Originally published on Medium, Nov 2017.
Doctor Hannibal Lecter is a cultured man, of world travel and fine taste. He has lived in Paris, in Florence, and in Buenos Aires. He quotes Marcus Aurelius, and uses Cicero’s memory techniques to draw classical architecture in immaculate detail. He is a talented and published medical doctor.
He also happens to have an earned reputation for brutality, one which makes him a villain… yet a curiously noble one. One of the orderlies tasked with caring for Lecter, Barney Matthews, observed that Hannibal never lied — would never deign to lie. Barney’s account of the Doctor’s nobility portrays an oddly likable cannibal:
Dr. Lecter had perfect manners, not stiff, but easy and elegant[…] He told me once that, whenever it was ‘feasible,’ he preferred to eat the rude. ‘Free-range rude,’ he called them.
Hannibal Lecter is an aristocrat. His appearance to the world is laden with the negative, vampiric qualities that the proletariat has associated with the aristocracy for centuries, yet beneath the qualities that make us shudder lies a nobility which seems to justify his aristocratic status. The progression of the series transforms Lecter from an essentially evil character in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs to a genuine noble savage by Hannibal Rising.
The second primary character of the Thomas Harris’ novels, Clarice Starling, is a bright, attractive, and hard-working FBI agent. Contrasted with the corrupt and sexist bureaucrats (embodied by Paul Krendler), Starling is a warrior: a role and aspiration she inherited from her father who died as a night-watch in Starling’s home country, Appalachia.
As a direct and honest if somewhat naive officer, she doesn’t fit in well with the political office-culture of the Bureau, and is repeatedly taken advantage of and left out to dry. The culture of the FBI is portrayed as being cold and impersonal, one which favors climbers and punishes hard-working idealists like Starling and her boss, Jack Crawford. Her failures as an agent don’t reflect her failures as a warrior, but the failures of a society which no longer cares for the virtues of the warrior.
If we focus our literary lens on the characters, and blur out the distracting excitement of the action and the exotic, morbid fascination with murder and cannibalism, an ulterior motive emerges. Lecter and Starling are revealed as representative archetypes of the last, unacknowledged demographic in America: the Southerner.
There are two southern archetypes that are most prevalently and readily mocked: the plantation aristocrat, and the redneck. Lecter is the brutal but sophisticated plantation aristocrat; Starling, the white-trash redneck of rural Appalachia.
Other geographic demographics get criticized and mocked as well, of course. New Englanders and Northeasterners get attacked as privileged WASPS. Texans carry a stereotype of being loud-mouthed, dangerous, and possibly obese cowboys. Californians are cast as surfer dudes and narcissistic celebrities. And everyone knows that the Northwest is just a commune of vegan hippies. Yet these attacks have an almost good-natured quality. They are even endearing in their best forms, and at their worst, irritating. Only the southern caricatures carry the edge of contempt.
No one defends the Southerner. It is held up as an example of backwardness and regression, an eddy in the current of progress. Even the southern lifestyle pictured in its most idyllic state — cat-fishing on the Mississippi, barbecues, riverboats and church on Sunday — is anachronistic and uncivilized, in the eyes of the modern American. It is nostalgic for a way of life that probably never existed, and certainly won’t be around for much longer.
In this case, where a defense is made, it must be very subtly hidden in stories, like the Russian criticisms of communism in the mid-20th century.
Thomas Harris is a southerner himself, and while he has kept well out of the limelight for the past 30 years, he occasionally breaks through his narrative prose with direct social commentary. In Hannibal, for instance:
What do you look at while you’re making up your mind? Ours is not a reflective culture, we do not raise our eyes up to the hills. Most of the time we decide the critical things while looking at the linoleum floor of an institutional corridor, or whispering hurriedly in a waiting room with a television blatting nonsense.
There is a touch of judgment in this observation, perhaps coming from a place of nostalgic reminiscence. Here, it is worth pointing out that Harris’ relationship with his pair of protagonists extends beyond geographic representation. Morton Janklow, his literary agent, described Harris in the following terms: “ He loves cooking — he’s done the Le Cordon Bleu exams — and it’s great fun to sit with him in the kitchen while he prepares a meal and see that he’s as happy as a clam. He has these old-fashioned manners, a courtliness you associate with the South.” Harris’ own quietness in public mirrors his titular character’s own distaste for rudeness.
A few pages later, Harris gives another short line of direct commentary:
There is much tradition and mystique in the bequest of personal weapons to a surviving comrade in arms. It has to do with a continuation of values past individual mortality.
People living in a time made safe for them by others may find this difficult to understand.
This particular segment precedes a scene in which Starling takes up the service weapon of a former friend and fallen agent, John Brigham, and it mirrors in spirit the attitude of young Hannibal in Harris’ prequel Hannibal Rising. Lecter’s adopted Japanese mother, Lady Murasaki owned a full set of Samurai armor. When his mother’s honor was insulted by an insolent French butcher, Hannibal’s chosen weapon for dispatching the “beast” was the wakizashi (short-sword) from the ancestral armor set.
“I would have used the butcher’s knife,” Hannibal said. “I used Masamune-dono’s sword because it seemed so appropriate. I hope you don’t mind. Not a nick in the blade, I promise you.”
As far as aristocratic honor-cultures go, Japan is nearly unparalleled. The Antebellum South comes close.
Even Red Dragon, the first book in the Hannibal series which precedes Starling entirely, and in which Hannibal is only a minor character, conveys criticisms of modern culture and its penchant for rudeness and noise. The ill-fated news reporter Freddy Lounds is depicted as a sleazy and dishonest schemer, at one point taking up valuable FBI time by calling in and pretending to be the serial killer known as “the toothfairy,” hoping, in doing so, to extract some details for his story. The tabloid (always referred to as such) he writes for is aptly named The Tattler. The author’s contempt for the gossiping media could hardly be more obvious.
Nor could it be more justified, especially in an age where tweets make news headlines, the personal lives of musicians, actors, and politicians dominate public consciousness, and the barriers to expression, which once guarded the public sound-space from poorly articulated noise have been all but completely removed, drowning our attention in listicles, opinion pieces, and stories about everything and nothing in particular. Quantity, not quality, reigns supreme in our information age.
There is also something true in Harris’ observed decline in the aristocratic virtues which both Hannibal and Clarice embody: courage, strength, competence, and intolerance for injustice that is within their power to change — an idea which once could have been described as “honor,” but the word “honor” has lost any coherent and mutually understood meaning among modern Americans, except when used ironically.
All of this indicates an intent — conscious or unconscious — behind the creation of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Special Agent Clarice Starling. They are certainly characters in a story meant to entertain, but they are not merely entertainment. In combination, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising constitute a work of narrative commentary that defends the character of the South, while criticizing some of the more narcissistic and thoughtless aspects of modernity. It offers a classical worldview, which looks you in the face and speaks the truth, but does so in a careful voice, hidden by layers of narrative and metaphor, as though spoken from behind the bars of a prison cell.