characters who are uncannily connected by the existence of multiple relationships.” Tom learns Marge is not the only connection he shares with Peter. “Look there’s Meredith thingy—who’s that, Marge?—they’re in textiles,” says Peter, explaining he has spent Christmas at her house. On the one hand, Peter’s preexisting relationship poses an existential threat to Tom, leading to “an almost farcical situation,” in which he hurriedly escorts Meredith from the theater, with the pretext of confessing that he still loves Marge.
On the other hand, Marge’s admission that she doesn’t know Meredith enables Tom, with his double identity, to exploit the type of network in which “characters who are connected in an apparently random fashion on a primary level are connected by additional links . . . not causally related to the first set.” Tom, then, arranges, first, to meet Marge and Peter the next morning at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. He makes an appointment with Meredith at the same café fifteen minutes earlier, seemingly acceding to her request to end their relationship amicably, by daylight. As Meredith waits in the café, Marge and Peter arrive to meet Tom, who is watching through binoculars from the top of the steps.
Figure 5. Marge, Peter, and Meredith at the Spanish Steps
In the “coincidental” encounter of Marge and Meredith, the former is stunned to learn that they are connected not only through Peter, but also through Dickie, with whom, Meredith reveals, she attended the opera. Marge’s coldness thus makes a tacit claim on Meredith, who accedes by reassuring her that Dickie loves her and that nothing happened “to prevent you from welcoming him back, from marrying him.” With this resolution, Meredith departs, presumably for good, and Tom arrives, liberated, it appears, from both Meredith and suspicion.
The Peter Plot
Peter, as we have indicated, is the central link connecting, at different levels, Tom (and Tom-as-Dickie), Marge, and Meredith. A minor, but sympathetic, character in Highsmith’s novel, Peter, in Minghella’s hands, offers Tom an opportunity to develop intimacy with a man who reciprocates his feelings and is ready to affirm him as he really is. The scenes in this plot, then, present the moments in which Tom comes closest to revealing himself and understanding what he must do to achieve freedom for himself. Unlike the scenes with Meredith, most of the scenes with Peter are marked by Tom’s lack of improvisation.
At the same time, Peter serves as a shield, unwittingly helping to protect Tom from the dangers he faces. When Tom flees to Venice, avoiding arrest (as Dickie) for the murder of Freddie Miles in Rome, Peter translates for Tom during the police interrogation. Secondly, Peter becomes a buffer against Marge, who is increasingly convinced that Tom has murdered Dickie. The comfort Tom experiences with Peter, coupled with the conclusion of the investigation into Dickie’s disappearance, then, creates the expectation of a happy resolution.
Following the interrogation at the Venice police station, Peter and Tom, alone in Peter’s apartment, discuss Freddie’s murder, generating significant dramatic irony. Strikingly, Peter expresses sympathy for the killer (presumed to be Dickie), imagining the horrible sense of guilt with which he must be living. By responding in the second person, Tom both distances himself from his confession and appeals for understanding: “Whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful... it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Inside your head. You never meet anybody who thinks they’re a bad person or that they’re cruel.” When Peter again insists on the torment a killer must experience, Tom begins with a question, “Don’t you put the past in a room in the basement, and lock the door and just never go in there?” This leads to a first-person admission: “Because that’s what I do.” In this moment of acute vulnerability, Tom both longs for Peter to “go in there,” to uncover the crimes, and dreads it.
Ultimately, the weight of everything he has become seemingly suppresses the need for self-revelation, and Tom lapses into silence. But with Peter lacking any conception of the ugliness in Tom’s “room in the basement,” the scene creates a great deal of suspense, as the spectator anticipates the coincidence plot’s “own bomb under the table,” “the moment of recognition, the point at which the coinciding characters discover each other’s identity.” Had the recognition occurred here, disaster, we come to learn, may have been averted; the deferral of this moment, therefore, is crucial to the tragic dimensions of the film’s conclusion.
