The Silence of the Lambs 1

We’ll talk, of course, about Hannibal Lecter and the asylum he inhabits, but how would you characterize the world outside of the asylum in 1986 as Harris portrays it?  Name and describe one or two of the most salient features (emotional, physical, or cultural) that seem to define life in this fictional world.  Where’s the passage where this feature came into view?

7 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs 1

  1. Jessie Kuzmicki

    I’d like to expand on Angie’s point about the animalistic world and focus even more on the gender dynamics at play, as they seem to be a major feature of the book. The environments within Silence of the Lambs are intensely gendered, both in and outside the Baltimore State Hospital. (For this post, I’ll just be focusing on the “outside” world.) Within the first few chapters, we meet Clarice Starling who immediately notices, makes comments about, and responds skillfully to the “man’s world” around her. For instance, when Crawford first approaches her with the Hannibal Lecter consultation, she “smelled a job offer [in Behavioral Science] coming…but she knew what happens to a woman if she’s ever pegged as a secretary—it sticks until the end of time. A choice was coming, and she wanted to choose well” (4).

    Another clear scene in the work environment where Starling is explicitly seen in gendered terms is during the forensic medical examination of the woman from West Virginia, when Starling is described as “a mountain midwife.” She addresses the room of men (“Gentlemen! You officers and gentlemen! Listen here a minute…let me take care of her”), who, like Crawford, soon recognize Starling as “heir to the granny women, to the wise women, the herb healers, the stalwart country women who have always done the needful” (82). As Starling asserts her abilities and authority in the male-dominated room—and by extension, the FBI—she is still forced into these traditionally female descriptions and has to work intensely hard at overcoming these barriers. Again, this can be seen in the sexist attitude of Dr. Chilton in the second chapter towards Starling, when he jokes, “So the FBI is going to the girls like everything else,” as if equating the admission of women to the FBI academy as a sign of the Bureau’s decline (8). Chilton immediately recognizes Starling not for her credentials or qualifications, but for her gender, and because of this, “flirts” with her rather inappropriately, saying “We’ve had a lot of detectives here, but I can’t remember one so attractive.” (8) Starling even recognizes that perhaps she should have allowed his flirtations to navigate the ‘man’s world’ because “he might know something useful. It wouldn’t have hurt her to simper once, even if she wasn’t good at it” (9)

    I’m interested to hear what others think about the gender dynamics within the book, perhaps considering the fact that the victims of Buffalo Bill are all women, as well as considering the more complicated dynamic that Jame Gumb and the discussion of transsexuality brings.

  2. Angela McCarthy

    The outside world seems animal-like in two scenes: when the news crew is trying to descend on the storage unit like a pack of hyenas and the sexually crass nature of the deputies towards Starling. I mean sexually crass in that, no one seems to have a filter nor is there any notion of respect towards women throughout the novel by both “good” and “bad” men.
    The news crew people do not seem to be in control of their actions: “Jonetta Johnson glanced over Starling’s shoulder once too often,” and seem prone to violence “He put his hand on her,” (113). When they are not trying to bait and switch Starling, they are trying to be conniving and it is “Their cozening backseat manner {that} put her over,” (113). These people are motivated by their need to find a good story, and they will not stop in the face of even the law to get it.
    In terms of the coarseness of the men in the novel, the scene where Starling meets the deputies is just one example of men talking about her like she cannot hear nor does she have emotions: “When she was far enough away, one of the younger deputies, a newlywed, scratched beneath his jaw and said, “She don’t look half as good as she thinks she does.”
    “Well, if she just thinks she looks pretty got-damned good, I’d have to agree with her, myself,” the other young deputy said. “I’d put her on like a Mark Five gas mask,” (160). In typical low-self-esteemed fashion, they are insulting her looks while also sexually objectifying her. This language may be because this novel was written for a world in 1968, but how Starling is treated by the outside men juxtaposes with the civility and respect that Lecter treats her with. While the animals are on the outside of the asylum, Dr. Lecter seems like a breath of fresh air.

    1. Casey O'Neill

      I was also thinking of when Starling goes to fingerprint the body with Crawford in Potter West Virginia. The gendered dimensions of this scene are glaringly obvious as you mention, with Crawford asking to speak with the chief deputy alone, along with the sly commentary given by the other men about Starling. These aspects of the world outside of the asylum also I believe promote a ‘wild west’ aspect of the novel. Clarice faces blatant sexism and objectification, and it is in spite these digs at her that she bends and breaks the rules to seek her own justice. I see the outside world as a space that is constantly being used as foes chase each other and duel. This western energy was simply heightened by the awkward nods and greetings given to Starling as she approached the funeral home, as the deputies sized up the outsider.

  3. Dylan Salzman

    One of the most interesting factors in Harris’ construction of the world outside of the asylum is his portrayal of the media and, in turn, the media’s portrayal of the serial killers. This is first noticeable in the media’s treatment of Starling’s discovery of Klaus’ head in the car inside the old warehouse. As one man tries to sneak into the building, the news anchor talks to Starling, trying to capture her attention—“and all the time the men were talking to her, constantly, gently. “We won’t touch anything. We’re pros, you don’t have to worry. The cops will let us in anyway. It’s all right, honey’” (Pg. 29 my version). The media’s fascination with blood, gore, and serial killers shows up again at the end of the novel, when Harris describes the media’s portrayal of Gumb’s house, and the media’s attempt to show everything in the house, albeit somewhat censored. This seems like a comment on the way in which society seeks to consume narratives of mental illness and serial killers; their obsession with abnormality and the role that the media plays in representing that.

