Masculine Identity and Success: A Critical Analysis of Patricia Highsmith's the Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club

Article excerpt

The American Dream and the concept of success play central roles in American depictions of male accomplishment and masculinity in contemporary American culture. Patricia Highsmith and Chuck Palahniuk each create subversive readings on those concepts in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Fight Club. Tom Ripley and Fight Club's anonymous narrator and Tyler Durden, his alter ego, constitute critiques of the conventional male models and their striving for success in America. Examining these conventions leads both authors to exploit and to re-invent the conventions. And in their examination and their re-invention, Highsmith and Palahniuk postulate new ways to view masculinity and the means whereby male behavior merits respect and recognition. In the process, both authors and the main characters in their novels provide an enriched context in which to consider what it means to be male and what constitutes success in contemporary America.

Key Words: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Fight Club, Patricia Highsmith, Chuck Palahniuk, masculinity, humiliation, success


Defining masculinity in terms of success in contemporary America involves both the historical and the conceptual when attempting to arrive at some conclusions that combine both perspective and nuance. The historical element arises from authors such as Charles Rosenberg (1980), who defines identity by studying the sexual conflicts that mitigate a man's success (p. 222), and David Leverenz (1989), who depicts an "intensified ideology of manhood [as a] compensatory response to fears of humiliation" (p. 4) in the American marketplace. Additionally, the work of E. Anthony Rotundo (1993), which chronicles the "more open and competitive" marketplace of the nineteenth century (p. 194), and that of J.A. Mangan and James Walvin (1987) in editing a volume that explores the "distinctive and powerful moral code" that prescribes manly conduct (p. 2) serve as a thoughtful basis from which to consider the long-range impact of historical understandings of masculinity and success on twentieth-century America. At the same time, the conceptual aspect of the analysis ought to include the diverse approaches assembled by Arthur Brittan (1989), wherein he questions whether the concept of masculinity has "any meaning at all when it seems to change from minute to minute" (p. 2), Susan Faludi's (1999) examination of men in the "complicated dynamic" that results from the "visual avalanche" of images of masculine success (p. 10), and the recent battle of the books between William Pollack's (1998) Real Boys and Christina Hoff Sommers' (2000) The War Against Boys. Though such a method necessitates a certain catholicity, it can bear fruit in achieving a sense of the contemporary debate on masculinity and success, particularly when filtering historic and conceptual analyses through American culture and its masculine images: the American Dream, the Rugged Individual, the Golden Boy, and the Horatio Alger story.

American culture often represents itself in such iconic terms through the media, in print, and on film. And in exploring Patricia Highsmith's (1955) The Talented Mr. Ripley and Chuck Palahniuk's (1996) Fight Club, insights on masculinity and success can be derived, both from the original print versions and the recent film adaptations that suggest that, while the traditional notions about masculinity and success persist in twentieth-century America, they are increasingly susceptible to the efforts of individuals who seek to recast the terms in subversive and reinterpreted forms. Highsmith's chameleon, Tom Ripley, and Palahniuk's bifurcated narrator, Tyler Durden, stand out as significant revisions of masculine success. Tom Ripley, a closeted homosexual of the 1950s, assumes all the outer appearances of manly conduct and social success even as Highsmith cleverly adapts the American Dream and the supposedly certain landscape of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency for the purpose of seducing the reader into rallying behind her more than a little ambiguous and amoral Golden Boy. …