Man is the world’s most dangerous animal. Though we do not possess sharp teeth, claws, poisonous stingers, or the ability to perceive heat radiated by other creatures, we do possess an unsurpassed ability to reason and think. Man has intelligence, the deadliest natural weapon of all. In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, readers are introduced to Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychiatrist, who fuses a razor-honed intellect with the savage qualities of a beast. He is both man and monster, but it is the balance of these two aspects that gives him the depth that still fascinates and horrifies to this day.
Even before the readers see Lecter, other characters make references to his monstrousness, giving him the presence of a Bogeyman. In the first chapter, Jack Crawford warns Clarice Starling to not let Lecter into her head and tells her to remember “what he did to Will Graham.” Without even seeing Lecter, the readers know he is dangerous in more ways than one. He not only has a penchant for consuming human flesh, but also for feeding on the emotions of his victims.
Frederick Chilton fans the flames of fear when Starling goes to the asylum to visit Lecter. He shows her the photo evidence of what Lecter did to a nurse when he was freed from his restraints. Like a wild animal, Lecter had broken her jaw, eaten her tongue, and ravaged the rest of her face. The image is enough to make Starling cry, which is significant because she only cries a few times throughout the novel. This scene adds to Lecter’s dark shadow, but it is an addendum by Chilton that makes it even more horrific. “His pulse never got over eighty-five, even when he swallowed it,” Chilton says, referring to the nurse’s tongue. Lecter ate the nurse’s tongue, an action one would attribute to a wild animal, but did so with the calm, coolness of a rational human being. This suggests that Lecter’s powers of self-control -- a human trait -- are astounding.
If intelligence is the deadliest natural weapon of all, then Lecter is like a lion, the apex predator of the savannah. Yet, for all his bestial qualities, Lecter also possesses characteristics that are undeniably human.
For one, rudeness is abhorrent to Lecter. He may be a cannibalistic serial killer, but he is nothing if not polite. When Miggs surprises Starling with his come, Lecter summons her back to his cell. He is agitated by what has happened to her and tells her, “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” Then he helps Starling out by cluing her in to look in Benjamin Raspail’s car and thus setting her along the path of hunting Buffalo Bill.
Lecter is also proud, though it seems that he has every right to be. Surrounded by madmen like Miggs and Sammie and pestered by who he considers a quack, Chilton, Lecter holds himself above those around him. When Chilton tried to use Lecter for psychiatric tests, Lecter turned the tables on him and instead published his own findings on Chilton and made a fool out of him. In fact, Lecter refuses to talk to Chilton, deeming the man unworthy even of his attention. This pride is another human trait that separates him from a mere animal.
To pass his time, Lecter amuses himself by playing with people’s emotions, getting into their heads, and tormenting them. It is in this mental and emotional torture that he derives his pleasure. When Starling goes to him for information on Buffalo Bill, it is readily apparent that he knows more than he lets on. He teases the FBI with information, dangling it in front of them, but never telling them outright. He takes great personal enjoyment in denying them their prey. It takes Starling several visits and the “trading” of personal information to convince Lecter to finally give her the details on Jame Gumb, though this is thrown astray by Chilton’s meddling. When Chilton interferes, Lecter returns to his nefarious ways and gives the hospital director false information, and when he is brought before Senator Martin, he first takes “a single sip of her pain” by probing for personal details about Catherine Martin before giving her the made-up information about William Rubin.
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Additionally, Lecter is well-versed in matters of fashion and culture. In his first appearance in the novel, he is seen reading an Italian edition Vogue. He also knows enough about perfume and skin cream to recognize what Starling was and wasn’t wearing. On the walls of his cell, he has put up a sketch of Florence, drawn from memory with felt-tipped markers, and of the crucifixion, referencing the Italian artist, Duccio. Lecter also derides Starling when she tries to “dissect” him with the FBI’s questionnaire and calls her a “well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste.” He mocks her origins, her accent, and her fashion, implying that he considers himself culturally superior.
However, Lecter warms up to Starling and assumes a role that is almost mentor-like towards her. He guides her throughout her investigation, prodding her along to dig deeper into what she finds. But just when Starling and the reader have become less apprehensive towards Lecter, and when he seems less a monster and more human, is when the beast within him is unleashed. After their last meeting in the Tennessee courthouse, Lecter makes his vicious and bloody escape.
When his jailors, Pembry and Boyle, underestimate him, Lecter outwits them, freeing himself and then overpowering both officers, armed with nothing but his own teeth and the strength of his own arms. He sinks his teeth into Pembry’s face, like a wild animal uncaged, and savages it “like a rat-killing dog.” This animal simile reflects the bestial nature that lurks within Lecter.
But this isn’t the crowning gem of Lecter’s escape. Once again demonstrating his all-too-human intellect, Lecter tricks the veritable army of police officers by cutting Pembry’s face off and using it to disguise himself as a wounded officer, thereby fooling the police into carrying him right out from under their noses. Like Houdini, Lecter disappears and quickly goes to ground.
It would be easy to throw one’s hands up in the air and simply list the cause of all of Lecter’s behavior as the actions of a mentally disturbed madman. But that would rip away the layers of complexity that surround Lecter and make him such a memorable character.
The almost affectionate relationship that he develops with Starling – It is both disquieting and captivating. It leads one to wonder: Is a person like Lecter capable of developing real relationships with other people? Or is he a true sociopath, who sees other human beings as toys at best?
Lecter has what could be described as a professional respect for Crawford, enough that he would send him a note of condolence for Crawford’s dying wife. Some could argue that Lecter does this only to increase the pain that Crawford is going through, but despite Lecter’s verbal derision, there is a sense that there is a mutual respect between them. It is the respect a lion would pay a crocodile. Crawford knows what Lecter is capable of and Lecter knows that it was Crawford who was responsible for putting him away.
In his correspondence at the end of the novel, Lecter sends Barney “a generous tip and a thank-you note for his many courtesies at the asylum.” Like Crawford, Barney knows what Lecter is and does not underestimate him The orderly is one of the few people that have Lecter’s esteem and, polite as ever, Lecter wishes to pay him a favor.
The juxtaposition of wild animal and civil, rational human being gives Lecter the depth and complexity that is matched by few other characters in literature. He is indefinable, transcending simplification and summation. The bestial monster and the highly intelligent, cultured human have found symbiosis in Lecter’s form, like a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde.
Lecter defies the quantification and reduction to simplistic definitions such as a psychopath or sociopath. When he discards Starling’s questionnaire, he tells her, “You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” And when Lecter asks her if she thinks he is evil and she tells him she thinks he is destructive, Lecter connects the dots by stating, “Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.’”
Lecter is not a man or a monster; he is both these things, and more. His supremely gifted intellect sets him above his fellow man. He is a force of nature, like a hurricane or a fire, and he puts to the question whether such a force is subject to man’s law. It is almost poetic that Lecter, who perceives himself above man, Earth’s apex predator, hunts and eats man. To this day, he remains one of literature’s most haunting figures, earning him a well-deserved place in the hall of villains with the greats, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Milton’s Satan.