Ultimately, Tom is impelled by coincidence—in the form of Meredith—to sacrifice Peter, a killing that is simultaneously an act of self-disclosure and concealment. Having been cleared of responsibility in the deaths of Dickie and Freddie, which concludes the main plot, Tom, with Peter, is seemingly beginning life afresh, albeit still carrying his set of guilty secrets. The final intrusion of the Meredith storyline, then, is decisive, for it both prompts Tom to murder again and forces him to fully assume Dickie’s identity, which, it appeared, he had been able to shed for good.
Whilst watching the sunset from the ship deck, Tom is recognized by Meredith, reawakening the deceitful impersonator Peter had seemingly “rubbed out.” Following the initial shock, Tom-as-Dickie improvises, explaining he’s been in jail, but that the police let him go on holiday as a strategy to flush out the real killer. Seeing that Meredith is accompanied by several family members, he appears to realize that killing her is not a feasible option. And with Meredith’s question about whether he is travelling with Peter, whom her aunt believes she has seen, Tom’s course of action feels inevitable. He thus insists that he is alone, kisses her, and promises to talk later, before going to Peter’s cabin. (Unbeknownst to Tom, Peter has witnessed the kiss.)
There, Tom deflects Peter’s jealousy, claiming that he was trying to get rid of Meredith, and reveals that he has lied to her about Peter. When asked why he lied, Tom finally begins to let slip details from his “basement,” conveying, with significant irony, to a bewildered Peter, what the future without him will be: “I’m going to be stuck in the basement, aren’t I, that’s my, that’s my... terrible and alone and dark... and I’ve lied about who I am, and where I am, and so nobody can ever find me.” This sharp awareness of the greater darkness and isolation that will spring from Peter’s murder is reminiscent of Macbeth; it also seems that here Tom has his tragic recognition: “I suppose I always thought... better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.”
The murder of Peter reflects Minghella’s counterfactual reinterpretation of Highsmith’s novel, revealing why the subplots are essential to the director’s tragic and moral vision. While the actual killing takes place off-screen, heard through a voiceover, the tenderness and erotic imagery of the scene elicit associations with Othello’s suffocation of Desdemona. With tears in his eyes, he presses up against Peter and kisses his shoulder, holding Peter’s rope cord tightly in his hands. What we next see is Tom alone in his cabin, an anguished look on his face; we hear Peter’s voice from off-screen: “Tom is not a nobody.... Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing!... Tom, you’re crushing me!” Having found “someone to love him,” Tom’s untimely self-revelation takes the form of killing him. In this way, the film establishes parallels between all the murders, in that recognition of who Tom is impersonating is the cause or consequence of them.
Figure 7. Peter’s death.
The final scene, then, returns us to the opening, with the closet door flipping open, doubling the reflection of the man who must now be Dickie Greenleaf. In this way, the actual recognition, which, for Dannenberg, is constitutive of the coincidence plot, is now Tom’s alone. The circularity of this conclusion reinforces the sense that the tragic antihero will, henceforth, be exposed to an ongoing reiteration of the main plot, dwelling, counterfactually, “in a world of isolation and regret.” While Edward Shannon rightly emphasizes the film’s “moralistic and tragic tone,” we have shown, structurally, why the multiple plot structure is vital to conveying the director’s moral and tragic vision.
The multiple plot structure of Minghella’s film fulfills each of Levin’s causal criteria. At the level of plot combination, Mr. Greenleaf’s initial misidentification of Tom establishes a “conventional relationship,” which enmeshes Tom in the network of wealthy American expatriates that includes Dickie and Marge, Freddie Miles, and Meredith and Peter. And within this network, coincidental encounters provide “efficient cause,” bringing one plotline to directly impact the other. The plotlines intimately connect with each other via a short, repeated sequence; the result is a form of recognition, which, though usually illusory or incomplete, proves devastating when genuine. Affective similarity, then, is achieved in the inverse images the Meredith and Peter plots provide of each other. The first requires Tom to remain false to himself while enjoying a life of privilege; the second allows him to embrace his desire but requires him to come to terms with his crimes. Ultimately, Minghella’s use of the multiple plot structure enables him to focalize and amplify the counterfactuals of Highsmith’s novel, creating a modern tragedy, in which Tom’s true recognition comes at the cost of destroying the person who loves him, condemning him to dwell alone in the basement for good.
