Summary and Analysis of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris is a sequel to Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981) and a prequel to Hannibal (1999).

Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs became instantly successful as soon as it hit the stands. It gained respect in the eyes of contemporary writers such as Craig Brown who wrote, “No thriller writer is better attuned than Thomas Harris to the rhythms of suspense. No horror writer is more adept at making the stomach churn”, in The Mail on Sunday. Author David Foster Wallace used this book as a part of the curriculum in Pomona College.

A few years later, it was adapted into a very successful movie that won multiple Academy Awards, viz., Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Picture, and Best Screenplay (Ted Tally). It also became the 3rd movie to have won 5 of these prestigious awards.

Let’s see what made this book and movie so epic in the following summary and analysis of The Silence of the Lambs.

Summary of The Silence of the Lambs

Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI, assigns a shrewd FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, to draw a psychological profile of a serial killer called Buffalo Bill, who has already claimed the lives of several women. She is assigned to ask a series of questions to Dr. Hannibal Lecter for help who is a brilliant forensic psychiatrist. However, he is also a cannibalistic and a serial killer, serving 9 consecutive life sentences in Maryland mental institution.

Lecter is fascinated with Clarice and strikes a deal with her―in exchange for his help, he is to be transferred out of the asylum and share a piece of her personal life. He builds a connection with Clarice and nudges her into reminiscing her troubled childhood in exchange for encrypted information.

Lecter’s predictions come true when they find Bill’s 6th victim is found. She is scalped and triangular patches of her shoulder were taken out. Autopsy also reveals that a moth pupa was lodged in her throat and that the victim was killed within four days of her kidnapping. Clarice takes the pupa to the Smithsonian, where it is revealed that it belongs to the Black Witch moth (it is considered to be a harbinger of death in certain folklore).

The investigators come to know that another victim was taken, and this time it is the U.S. Senator’s daughter, Catherine Martin. Crawford estimates that they have only three days to save her. This drives the authority into an overdrive, and Clarice is sent once again to Lecter with a counter deal; that is, if he assists in locating Catherine and capturing Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill), he would be transferred out of the asylum.

Though skeptical, Lecter provides them with adequate information to help in capturing Buffalo Bill, whose birth name happens to be Jame Gumb. Lecter informs Clarice that he had met Gumb while he was treating Raspail (a former patient whom he treated and killed later). At the time, Raspail and Gumb were in a relationship. During one of his sessions, Raspail had informed Lecter that after their breakup, Gumb killed Raspail’s new lover Klaus in a jealous rage and used his skin to make an apron. He also revealed that Gumb was fascinated by moth hatch.

Dr. Frederick Chilton, an arch nemesis of Lecter, interrupts this conversation and reveals that Crawford’s deal was a sham. He offers Lecter a counter proposal, which is if he renders him his services in capturing Gump and lets him take the credit for the capture, then the deal still stands, and that Lecter would indeed be transferred out. Lecter agrees, but insists on revealing the information to the Senator herself. And so, the deal is struck. He informs the Senator of Jame Gumb’s physical description.

During Clarice’s last visit to meet Lecter, he asks her for her worst childhood memory. She reveals to him that after her father’s untimely death, she was sent to live with her cousins on a ranch. One night, she heard the cries of the sheep as they were being taken to the slaughter house. In order to save one of her favorite lambs, Hanna, she fled with it. Only to be returned to the farm. She was later sent to an orphanage as a punishment for her such disobedience. The cries of the lambs still haunt her nights. Lecter is pleased, and he thanks her, giving her the last and final clue, “we begin by coveting what we see every day.”

Lecter’s final clue reveals that Gump knew his first victim. The officials visit his address only to find out that it is only his business address and of no use. During this time, Clarice decides to visit Belvedere, Ohio, Bemmel’s known vicinity. This leads her to meeting his first victim’s employer, Mrs. Lippman. There she finds out that Mrs. Lippman was murdered earlier and Gump now calls himself, Jack Gordon. She also spots a Death’s head moth fluttering around his house and realizes that she is in Gumb’s lair. Seeing her, Gumb flees to his basement where she finds him in time to shoot him dead just as he is about to attack her and she successfully rescues the Senator’s daughter.

Meanwhile, Lecter hides a paperclip and a piece of a pen under his tongue. He uses this as a lockpick and unlocks his handcuff. He then kills and mutilates his prison guard and escapes.

While in hiding, he sends Clarice a congratulatory telegram on her being confirmed as a full-fledged FBI agent. He also hopes, the lambs have stopped screaming and that she sleeps peacefully in the silence of the lambs. He also adds in a reminder for himself and swears revenge on Dr. Chilton. The latter disappears soon after.

Analysis of The Silence of the Lambs

Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is portrayed as a pure sociopath (extremely antisocial). In the later novels, the writer reveals that Lecter was deeply traumatized as a child living in Lithuania in the 1940s and had witnessed a ruthless murder and cannibalism of his younger sister Mischa.

