The Dark Side of the Human Mind
I’ve chosen to compare the main characters from the novel The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and from the song Stan by Eminem. I’m starting off this essay by briefly summarizing the stories.
In The Talented Mr Ripley a young man, Tom Ripley, is due to a misunderstanding sent to Italy to escort young heir Richard ‘Dickie’ Greenleaf back home to the U.S. However, Tom falls in love with Dickie’s life and murders him in order to take over his identity. Tom is very talented at imitating other people. And by being Dickie Greenleaf, it gives him the shot at having the rich, privileged life he always wanted.
Stan is the story of a young, troubled man writing to his great idol, Slim Shady (or Eminem). In the beginning his letters are normal and but as time passes on, when he does not get an answer from Eminem, he writes things like “P.S. We should be together too” and he identifies with Eminem to the level that he thinks that they are two of a kind. The lack of response to his letters finally pushes Stan over the edge, leading to a murder-suicide in which he kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend.
Tom is a cold and selfish individual who stops at nothing to get what he wants. Yet the reader understands him, because everybody has felt that they want another life than the one they have. The lengths, though, the murder, the way he goes about doing this – it all horrifies the reader. But the clever way he pulls it off is impressive: how the only alterations he does are to his hair, the way he moves and his facial expressions. Yet it completely fools everybody who meets him.
In the beginning he is overly cautious: “Tom had at first amused himself with an eyebrow pencil – Dickie’s eyebrows were longer and turned up a little at the outer edges – and with a touch of putty at the end of his nose to make it longer and more pointed”. Since these details would be rather easy to spot for an observer, he dropped them. He claims that maintaining the mood and temperament of the person he’s impersonating is the most important thing to convince others. So as Dickie Greenleaf he is warmer, more inviting, draws people in easier than Tom Ripley would do. Yet you get a sense, at least I do, that he never really stops being Tom. Tom is the planner and the thinker, making sure never to be caught. He’s acting as the perfect Dickie Greenleaf, yet “he behaved as he always wanted to behave at a party.” To me that signifies that he does not always keep his Dickie persona.
Stan is probably a slightly less complex, yet nonetheless complex, character: he had a bad childhood, grew up in poor conditions with an absent father, who used to beat and cheat on his mum. He identifies with this famous singer, because they come from a similar background. He can relate to the songs and, like almost every hardcore fan, he wants a letter from his idol. When he does not get this letter, he feels ignored by his idol who promised to write back to him: “remember when we met in Denver – you said if I’d write to you, you would write back”.
Stan’s mental state is going down the drain; “sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleed. It’s like adrenaline; the pain is such a sudden rush for me”. He also mistakes his girlfriend’s worry for jealousy and starts to feel resentful towards her. Stan feels like she is trying to intrude on his relationship with Eminem. In the end he blames Eminem for his downfall, “you coulda rescued me from drowning”; “you ruined it now”. His last thought before driving off the edge is how he is supposed to send the cassette tape out to Eminem.
These two characters are rather similar, if you ask me. They are both stalkers, but their aims are different. Stan seeks closeness and affirmation from his idol, Eminem; he wants to be a part of Eminem’s life, no longer a bystander. Tom doesn’t want to be a bystander, either. But for him, closeness and affirmation are not enough. He wants that life and he will have it, even if he has to resort to violence to have it.
They are both violent men. Tom murders Dickie in order to take over his identity and probably anybody else who is close to ruining it. Stan’s violence is directed towards himself and the ones close to him. Tom assumes responsibility for his actions; he realizes what he does but is not bothered by it, since he appears to be a psychopath. Stan, however, can’t accept responsibility for his actions; “you ruined it now”. And his intentions with committing this murder-suicide are to hurt Eminem. He clearly states that he is blaming Eminem and wants to hurt him; “I hope you can’t sleep and you dream about it. And when you dream I hope can’t sleep and you SCREAM about it, I hope your conscience EATS AT YOU and you can’t BREATHE without me.” What he wants is to ruin Eminem’s life like he feels like the lack of response from Eminem’s side has ruined him.
The simplest way of putting it is that Stan needs validation from Eminem. Tom, on the other hand, only needs Dickie for a while to observe his mannerisms in order to impersonate him perfectly. He does not need Dickie’s approval and validation; he discards the real Dickie as soon as he can, so that he can become the Greenleaf heir.
Stan is trying to fulfil an emotional need by contacting Eminem, seeking somebody to understand him and maybe help him from his self-destructive downward spiral. When Eminem does not respond, Stan sees it as if the only person who understands him has abandoned him. He reacts with more self-destructive anger towards this imagined rejection. He wants to get back at Eminem and he considers the right way of doing this is to make Eminem have his life on his conscience.
Maybe Tom acts from an emotional need, too. But this need is more a desire of the comfort and luxury he has always wanted. It’s a desire to never be alone again, because he can never be alone as Dickie Greenleaf. Maybe it’s in the tragic nature of the story that Tom probably has never been as alone as he is now. Getting close to people means risking the discovery of his identity theft and Tom may have fulfilled his need for money and good standing, but he has jinxed himself to a life in solitude.
But their mental unbalance will cost others more than it costs them.
In the end there’s several conclusions to be drawn: they are similar, yet very different. They are violent men but the way their violence manifests itself are different: one is violent towards others, the other violent towards himself. They seek emotional needs; but one seeks understanding, the other seeks material comfort.
They are different, yet alike.
Additional notes: When I wrote this essay I had only read an excerpt from The Talented Mr Ripley; the one where Tom is in Paris after he killed Dickie. I had also not seen the movie. So this analysis is based on the few pages I had read then.
Copyright C.R.M. Nilsson 2010