A Clue to the Meaning of The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

In 1964 the film director Alfred Hitchcock and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, both born in 1899, had an initial telephone conversation and an exchange of letters in which they discussed the possibility of collaborating on a film to be made in Hollywood. With some discussion of incompatible genres this collaboration never happened. [1] It is with regret that I first learned of this exchange, since the two artists did have many genres in common, murder, mystery and mayhem being most salient.

In 1991 when the film The Silence of the Lambs appeared, directed by Jonathan Demme and based on Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name from 1988, I thought that at last the two great masters Hitchcock and Nabokov had collaborated posthumously through Harris and Demme, an idea not so unusual in the work of either the earlier filmmaker or writer: communication from beyond the dead; the past weighing heavily on the present; strong personalities surviving death. I am thinking of anagrams and butterflies, prisons and the preservation of corpses, the breadth of America and blondes in trouble. By the 1960s these concerns were very much evident in the work of Hitchcock and Nabokov. Even when the film swept the Academy Awards in 1992, there was a clear 1960s retro feel to the proceedings: Jodi Foster, the film’s heroine, wearing white gloves to the Oscars, etc.

There are endless explanations for this film, but there is one key to its meaning and ultimately to that of the book that I do not think has been explored sufficiently, if at all: Hannibal Lecter is God.

In promoting this thesis and for the purposes of this essay I am going to assume the reader has already seen the film or at least read the book or at least encountered the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in some of the other books or films in which he has appeared.

I enumerate my findings:

ONE: When FBI Agent in training Clarice Starling first approaches Hannibal Lecter in his prison cell in Baltimore, Maryland, she does not know entirely the real reason for her mission: the attempt to gather information from Dr. Lecter about a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill targeting large women across a number of Midwestern states. Instead she thinks she is collecting data on Lecter for routine criminal profiling.

Clarice sees during her first conversation with Lecter that his cell walls have mounted on them drawings of some European city and asks Lecter if he made the drawings. She is surprised to learn that these drawings of scenes of Florence, Italy are from memory. He says, “Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view” (Cf. Humbert Humbert, writing in prison, in Nabokov’s Lolita: “I have only words to play with”). Lecter says of one of the drawings, “It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo seen from the Belvedere,” giving his knowledge of the topography of the city. Even before Clarice Starling realizes that she is working on the case of Buffalo Bill and even before she is sent to see Lecter, he has already presented the key to knowing exactly who Buffalo Bill is. In the course of the story one learns through Lecter’s spoon-feeding clues to Starling that Buffalo Bill is Jame Gumb, known through a former patient of Lecter’s, and he lives in his own house in Belvedere, Ohio, where he knew, killed, and skinned his first victim. By drawing the picture and saying “the Duomo seen from the Belvedere” he is essentially saying “the house [you are looking for] can be viewed from Belvedere [Ohio]”. The word duomo, meaning large building or cathedral in Italian, derives from the Latin domus, meaning “house” or “home”. The word belvedere means literally in Italian “beautiful to see” or “good to view” and is used to mean a “panoramic view”. By the end of the story one even wonders if Starling or her superiors at the FBI even catch this sly reference made by a seemingly omniscient, godlike creature in outlining the solution to the question of who Buffalo Bill is even before the question is asked. At one point all Lecter’s drawings and materials are removed from his cell as punishment as if the omniscient narrator (Thomas Harris? Jonathan Demme?) knows something is up, but says nothing about it.

TWO: It is odd that in such a blockbuster Hollywood film there is no love story. It might be said that the only love story is that between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and yet the only time they make physical contact is when in captivity in Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter slips the Buffalo Bill case file back to Clarice through the prison bars as she is removed from the room in which he is being held. In a close-up shot his index finger barely touches her finger in a composition that suggests Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Once again Lecter uses the Italian Renaissance to make a point about his divinity. Is Clarice the stand-in for mankind? For Jesus, the New Adam? By this point in the story she has become somewhat of a protégé of Dr. Lecter. The love seems to be a perverted mélange of agape, philia, and eros.

THREE: When his art supplies are returned to him in his Memphis cell Lecter draws a picture of Clarice Starling rescuing a lamb draped over her shoulders, a theme taken from a childhood recollection that Starling shares with him. The composition is clearly typical iconography for the Good Shepherd, one of the earliest images of Jesus in the history of Christian art.

FOUR: In escaping from the prison cell in Memphis, Lecter kills and strings up one of his police guards on duty on the outside of the prison cell in a way suggesting a mounted butterfly or a Crucifixion scene. Jame Gumb raises and uses moths as his symbol of the metamorphosis that he himself is attempting in becoming a woman – in his own grotesque and homespun way. Lecter omnisciently knows this from clues provided even before he gets to see the Buffalo Bill case file, and he perverts another Christian theme.

FIVE: Even Lecter’s identity as a cannibal suggests his connection to God. Before his capture Lecter made a name for himself for his gourmet dinners given for friends and acquaintances. Although he held back from them his anthropophagic tendencies, these feasts became part of the legend of Hannibal Lecter. The fact that Lecter serves up human flesh for himself and others suggests a grotesque parody of the Eucharist, creating another way that Lecter plays God.

There are many more paths to follow, but I point out a few directions that could be explored more fully in supporting this key to understanding a film that is still arresting and rich in intrigue twenty years later.

by John J. Trause


[1] Nabokov, Vladimir. Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters, 1940-1977. San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1989. Edited by Dmitri Nabokov and Matthew J. Bruccoli.

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