No reader of Thomas Harris' work would deny he
invests a great deal of research into his novels, especially the last
three that feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And as our picture of the
doctor grows in each novel, so does the symbology Harris uses in expanding
his character and deepening his horrific persona.
Part of Dr. Lecter's mystique is the
fragmentary background story Harris teases us with in Red Dragon, throughout
Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent in Hannibal. We
know that Dr. Lecter killed nine people; we know that apparently his last
victims were killed in a brief spree of violence and whimsy that led to
his arrest ("Lecter was very hot," Will Graham said in Red
Dragon); and we know he lost his sister and parents at the age of six.
We know nothing of Dr. Lecter's youth and
adolescence, his education, his coming to America, his first
murders--perhaps because Harris would rather us come to our own
conclusions, perhaps because the back story simply isn't all that
important to our understanding of Dr. Lecter's nature. Although Dr.
Lecter insisted to Clarice Starling that "nothing happened to me.
I happened," the death of Mischa is clearly an influence on
Dr. Lecter's behavior, an influence he has never been able to break free
Whether or not Dr. Lecter would have grown
into the cannibalistic connoisseur we know today if Mischa had lived is
irrelevant. Lecter uses Mischa's death, if not as a defense
mechanism, than as a justification. His thoughts are not bound by
fear or mercy, any more than Milton's were bound by physics--this quiet
rumination is made by Harris shortly before Dr. Lecter murders his guards
in Memphis. Dr. Lecter, lacking remorse, cannot feel guilt for the
wickedness he commits. He can, however, feel pleasure: "All
that's left for him is fun," Jack Crawford grates. In Hannibal
the doctor reflects on how his modest predations pale before those of
God. The death of Mischa made Dr. Lecter's evil acceptable in his
own mind--he did, in essence, become a law unto himself once his pray went
unanswered and his sister wound up in the stool pit. And as his own
law, what better way to mock the creator of typhoid and swans than by
committing wickedness of exquisitely depraved proportions?
It is my contention that Dr. Lecter, as a
law unto himself, commits murder and cannibalism in a vicious attack on
the God who abandoned Mischa and himself. In his young mind Dr.
Lecter made the connection between the loss of his sister and unanswered
prayer, an unmovable knot, so to speak, in the matrices of his mind.
Dr. Lecter found blinding white flashes of rage in Starling's mind during
his sessions with her in Hannibal, many of them directed against
the very real injustices she had suffered in Krendler's hands. Is it
not possible that Dr. Lecter's own memory palace, filled not only with the
stench from the oubliettes, contains rooms of white-hot fury? Fury
against the God whose creation he mocks and brutalizes on his whim?
Dr. Lecter's violent attack against God and
the moral order perfectly embodies the Renaissance man, as Francis
Dolarhyde noted in Red Dragon. In Dolarhyde's mind Lecter had
to look like a dark Renaissance prince. I believe Harris created Dr.
Lecter with this very ideal in mind--Dr. Lecter's ancient and illustrious
heritage and his excellent, could one say even imperious tastes,
surely call to mind one who was born into and carries himself as royalty.
I will not belabor the point by documenting Dr. Lecter's well-known
affinity for the medieval era. The importance is the ideal: the
guiltless superman who rejects God and conscience, who is unbound in his
memory palace by the brilliance of his own taste and cunning. In
this sense Dr. Lecter embodies the humanistic dream: a champion who
triumphs not simply without but especially without God or
From what we know of Dr. Lecter it seems he
avoids the orgiastic excesses of the Renaissance, though he does not deny
himself other creature comforts. However, aside from the Renaissance
superman, Dr. Lecter does symbolize another self-indulgent archetype.
In this case Harris was far from subtle: Dr. Lecter's pale skin, red eyes,
and dark hair instantly call to mind the vampire. I believe Dr.
Lecter's egocentricity, so well-embodied in the Renaissance's embrace of
reason and rejection of morality, perfectly coincide with the vicious
determination and remorseless violence of the vampire.
Note: when Starling prepares to leave Dr.
Lecter for the first time she feels "drained, as though she'd given
blood." When Dr. Lecter taunts Senator Martin in Memphis, he
"took a sip of her pain and found it exquisite." Years
later in Hannibal, Martin uses very similar language herself:
"He just sucked down my pain." As a matter of necessity
(but also, possibly, as another element of this imagery), Dr. Lecter sucks
Starling's wounds clean in Hannibal as they escape from Mason's
barn: from her shin and also from her neck. "Vampires are
territorial," Harris writes in Hannibal, adding that the
nomadic life held little appeal for the doctor.
During his escape from Memphis, is there
any significance in the fact that Dr. Lecter bites Pembry's face, but not
Boyle's--and that it is Pembry whose identity Dr. Lecter assumes?
Dr. Lecter did not avoid indirect comparison to himself and the Devil
during his lecture on the Inferno when he mentioned the subject of
chewing. And just as Satan, in the depths of hell, is described as
having three chewing heads, so does Dr. Lecter bite three victims in the
course of the novels he appears in: the nurse mentioned by Dr. Frederick
Chilton; Pembry; and Cordell, Mason's nurse.
While there is more to glean from Harris'
work, I believe the two central themes of this essay are readily apparent.
Dr. Lecter's rejection of morality and his use of God's apparent wanton
cruelty to justify his own brutality were and are cornerstones used by
Renaissance men to throw out their creator and live and rule by reason.
Even Dr. Lecter's comparison to his own set of values to God's decrees
show the astonishing arrogance typified in Dr. Lecter and those who follow
in his footsteps, creating for themselves a memory palace of horrors.
Even in Dr. Lecter's vampirism we see only a natural extension of his
self-indulgence and hatred of God.
It is a curiosity that in the film The
Silence of the Lambs, as Starling stands in the elevator before seeing
Dr. Lecter in Memphis, the guard accompanying her asks a very pertinent
question: "Is it true what they say? He's some kind of
vampire?" Starling's downfall in Hannibal is
foreshadowed by her answer. "I don't have a word for what he
is," Starling replies. This moral shuffling, this reluctance to
confront wickedness in the face, is the death knell of any culture.
This weakness crippled Europe and paved the way for the Machiavellian
tyranny of the Renaissance. In our own era the cowardice of
magistrates emboldens the wicked. Hannibal Lecter will indeed
triumph if there is never a simple and direct answer to his question:
"Am I evil, Office Starling?"