Terence Patrick Murphy (email@example.com) is Full Professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the English Department at Yonsei University in South Korea. He has written two books, The Fairytale and Plot Structure (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and From Fairy Tale to Film Screenplay: Working with Plot Genotypes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). His major research interest is the stylistics of the plot in short fiction and film screenplays.
Kelly S. Walsh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of world literature at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. He has written on European, American, and Korean modernism, stylistics, and literature pedagogy. Currently, his research interests concern the poetics, style, and global circulation of modernist literature and the intersections of modernism and literary reading. He also serves as the book reviews editor for the journal Situations.
To give just two well-known examples: A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear Macbeth (London: Macmillan, 1919); T.S. Eliot, “Thomas Heywood,” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1932), 149-158.
Jenny Bourne Taylor and John Kucich, “Multiple Narrators and Multiple Plots,” in The Oxford History of the Novel in English, vol. 3 The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880, ed. John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 257.
Nick James, “My Bloody Valentine,” Sight and Sound 10, no. 2 (2000): 17. Tom’s remarkable ability to forge and improvise is covered in Kristen Poluyko, “Alternative Music: Jazz and the Performative Resignification of Identity in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley,” The Journal of Men’s Studies 19, no. 1 (2011): 19-36.
Todd Decker, “The Musical Mr. Ripley: Closeting a Character in the 1950s and a Film in the 1990s,” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 6, no. 2 (2012): 185-207; Edward A. Shannon, “‘Where Was the Sex?’ Fetishism and Dirty Minds in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Modern Language Studies 34, nos. 1-2 (2004): 16-27; Sarah Street, Costume and Cinema: Dress Codes in Popular Film (London: Wallflower, 2001), 53.
Aristotle, “Poetics”; Longinus, “On the Sublime”; Demetrius, “On Style,” trans. Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 57. A significant alternative to plot genotype analysis in treating longer plots is the system first worked out by Thomas J. Pavel in The Poetics of Plot: The Case of English Renaissance Drama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). This approach strikes us as somewhat inflexible, as it depends on the repeated analysis of dramatic scenes in terms of a problem-solution dynamic.
Terence Patrick Murphy, From Fairy Tale to Film Screenplay: Working with Plot Genotypes (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 4-5. For a comparison of plot and biological genotypes, see Sándor Darányi and László Forró, “Detecting Multiple Motif Co-occurrence in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type Catalogue: A Preliminary Survey,” Anales de Documentación 15, no. 1 (2012): 1-11.
A plot sequence is a short series of related plot functions, of which Propp identifies six: Preparation (functions 1–7), Complication (8–11), Transference (12–15), Struggle (16–19), Return (20–26), and Recognition (27–31) (Propp, 119-27).
In Propp’s marriage plot genotype, the functions are: (0) Initial Situation, (1) Departure, (2-3) Forbidding-Violation, (4-5) Spying-Delivery, (6-7) Trickery-Complicity. In Ripley, the functions are (0) Initial Situation, (1) Arrival, (2-3) Delivery-Spying, (4-5) Requesting-Acceptance, (6-7) Complicity-Trickery, with Mr. Greenleaf positioned as the unwitting enabler of Tom’s deception.
For plot genotype theory, this is an example of a “plot function allele,” which “involves the replacement of one function (departure) by another (arrival).” See Terence Patrick Murphy, The Fairytale and Plot Structure (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 190. From a purely structural point of view, Tom executes a plot function normally reserved for the villain (Murphy, Plot Structure, 166-67).
A comparison of the Proppian sequence of plot functions and Ripley’s reveals both plot inversion (two functions in reverse order) and plot transposition (two pairs of plot functions in inverted order). See Murphy, Plot Structure, 162-63.
In Highsmith’s novel, shortly before departing for Greece, Tom visits Peter and briefly has the thought, “like the memory of a nightmare, like a pale and evil ghost” (The Talented Mr. Ripley [New York: Norton, 2008], 258), of killing him, like Dickie. Tom immediately feels regret, but it contains a latent subtext and unrealized plot sequence, which Minghella seemingly sought to develop by reading the novel counterfactually, as if Tom were to kill Peter.