Thomas Harris makes use of a significant amount of imagery involving crows in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. I believe that this imagery can be interpreted in such as way as to conclude that the eventual pairing of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter was planned from the beginning. I have long held this belief, and my interpretation of the symbolism may be colored by this bias. Still, I think that there is at least some basis in the material and shall attempt to set forth some of my reasoning in the pages that follow.
To begin, we must look at the significance
of crows in the works in question...
We first see the crow in Silence when
Senator Martin intervenes and moves Dr. Lecter from Baltimore to Memphis.
Starling is getting ready to meet Crawford in the middle of the night for
an attempt at damage control. She flashes back to her childhood, when she
was 8 years old. She helped her mother clean motel rooms and there was one
particular crow from a local flock who made a point of stealing from the
cleaning cart. “It took anything bright.”
Harris tells us that it would wait for its chance and then rummage thru
the many items on the cart, sometimes soiling the clean linens if it had
to take off quickly. One of the other cleaning ladies had thrown bleach at
it, but that had not deterred the crow - it had merely mottled it’s
feathers with snow white patches. Starling sees the crow vividly at this
point for just a moment, so vividly that she raises her hand to shoo it
away. She associates this crow with cleaning the motel and that is the
setting in which her mother informed her that she would have to go away -
sitting on the side of one of the motel beds.
The crow waited for it’s chance to
rummage and took anything bright. The snow white patches in its black
feathers did nothing to change its true nature. If we wish to be
simplistic, we could simply look at the crow as a representation of Lecter
himself. While accurate to some large extent, I do not think that this is
a complete interpretation.
Starling associates the crow with being
sent away from her home as a child. I think she recalls the crow now
because she knows that this turn of events will most likely end with her
being sent off the case - that is her fear at this point. She also
associates the crow with stealing. If we wish to go back and consider the
crow as a representation of Lecter and look ahead to Hannibal, we can make
the argument that her early involvement with Lecter in a sense stole from
her the opportunity to advance normally and have the FBI career she wanted
-- especially when it took such an unfortunate turn.
The crow is invoked again when Starling
goes to talk to Dr. Lecter in the holding cell in Memphis. He points out
to her that, “Dumas tells us that the addition
of a crow to bouillon in the fall, when the crow has fattened on juniper
berries, greatly improves the color and flavor of stock.”And then asks, “How do you like it
in the soup, Clarice?” Indeed, our first glimpse of Hannibal
Lecter in Red Dragon finds him “on his cot
asleep, his head propped on a pillow against the wall.” Harris
tells us that, “Alexandre Dumas’ Le Grand
Dictionnaire de Cuisine was open on his chest.” This, then is
our earliest association with the Good Doctor - one might even say that it
is in some way representative of him. Harris invokes it again here. Why?
It is an obvious reference to the trouble that Starling finds herself in
with Senator Martin, but is there more? Could it be that Lecter’s
inquiry has little to do with the obvious and is an assertion of his
knowledge that she is his, even now?
We also see the crow in
Hannibal. On pages 321-322, Harris discusses Lecter’s addition of a “fat
crow which had been stuffing itself with juniper berries” to
his stockpot in the preparation of a portion of the deer hunter that he
kills. It is over the course of this meal that Lecter decides that it is
time to present Starling with his little birthday gift. One could make the
argument that there is a connection here with the crow and Lecter “stealing”
Starling away from her current home, i.e. the FBI. After all it is during
his attempt to deliver her gift that he is kidnapped by Verger’s thugs,
which eventually brings her to him. Also, I feel compelled to note that
this is the point where we are told that during the preparation of dinner
Lecter is listening to Henry VIII’s “If True Love Reigned”, which of
course comes up again at the end of the book just before the Doctor and
Special Agent Starling share the now infamous meal.
The image of the crow is
invoked once again on page 412. Starling is on her way to Muskrat farm to
save the Good Doctor. As she approaches her destination, she of course
shuts off the engine and...
the engine off, she could hear a crow calling in the dark... She hoped to
God it was a crow.” It
seems obvious here that we hear the crow at this point to foreshadow that
she is about to be sent (or stolen) away again - to another life with
Lecter. Perhaps she hopes it was a crow because this is what she wants?
