American Gothic: Liminality in Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter Novels

By Messent, Peter | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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American Gothic: Liminality in Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter Novels

Messent, Peter, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


Liminality refers primarily to the concept of the threshold, the area between two spaces. And that threshold is predominantly associated with provisionality, instability, intermediate forms; what lies between the known and unknown, or "other."1 Noel Carroll writes (by way of Mary Douglas) that "things that are interstitial, that cross the boundaries of the deep categories of a culture's conceptual scheme, are impure...cognitively threatening."2 And the argument that danger lies in such a liminal area, where the distinctions by which we organise our lives and cultural systems are bought into question, is unsurprising.

However, we should remember that, in the words of Michael Taussig, "a threshold...allows for illumination as well as extinction."3 Promise then, as well as threat, lies in the notion of the border area, and the possibility of crossover and transgression associated with it. Thus Bill Brown refers to "the mesmerising power of genuine liminality, where the structures of normalcy and everyday security break down."4

In this essay I refer to the three novels by Thomas Harris that feature Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). For reasons of space, I mainly focus on the two most recent texts. Harris's novels engage with all kinds of threshold areas, thus providing a particularly useful site for an exploration of liminality. Here I briefly describe a number of such engagements -though the spatial limits of this essay mean that other areas necessarily go untreated.5 I focus my argument, however, around Harris's use of the Gothic genre, and follow William Veeder in seeing the genre itself as a type of liminal space where both foreclosed cultural norms and (at a psychological level) repressed desires can be explored and interrogated to powerful effect.6 The boundary crossings that Harris represents in his texts, then, are tied in symbiotic connection to the Gothic forms he uses.


Harris, though, also engages the thresholds between genres in his texts, and it is at that point that I commence. Harris's novels would normally be categorized as crime fiction. Thus, for instance, The Silence of the Lambs comes to be structured round Clarice Starling's successful quest to discover the identity and whereabouts of serial killer Jame Gumb ("Buffalo Bill") before he murders Catherine Baker Martin, the woman he has abducted. But Harris's is a peculiar type of crime fiction: a type of "anti-mystery" where, and particularly in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the detective "still seeks to unmask a murderer, [but where] the killer is known far in advance by the reader."7 Though the main crimes are successfully solved in these texts, the "sense of linearity", individualized character and epistemological authority normally associated with the genre are all placed under considerable strain.8 Serial murder (Harris's theme) evacuates much of that sense of affect-that intensity of feeling, emotion and desire, the "charged density of motivation" in the close relationship between victim and criminal-of more traditional forms of detective narrative. In consequence, as Barry Taylor describes:

The absence of any discernible motivated link between killer and victim...leads to the criminological classification of serial murder as "motiveless," and so to the shattering of the links which forge the causal and narrative coherence of the "classic" murder. The serial murder is a crime about which no recognizable story can be told (and which therefore generates an apparently uncontainable desire for narration)... [Serial murder stands as] the sign of a threatening randomness, of a disappearance of meaningful inter-subjective structures, of demotivated action, of the collapse of authoritative models of explanation and interpretation...and of the disappearance of the subject.9

In Harris, the type of causal and narrative links that Taylor discusses are, in the case of Francis Dollarhyde (in Red Dragon) and Jame Gumb, still recuperable, though not always by conventional means.

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American Gothic: Liminality in Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter Novels


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