Harris Essay, Research Paper
The innocent title Silence of the Lambs totally belies the content of this novel by American writer Thomas Harris. It is an eerie tale of a young female F.B.I. academy student, Clarice Starling, who with the help of institutionalised psychologist Dr Hannibal The Cannibal Lector strives to ensnare the seemingly insane and bloodthirsty serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill.
To describe the novel as a thriller or crime story would be insulting. Harris has entwined complex undertones with the basic storyline which cause the story to turn positively horrific at times. The most frightening aspect of the book is the constant insights Harris gives into the tangled and twisted mind of the killer. In so many other novels of this genre the detective takes centre stage, leaving the murderer as a background figure who the reader knows little or nothing about. However, in Silence of the Lambs Harris constantly tells us of Buffalo Bill s thoughts, emotions and background, bringing him into the spotlight as a main character and in my opinion effectively making him appear much more sinister and threatening.
Buffalo Bill – conveyed to us by Harris in the form of a white male, brown haired and blue eyed, six feet one, thirty four years of age with no distinguishing marks. A transvestite who in the privacy of his own home dresses up in women s clothing and practices feminine behaviour. Hormones and electrolysis have done a little for his body hair and shape, but he still looks like a man, one who in Harris s words looks inclined to fight with his nails as well as his fists and feet.
Victims of Buffalo Bill are commonly found floating in rivers, with variously shaped patches of their skin flayed. Without fail the killer s talisman is present, a rare Death s Head moth lodged in the rear of the throat. Drowning is never the cause of death, as discovered by the coroner in the post mortem examination. Usually a bullet wound or a raw noose mark appear in the victim. The police are baffled, and create various suggestions to answer the big question – for what purpose does Buffalo Bill slay? Every one of his victims are women, all are on the heavy side. Cannibalism, anger, sexual frustration, social resentment .the list goes on and on, but nothing could be further from the truth.
He Covets. These are Dr Lectors words to Starling when she asks him about Buffalo Bill, Lector having encountered him for therapy before being institutionalised. This is the true reason why the killer does what he does – he wants a women s suit, made out of real women. This is also why all of his victims are large, especially around the hips. The shapes cut out of the bodies are identical to those marked out on a dressmakers dummy. It would be easy to say that the killer is a homosexual turned psychopath, who treasures women s skin and wears it like clothing in some insane transvestite ritual, but the truth goes much deeper than that, his reasons for killing lie not only in his intense desires to become a woman, they are also rooted in his childhood influences and the perfect image he has created of his mother who abandoned him when he was an infant.
Jame Gumb. Born as James Gumb but for the mistake of a young hired help at the hospital who got his name wrong on his birth certificate. Abandoned by his alcoholic mother, a psychotic child who savagely murdered his grandparents at twelve years of age, assumedly for disparaging his mother whom he idolised. Places in a mental institution through his teenage years and early twenties, Gumb developed a huge interest in sewing, landing a job as a seamster. Occasionally he would do odd jobs for an old woman near where he lived, but when she mysteriously died whilst on a trip with Gumb he inherited her wealth and property. The rambling house in a quiet location with its maze like expanse of basement rooms was the perfect playground for Gumb, both to terrorise his victims in and to act as a habitat for his expansive, obsessive collection of live moths and butterflies.
Gumb was not always a transvestite, for years he attracted men as a man. Prior to being fired from a job he spitefully stole a package addressed to his ex-employer. Inside the parcel was a case containing an abundance of rare foreign butterflies, lying dead, presumably sent for display purposes. Gumb delved into the case and rummaged around in the midst of the tiny corpses, lest they be concealing something. He stumbled on a vile looking cocoon, and as he watched a beautiful butterfly emerged and fluttered around the room. Gumb then realised why he was unhappy – he was a woman trapped in a mans body. Turned away from the countless sex change surgery clinics he visited because of his mental instability, Gumb turned to transvestiteism in a vain attempt to become a replica of his idol and only love – his mother.
This is a classic example of Oedipus complex – a sexual attraction of a son for his mother. Gumb s case is slightly different however, he does not want to posses his mother sexually, he wants to be her and have her power over men – that is where the allure lies for Gumb.
Gumbs mother was a hopeful young actress who failed to place in the Miss Sacramento beauty contest in 1948, when she was a month pregnant with Gumb, to an unknown father. When her acting career failed she turned to alcohol, and Gumb was placed in a foster home at two, until eight years later when his grandparents adopted him. Gumb s blurred impressions of his mother plus footage of her in the beauty contest have caused him to invent an image of her as a woman of absolute perfection, thus becoming his role model.
Jealousy and awe of women have combined to make Gumb who he is. His eyes rove over women, yet he is not actually attracted to them, he merely wishes he looked like them. Because of his unstable mental health, he is quiet and strange, seeming to the outsider to be nothing more than an eccentric loner. This social depravation enhances his jealousy, he feels that if he was a beautiful woman he would consequently be admired and make new acquaintances everywhere he went. He admires the power that women have over men, his few relationships with other men have done nothing to please or satisfy him.
But beneath Gumbs strange exterior lies an extremely clever, calculating criminal mind. Not one serial killer is the same, but they generally all have some things in common, and it seems that Gumb fits the description of both the violent crime and serial killer types quite chillingly. Who, typically is a serial killer? The answer is a very generalised one. Usually they are male, white, and between twenty five and thirty five years of age. The majority of the time they will kill white victims, but the age and sex will differ depending on their particular interests. They do not know the victims in most cases, nor do they feel much hatred for them – they are normally strangers to the killer. The killer could come from any social class at all – as could their victims.
There are a number of things which most serial killers have in common. There are multiple victim, generally three or more. The killing will be continuous, although it may be spread out over days, weeks, months ..even years. There will indisputably be another victim however, until the killer is stopped in some way. Except in extremely rare cases the killer will work alone. The most important general fact is that the killer is motivated to kill, they simply need to kill. This need is fuelled by personal fantasies, this will undoubtedly reflect in the serial killers choice of victims.
A I observed during my reading of the novel that a number of these points could be attributed to Gumb. Apart from the physical description, a lot of other factors fit into place. He does not kill purely for thrill, although he does derive some pleasure from imagining his finished suit. His victims come from various social classes, the only thing being that he preys on certain types of women – they must be roomy through the hips and shoulders, although not necessarily large chested. The murders take place over the time period of a few months. Gumb s need to kill is simple, encouraged by his desperate wish for femininity.
This is one of the important factors in the novel – Harris has made a character who has many of the characteristics of a typical criminal, yet Gumb is so terribly twisted that he is shocking. We are told so much about him, his family and his past – yet none is boring or irrelevant, it merely helps us to build up a picture of the killer and understand him, sometimes even feeling empathy for him. Without this clever technique by Harris, Silence of the Lambs would be robbed of all it s brilliance – making it yet another tedious and predictable crime novel.
I found exploring the mind of Gumb to be extremely interesting. The fact that he was based on a real person is very disconcerting, proving what the human mind and body is capable of. Perhaps this is the reason why Silence of the Lambs was so frightening, not only because of the obvious horror content, but because it truly is a tale of reality, the kind of distorted reality which we want to cover up and ignore – like someone shutting the curtains on an axe murderer in their garden, trying to convince themselves that if they cannot see him, they will be safe. I feel that this was Harris s purpose, to show the reader that nothing is impossible, people are capable of anything. Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector may have been intended as the main characters, but in my opinion the true genius and terror of his novel was locked inside the mind of the killer.