The crow is revisited one
last time on page 469, at the beginning of the dinner with Krendler. “They
talked about the trimming of crow quills and their effect on the voice of
a harpsichord, and only for a moment did she recall a crow robbing her
mother’s service cart on a motel balcony long ago. From a distance she
judged the memory irrelevant to this pleasant time and she deliberately
set it aside.” Could it be that Starling decides that the
earlier unpleasant memory of being sent away from the life that she knew
at the age of eight has nothing to do with “this pleasant time”
because in this instance, the new life that awaits her is something that
she wants as opposed to something that she fears?
Looking outside of the
books themselves for some significance, the Cassell Dictionary of
Superstitions has a good deal to say about the crow. Among other things,
it states that, “The death-black coloring of the crow, in combination
with it’s intelligence, has led to the bird being regarded as one of the
most ominous of all creatures... Once considered a messenger of the
gods..., the crow is now viewed as a harbinger of disaster...” In short,
the crow is considered to be an omen of evil. Another source describes
crows as “extremely intelligent, quite possibly the most intelligent of
all birds.” They are considered to be “smart , ingenious,... full of
engaging play... and curious birds that incite intelligence.” They “...
seem to have a thirst for knowledge, always testing out new things for
advantages and efficiency.” I need not mention the parallels here with
the Good Doctor. Interestingly, a flock of crows is referred to as a
Given such obvious
similarities between the nature of the crow and that of Doctor Lecter, let
us take a closer look at the crow itself. The crow is a member of the
Corvidae Family, along with the Raven. The genus is Corvus. Corvids, in
general, are top of the line in avian evolution. They have the flexibility
and adaptive skills to thrive almost anywhere. Their preferred diet is
carrion, much like the Doctor himself.
Incidentally, the Corvidae
Family belongs to the Order of birds known as Passreformes. This is the
same Order that encompasses the Sturnidae - or Starling - Family. The
Encyclopedia Britannica describes the mynah - closely related to the
starling, being in the same family of birds, as being ‘crow-like in
appearance.’ Perhaps the starling and the crow have more in common than
one might initially assume?
It may be interesting to
note here that the African Starling, a cousin to the European or Common
Starling, is strikingly beautiful and, coincidentally, known to be easy to
tame. “ Well you’re far from common, Officer
Starling. All you have is fear of it.” Lecter makes more than
one reference to Starling’s beauty, and he obviously has some notion
that he can ‘tame’ her or win her over, if you will.
Just as the crow and the
starling have at least a faint link through belonging to the same order of
birds, so Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter are linked in name through
that of a historical figure called Hannibal the Starling. It would be
quite fascinating if all of this were simply a coincidence - particularly
given Mr. Harris’s penchant for detailed research and his obvious
abundance of esoteric knowledge.
In ‘The American Crow and
Common Raven’, L. Kilham asserts, “To get at the mind of a crow is a
great challenge, but to get at the mind of a raven... is an even greater
one. Ravens are... at the top of the avian pyramid in mental attributes.”
Given Lecter’s advanced mental capabilities, perhaps it would not be out
of the question to make a bit of a leap here and suggest that the raven,
and not its cousin the crow, might be the Corvid most representative of
the Good Doctor. The raven is larger and more powerful than the crow, a
more efficient predator. Ravens can have up to hundreds of different
vocalizations. We know that Lecter is fluent in several different
languages. Both crows and raven are omnivores, but crows tend to be less
discriminating. I would cite here the Doctor’s refined tastes. I would
note here that the raven is drawn to carrion,
particularly sheep. Bernd Heinrich in ‘Ravens in Winter’ suggests that
ravens may recruit others to a food source. His theory being that by
sharing in this way, a raven may gain a future mate. Need I invoke
Krendler here? Incidentally, Corvids mate for life.
On a more whimsical note...