You can’t help wondering why he is so curious about Clarice’s childhood. Maybe, it is because they shared somewhat similar childhoods (orphaned and a troubled childhood) that connected him to Clarice.

As a person, Lecter is brilliant and probably has an eidetic memory. He is also sophisticated, cultured, and is inclined towards refined art, cuisine, and music. He is often seen cooking gourmet dishes out of his victims. In this book, he mentions making liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. He is also very well-educated, speaks quite a few languages, and is highly offended with rudeness. In fact, he often victimized the people with bad manners. Lecter was on the board of directors at the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also a skilled plastic surgeon. The later books reveal that he had performed plastic surgery several times on himself.

Clarice Starling

Clarice Starling is a shrewd, quick-thinking FBI student chosen to interview Dr. Lecter. Her outside-the-box thinking helps her hunt down the first serial killer and the permanent status as an FBI agent.

On her arrival at the asylum, she has a light squabble with the asylum manager Frederick Chilton who happens to be an arch nemesis of Dr. Lecter. This instantly puts her in Lecter’s good books. He (Lecter) strikes a deal with Clarice, that in return for the information about the serial killer, she would impart personal information about her.

Clarice tells Lecter that she was from a small town in West Virginia and that her father was a police officer. At her age of 10, he was shot and he succumbed to his injury a month later. She was later sent to her live with her uncle on a sheep and horse ranch. Over there, she witnessed lambs being slaughtered, and when she tried to rescue one of her favorite lambs, she was caught and sent to a Lutheran orphanage. She shares that her dreams are still haunted by the cries of the lambs that she had heard as a child. Later, she went on to attend University of Virginia and majored in criminology and psychology. During this time, she also worked as a counselor in a mental health center. Several times, it seems that the exchanges between Clarice and Lecter are actually between two intellectuals who share a mutual respect towards each other, which is seen evidently in a few sentences at the end of the story.

What is unique about Clarice is that she is not just book smart, but she is also street smart. This aids her well while solving Lecter’s encrypted clues. Her quick thinking, excellent observation, and impeccable aim kills Jame Gumb and she is able to successfully rescue his final victim.

Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill

Gumb was born in California to an alcoholic prostitute, who misspelled his name as Jame instead of James on his birth certificate. It is deduced that he had a troubled childhood and he lived in foster homes till the age of 10. Later, he was adopted by his grandparents who also happened to be his first victims. This put him briefly in Tulare Vocational Rehabilitation (psychiatric hospital). Here, he learned how to stitch and found himself in a relationship with Benjamin Raspail. After they broke up, Raspail found himself a new lover, Klaus. This made Gumb very jealous and he flayed Klaus and made an apron out of his skin.

The book explains that he wished to become a woman, but due to his psychopathic tendencies, he was unable to qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Therefore, he hated his own identity. He thus, preyed on overweight women in order to make a woman suit out of their skin. He approached his victims pretending to be injured, only to get close enough to them in order to knock them cold. He shifted them to his lair and kept them in a well in the basement. Here he left them hungry for days in order to make their skin loose enough to peel. He used different parts from various women and killed them using different methods. Once he got what he wanted out of them, he disposed off their bodies in different rivers in order to wash out any evidence.

The book states that Gumb had already murdered 5 women and the 6th one was the Senator’s daughter. To clear his tracks, be a little more nonchalant, and ward off any suspicion, he returned to the place of his first victim Bimmel’s hometown. He began to reside there and called himself as Jack Gordon. There he also killed Mrs. Lippman (Bimmel’s employer).

Clarice realizes that Jack Gordon is no one but Gumb himself when she finds Death’s head moth fluttering around in his house. The same type of moth pupa that was lodged in one of a former victim’s throat. Realizing that Clarice knows that he is Gumb, he runs into the basement, where he has stashed his next victim. He switches off the lights and stalks Clarice. Just as he cocks his gun, Clarice hears the sound of his gun and open fires in that direction, shooting him dead.

The character of Buffalo Bill or Jame Gumb was inspired from notorious serial killers of the time, for instance:

Ed Gein: Made a female skin suit and masks.

Edmund Kemper: Killed his grandparents as a teenager.

Gary M. Heidnik: Kidnapped and tortured 6 women and kept them as sex slaves.

Gary Ridgway a.k.a. Green River Killer: Inserted foreign objects into their corpses before dumping their bodies in rivers.

Jerry Brudos: Dressed himself in his victims’ clothing and kept their shoes.

Ted Bundy: Pretended to be injured to lure his victims for help.

In case you were wondering about where the lambs fit into the mix, they (the lambs) symbolize innocence. Silencing of the lambs here means the death of innocence. It also means putting the past to rest. Shooting Gumb and the other villains brings Clarice some closure, silencing her need to put evil behind bars.

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