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God and morality in Thomas Harris' Lecter novels

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I'm re-reading through Harris' HANNIBAL at the moment and I'm paying particular attention to his mention of God here. The other Lecter novels, RED DRAGON, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and HANNIBAL RISING also have their own similar mentions, if I recall correctly.

HANNIBAL actually opens with a reference to Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and in the last paragraph of the first chapter, as Starling washes HIV-infected blood off of Evelda Drumgo's child: "Water flying, a mocking rainbow of God's Promise in the spray, sparkling banner over the work of His blind hammer." That kind of reference sets the course for the rest. We get plenty of references to God's wanton malice, an ironic reference to the Madonna and child, Mason Verger's pedophilic history occurred at a Christian camp and he hides behind a "born again" testimony, Sammie the lunatic is waiting for a Christ who never comes, the narration ties Lecter's intended consumption by pigs with the Eucharist, so forth and so on.

Considering the direction of the novel, as well as its other observations--the "Elemental Ugliness" of humankind, which it notes at least once, and its references to entropy, this strikes me as being a much darker statement than any of the films have been so far. Harris' novels strike me as concerning the existence of evil as a force in the world, but without being able to find a sincere hope for good. HANNIBAL, at least, takes note of judgment, but Lecter himself is the tool by which wicked men are punished. Evil tackling evil, it seems to suggest. Even the pure idealism of Clarice Starling lies extinguished at the end, since she has become a mirror for Lecter himself.

It's interesting that this subtext never made its way into the films. We have slight bits of it here and there, but it's largely stripped away. David Lynch was reportedly offered RED DRAGON back before Michael Mann made it into MANHUNTER. The films might have registered it then. Few directors are as gifted as Lynch in creating an atmosphere of pervasive, inescapable evil.

Edited by Ryan H.
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What a great sentence you quoted. Thanks for giving me a reason to re-read this one. Harris is a fantastic author, and I as well have been gripped by his keen sense of the nuances of evil. There is some discussion of this here and here. But this theological angle is extremely interesting.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Links to our threads on the book version of Hannibal Rising (2006) and the film versions of Manhunter (1986), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal Rising (2007).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Another moment from HANNIBAL: Lecter reluctantly takes communion in the church with the Devil's Armor. Oh, and I forgot to mention Verger's note that Clarice shies away when he mentions the name of God.

What a great sentence you quoted. Thanks for giving me a reason to re-read this one. Harris is a fantastic author, and I as well have been gripped by his keen sense of the nuances of evil. There is some discussion of this here and here. But this theological angle is extremely interesting.

I'm glad to find that you too have respect for Harris. I've always found his prose exceedingly enviable. His writing is clean, readable, but elegant, and occasionally quite insightful. Even the much-maligned HANNIBAL RISING has its moments, such as its final paragraph:

Darkness fell and the waiter in the dining car brought a candle to his table, the blood-red claret shivering slightly in his glass with the movement of the train. Once in the night he woke at a station to hear the railroad workers blasting ice off the undercarriage with a steam hose, great clouds of steam sweeping past his window on the wind. The train started again with a tiny jerk and then a liquid glide away from the station lights and into the night, stroking southward toward America. His window cleared and he could see the stars.

Very fine indeed. Which reminds me, in HANNIBAL RISING (my least favorite of the Lecter novels by a significant margin, and extraneous though it is, it isn't the "explaining the monster" story most complain that it is), there are more than a few key moments with religious imagery and/or theological implications. We have Lecter's memories of his infancy:

Clouds painted on the ceiling. As a baby nursing he used to open his eyes and see his mother's bosom blended with the clouds. The feel of the edges against his face. The wet nurse too--her gold cross gleamed like sunlight between prodigious clouds and pressed against his cheek when she held him, she rubbing the mark of the cross on his skin to make it go away before Madame might see it.

Later, Lecter says this over the grave of his sister, Mischa:

"Mischa, we take comfort in knowing there is no God. That you are not enslaved in a Heaven, made to kiss God's ass forever. What you have is better than Paradise. You have blessed oblivion."

If I'm rusty on any of the novels, it's RED DRAGON. I have a stronger sense of SILENCE (isn't it noted in SILENCE that Lecter collects pictures of collapsed churches? Or is that RED DRAGON?), and a much stronger sense of HANNIBAL, which contrary to most tastes, is actually my favorite of the Lecter novels.

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  • 8 years later...

I'll bump this thread instead of starting a new one (for now). It seems to have flown under my radar, but back in October it was apparently announced that Thomas Harris had a new novel coming out. Now it has a title: Cari Mora. It's out in May.

Twenty-five million dollars in cartel gold lies hidden beneath a mansion on the Miami Beach waterfront. Ruthless men have tracked it for years. Leading the pack is Hans-Peter Schneider. Driven by unspeakable appetites, he makes a living fleshing out the violent fantasies of other, richer men. 

Cari Mora, caretaker of the house, has escaped from the violence in her native country. She stays in Miami on a wobbly Temporary Protected Status, subject to the iron whim of ICE. She works at many jobs to survive. Beautiful, marked by war, Cari catches the eye of Hans-Peter as he closes in on the treasure. But Cari Mora has surprising skills, and her will to survive has been tested before.

Monsters lurk in the crevices between male desire and female survival. No other writer in the last century has conjured those monsters with more terrifying brilliance than Thomas Harris. Cari Mora, his sixth novel, is the long-awaited return of an American master.

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