If we accept that the raven
might be representative of Lecter in light of the arguments presented
above, then it could be an entertaining exercise to look at Edgar Allen
Poe’s poem of the same name with an eye towards Mr. Harris’s work.
While I most certainly do
not mean to assert that I believe Harris had Poe’s poem in mind when he
conceived Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, it is not beyond the realm of
possibility that he could be aware of the similarities. After all, Harris
obviously possesses a good deal of eclectic and perhaps somewhat obscure
a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -
Perhaps we might look at
this a bit more closely...
When we first see, Starling
she is going through her paces as just another grunt at the FBI Academy
when suddenly fate intervenes in the form of a special assignment to
interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
So she sets off to
interview Lecter in his basement cell at the Baltimore State Hospital. At
first, he frightens her...
silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before
... but then she finds her
footing, and the ‘dance’ begins.
my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer...
He sees into her easily,
but offers little in return.
I opened wide the door;
Darkness there and nothing more.
Over the course of their
encounters, she is drawn in farther, becomes more intrigued with him, yet
he remains largely a mystery to her.
Deep into that darkness
peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams
no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was
unbroken, and the stillness gave no token.
The final descent into that
basement in Baltimore is to barter for information with the experiences of
her own life.
that chamber turning, all my soul within me burning...
...Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore.”
us to care and not to care, teach us to be still”
It is in Memphis that she
finally gives him her most intense memories in exchange for the case file,
which holds the final clues that she needs. In short, she finally lets him
in far enough to satisfy him, so that he will tell her what she wants to
here I flung the shutter, when with many a flirt and flutter
there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore
(It is worth noting here
that the Raven in the poem perches on a bust of Pallas - Palla Athene
being the Greek Goddess of Wisdom - which could represent Lecter’s
wisdom, the knowledge that Starling seeks.)
She obviously respects
Lecter, values his knowledge and insights - she has even come to like him
a little at this point, I believe.
ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.</font>
He makes her work for her
answers, even after the considerable price she has paid for them - his
lessons are cryptic.
its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore
did anything mean that Dr. Lecter said?”
Lecter’s final act before
his escape from Memphis is to help her, lead her to the answers she seeks
even after this avenue has been abandoned by official channels. As she has
shared with Lecter during their exchanges, she knows abandonment well.
scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before.
On the morrow he will leave me as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said,
And in fact, he will not
truly leave her. The implications of this are as yet unclear, but the
reality of his impact on her is undeniable.
grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the foul whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core
you feel eyes moving over you...?”
easier to think about Dr. Lecter’s statements when she wasn’t feeling
his eyes on her skin.”
Indeed, he will be there
for her seven years hence when she is betrayed by the FBI. He will risk
his own freedom to come to her. Neither knows this at their parting, but
he will be her ultimate redemption when she finds herself in disgrace.
I cried, “thy God hath lent thee by these angels he hath sent thee.
to him initially as a source of knowledge...
said I, “thing of evil! Prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore
... Tell me, I implore!”
stand to say I’m evil...?”
... unaware that this
meeting will in large part determine the course her life will take going
forward. Her involvement in this case overshadows the rest of her
FBI career and is the instrument by which she makes an enemy of Paul
Krendler, which is in large part responsible for her lack of success as
that career progresses. I would also assert that her rapport with
Lecter on some level lessens Crawford’s confidence in her.
the one he talks to, Starling.’ Crawford looked so sad when he said, ‘I
figure you’re game.’”
The Doctor’s influence
over her life is strong, even though it is not immediately apparent for
some time. When she returns to his
former cell in Baltimore to seek his medical records, Harris tells us that
“Here she had had the most remarkable encounter
of her life... Here she had heard things about herself so terribly true
that her heart resounded like a great deep bell.” Lecter has
seen her, recognized something in her She realizes that indeed
Lecter is the only one who has “ever recognized
her”. She and Lecter are somehow bound together. He
tells her at the end of Silence that “Some of
our stars are the same.” , acknowledging - perhaps
foreshadowing? - the overlapping of their individual lives over the course
of what is to come, even as he assures that he has no plans to call on
that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting
thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted nevermore!