    Obviously, Hannibal Lector is a character that demands incessant analysis. But one aspect of his character that I found interesting was his sheer intellect, obsession with manners, and unwillingness to psychoanalyze himself. Lector becomes a critique of medicine, doctors, and “wellbeing”—we take doctors and psychiatrists to be the image of health, tasked with healing others that are unhealthy. But in Silence of the Lambs Lector shows that those who seem qualified—medical certifications, impeccable manners—can be just as psychotic or abnormal as their patients. Chilton is another example of this idea. He positions himself as a medical authority before eventually being debunked by Lector (and others) as a fraud, showing how designations of medical aptitude are arbitrary and necessarily subjective.

  4. Isaac Feldman

    Life for the “sane” in The Silence of the Lambs is characterized by culturally repressed emotion. Each of the characters in the novel feels intensely, but rejects or is encouraged to reject those feelings for either personal ambition or social professionalism. Starling feels rage against injustice and compassion for its victims, as well a fear of her origins and her own limitations. Crawford feels sadness and despondency from the sickness and subsequent death of his wife. Chilton loathing for those more intelligent than him — in particular Lecter, who despite his incarceration remains a more respected figure.

    In one of his talks with her, Lecter asks Starling, “The other thing I wonder is…how do you manage your rage?” (169). From early in the novel, Starling is angry with the world around her. She is angry over the objectifying gaze of many of her male peers and superiors, she is angry at the bureaucracy of the system she must operate in to exact justice for other women — whom she so readily identifies with, but above all, she is angry with herself. She is angry with her own incapacities — her fears, the natural limitation of her intelligence — which prevents her from achieving her goals cleanly. Crawford advises her: “Waste and stupidity get you the worst…Use this time and it’ll temper you. Now’s the hardest test–not letting rage and frustration keep you from thinking. It’s the core of whether you can command or not” (219). Crawford recommends repression, a strategy he himself has employs. When his wife Bella dies after Lecter escapes, Crawford “…did not cry. He had done all that…He was waiting for her body to become a ceremonial object apart from him, separate from the person he had held upon the bed and separate from the life’s companion he held now in his mind. So he could call them to come for her” (280). Despite his intense attachment to his wife, Crawford has work to do, just as Starling has a ladder to climb.

  5. Grant Friedman

    One of the most salient features in the world outside the asylum in Silence of the Lambs was, for me, an obsession with violence and criminality. Even as the criminals in this book such as Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill perform horrible acts, they are viewed by the outside world as legendary, almost mythical creatures. Everyone wants to understand these men, surely, but there is a more perverse desire merely to see or be associated with these men and their actions.

    The first time in which this is made clear is when Crawford is first describing Lecter to Starling. He says at one point, “It’s ridiculous, you know; Lecter’s a psychiatrist and he writes for the psychiatric journals himself—extraordinary stuff—but it’s never about his own little anomalies” (5). These journals, then, seem to be letting Lecter continue to write for them merely for the shock factor that they know the name “Hannibal Lecter” in the by-line will create. By saying that he does not write about himself, even as he is a psychiatrist who analyzes other situations, this is what Crawford seems to be insinuating.

    In another instance, after Starling discovers the severed head in Raspail’s old limousine, reporters arrive before the cops. It is said of the lead reporter of the WPIK-TV news station, “She and her news crew, monitoring the Baltimore County police radio, had arrived…ahead of the patrol cars” (54). The fact that they were both monitoring police radio and able to arrive before the police demonstrates the important role that these news stations play in the society relaying the events to the public, which precedes even official police investigation. In addition, one of the cameramen attempts to crawl into the storage unit to get footage of the limousine, clearly knowing that such footage would captivate viewers. In this way, the popularization of such events occurs simultaneously with their official investigation.

    The media, then, in this fictional society, not only feeds the public’s desire to, but also enables them to watch criminality, bringing people face to face with these men and the actions they commit.

    1. Henry Cutting

      Grant, I think you make a great point here about the public’s obsession with the criminally insane. I would like to piggy back off of this with a scene in which I found this particularly pronounced. When Starling goes to visit the entomologists it is noted that “if they noticed Starling they gave no sign” (89). When she eventually gets their attention they respond with a lot of sass asking if she killed the insect “with [her] gun” and complaining that they had to stay so late to help her with her inquiry. However, as soon as she reveals that this was about the Buffalo Bill case Roden knows about it from hearing it “on the radio” (91). The fact that he heard this news on the radio ties directly to your scene underlying the obsession that the public has with these cases. Unsurprisingly, Roden and his colleague immediately change their tone after they realize this is about something so interesting. If this was another “Customs [or] Department of Agriculture” inquiry they would have no interest in helping, but since it is about a murder they are very excited. The two, rather than continuing to badger Starling, as if she wants Coffee. When she declines they continue to ask if she wants water, or coke. These men want details. They want Starling to be their friend and to learn much more about this murder. When Starling asks Roden to help identify the bug he responds asking “’Do you think he’s holding another woman right this minute’… his eyes were wide and his mouth open” (92). Roden is so fascinated by this murder that he would rather have the details than help solve the issues. Just as the cameramen are not concerned about ruining the crime scene to learn about what is going on, these entomologists’ curiosity is far too strong to immediately respect Starling’s wishes.
      I think it is no coincidence that this novel was published right around the time of the Ted Bundy case. In the case of Ted Bundy, the public was extremely obsessed with his acts and his outcome and Harris does a fantastic job mirroring that in his novel. I think he has picked up on a very real phenomenon in society.

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