Ripley: Why Is Tom Ripley Scared of Water?

It takes a certain kind of confidence to dupe people and take over someone else’s identity, to lie and cheat and murder people to get what you want. The titular character of Netflix’s ‘Ripley’ has all of that, and he does all the bad things one after another without any tinge of guilt. But while he may not be scared of committing crimes and finds it easier to handle the threat of being caught by the authorities anytime, it takes him a bit of time to shake off his fear of water. Why is he scared, and how does it affect his actions? SPOILERS AHEAD

Tom Ripley’s Fear of Water Has an Important Symbolism in the Story

For a story as layered as ‘Ripley’ and a character as complicated as Tom Ripley, everything has a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. One of the recurring things in the story is water, as it is present at almost every important point in the story. By the end, the water also becomes a marker of the evolution of Tom’s character and journey. But first, why is he afraid of water?

Two things can be considered the most obvious reasons why Tom Ripley doesn’t like water. The first one is that he is not a very good swimmer. This is mentioned at one point by another character, most likely Marge, who says that Ripley can barely swim. For someone like that, the fear of water is pretty logical. Another reason that water haunts Ripley is because his parents died in an accident in Boston Harbor when he was still young. He connects water with death, and so, even if he can swim, it makes sense why he prefers to stay away from it.

Tom’s fear of water becomes the starting point of his journey, and as his relationship with water changes, we see a different side of him. It is interesting to note that for someone who is afraid of water, Tom is sought out by a man who owns a ship-building business and so books the ticket on a ship for him, leaving Tom to be on the water for a longer stretch of time than he’d like. His dislike for water is apparent from the first time he walks on the beach in Atrani and meets Dickie and Marge. While they go away for a swim, Tom stays behind and watches them from a distance.

Image Credit: Lorenzo Sisti/NETFLIX

The mark of death that water carries for Tom is further strengthened when he kills Dickie and throws him into the ocean. Another layer is added to it when Tom, too, falls into the water as the boat takes turns around him. He is scared to death but somehow manages to get hold of the boat. When he gets back on the boat and out of the water, he takes the first step to leave behind the Tom Ripley that he used to be. It is, in some ways, a rebirth for him because from here, he starts to slip into Dickie’s skin and doesn’t go back to being Tom Ripley until absolutely necessary.

While Tom is not seen swimming comfortably in the ocean again, it becomes clear that he has become more used to the presence of water. In fact, he later moves to Venice, where he buys a house that can be reached by a canal. By this time, he has taken over so much of Dickie’s persona that he is completely unbothered by water. Whatever haunted him about water, be it his parents’ death or Dickie’s ghost coming out of the ocean claiming to have survived, fizzles away by the end, and Tom Ripley leaves behind the fear that had a hold on him to become someone different.

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