Hannibal Lecter, the serial-killer and cannibal psychiatrist who becomes increasingly central in a trilogy of novels by Thomas Harris (and their film adaptations), has been a prominent character in popular culture in the fifteen years since Jonathan Demme’s film version of The Silence of the Lambs, to the extent that ‘fava beans and a nice Chianti’ has become something of a catchphrase. This paper will consider the strange career of this character, who moves from a small role in Harris’s Red Dragon to being the eponymous anti-hero of Hannibal, and whose self-declared ‘evil’ being is increasingly situated not in the position of the monstrous Other, but as the attractive figure of identification for the reader and audience.
In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter asks Clarice Starling whether she considers his actions ‘evil’. She avoids moral or religious judgements, much to Lecter’s own amusement. At once rational and insane, Lecter is used as a resource by the FBI to hunt down other serial killers. He demonstrates advanced medical knowledge (especially in distinction to Dr Chilton, the vain, intellectually limited Director of Lecter’s maximum security hospital), but at the same time exhibits an understanding of the serial killers which exceeds (and is more authentic than) medical discourse through his very own homicidal insanity. Lecter signifies a rupture in the truth-claims of medical science in the face of acts of self-declared ‘evil’, an ‘evil’ which leads to a knowledge of the Other that reason is unable to approach.
In Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, the FBI operatives at the centre of the narratives are in some way identified with him, but by the third novel, Hannibal, Lecter moves to centre stage. Generically, the texts also move, from horror-inflected procedural thriller to perverse Gothic romance and Grand Guignol. In Hannibal, Lecter overcomes those who wish to revenge themselves on him, rescues Clarice Starling, and eventually ‘woos’ her so that they end up as a grotesque couple. From being a Frankenstein-like, diabolic ‘mad scientist’, Lecter becomes a latter-day ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Romantic hero, with demonic significations raised to an intense pitch. This paper will attempt to trace the Romantic and Gothic inheritance of Harris’s texts, from Blake through Shelley to Byron.
The elements of Gothic can be seen in Demme’s mise-en-scène in his film of The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in the institution in which Lecter is incarcerated: his cell is a dungeon. Where, in the first two novels, Lecter figures as an Other who manifests the hidden psychosis of Will Graham or reveals the psychological workings beneath the surface of Clarice Starling’s ambition, this depth-model is abandoned in Hannibal to playfulness, excess and parody. The abandonment of psychological depth-models is mirrored in Lector’s increasingly prominent use of masks and disguises, which not only identify him with the masked serial killers of the ‘slasher’ horror sub-genre, but complements his trajectory from Other to Self, a self which is made up only of surfaces. Where, in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is the external manifestation of the troubling ‘evil’ Otherness within the Self, in Hannibal, this disruption is defused by making him the central character, enabling a less troubling identification of the reader or viewer with the fantastical (and for Harris, I would argue, deliberately frivolous) escapades of a Gothic anti-hero.