Study Guide

The Silence of the Lambs Themes

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Nuns Canceling Venders. Cunning Scanner Delves. Nuns Cancel Given Nerds.

    These are all (terrible) anagrams of "cunning and cleverness." In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter sometimes feeds Clarice anagrams as clues to the identity of Buffalo Bill (aka "A Blob if Full"). Hey, don't criticize—anagrams are better than being fed a human pancreas.

    Clarice is cleverer than we are, deciphering them with a pen and paper. Maybe if the FBI doesn't work out, she can get a job as a puzzle master on an NPR game show. Clarice has to use her smarts in a lot of ways. First, she has to figure out how to deal with Lecter and enlist his help. Second, she has to piece together the clues Lecter gives her and what she tracks down on her own to locate this crazy killer before he kills his latest captive.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Why does Jack Crawford need Hannibal Lecter to get to Buffalo Bill? What knowledge does Lecter have that no one else does?
    2. How does Clarice demonstrate her intelligence to Lecter? Why do you think this impresses him?
    3. Why does Lecter give clues in such cryptic ways? Why doesn't have just give the information he has without making it into a puzzle?
    4. Is Buffalo Bill cunning or clever?

    Chew on This

    Hannibal Lecter is bored easily. He needs to be impressed in a game of wits before agreeing to help anyone.

    Clarice has studied a lot of human psychology, because she wants to join the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, but she has to step away from the textbook learning and think outside the box to solve this case.

  • Gender

    The Silence of the Lambs deals with complicated gender issues, and not just trying to figure out the difference between a ram and a ewe. (That's not very hard, guys. Look for the horns.) Clarice Starling is a female FBI trainee, putting her firmly in the minority. Dr. Chilton suggests she got her assignment because of her looks, and he hits on her like Miggs does in a much cruder way. Clarice always seems to be the object of unwanted stares from men. She's trying to save a woman from a serial killer who wants to be a woman… or at least wants to be a man in woman's skin.

    Some critics praise Silence for its story of a strong, courageous woman saving a woman. Others criticize it for transphobia. Which side are ewe on?

    Questions About Gender

    1. Is Clarice Starling a feminist character? Is she strong because of her traditionally masculine traits, or her traditionally feminine ones?
    2. What gender is Buffalo Bill? Does it matter? Why does he want to create a female suit?
    3. What is Clarice able to do that male agents are not?

    Chew on This

    Clarice has to cultivate masculine traits like fearlessness and physical strength in order to excel in a male-dominated environment of the FBI.

    Clarice's femininity is a double-edged sword. Lecter probably wouldn't talk to a male agent, but Clarice has to fend off sexual advances from other men while trying to get to Lecter.

  • Respect and Reputation

    As far as initialed government organizations go, the FBI is pretty well respected.

    No one wants an IRS agent coming to their door. The DEA parties with drug lords instead of arresting them. And the NSA is watching you read this right now. But the FBI has Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, both Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, and, of course, Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs. That badge earns respect, but the agents have to first earn the badge.

    Hannibal has his own reputation of course, and while it's a reputation for depravity, people respect it and keep him under especially tight and secure confinement.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. What must Clarice do to earn Lecter's respect? What about Jack Crawford? How are the two similar? What does Clarice gain by earning respect from either man?
    2. Does Clarice have to work harder than a man might in order to gain respect?
    3. Clarice respects Jack Crawford, but it is possible for her to respect Hannibal Lecter as well?
    4. Does anyone care if Clarice Starling respects him (or her)?

    Chew on This

    Hannibal Lecter initially dismisses Clarice Starling, but it isn't because of her gender; it's because of her inexperience. She has to earn his respect.

    Clarice wants to earn Jack Crawford's respect, because it's a way of earning her father's respect, which she was never able to do since he died when she was so young.

  • Identity

    In some movies, you have to figure out the identity of the characters. Who is Keyser Soze? What's Rosebud? Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? In The Silence of the Lambs the identity of the characters is established almost right away. We're told Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal, Buffalo Bill skins women, and Clarice Starling has a badge with her name on it. But this movie isn't about figuring out identities as much as it is defying our expectations of what these identities mean. Who knew cannibals could be almost loveable?

    FBI profiling is all about figuring out identities, but as we'll see, identity is a slippery concept in this film.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does the film create an image of Hannibal Lecter before you meet him? Does he match your image when he's revealed? (Pretend you don't know what he looks like, even though everyone does, whether they've seen the movie or not.)
    2. What do you think made Hannibal Lecter the way he is? Does it matter how he got to be this way?
    3. What does Buffalo Bill hope to accomplish by changing his identity?
    4. How does learning more about the victims' identities help lead Clarice to the killer?

    Chew on This

    Clarice's identity is heavily shaped by her past as an orphan, which Hannibal Lecter conveniently points out to us.

    Buffalo Bill's identity crisis is about him hating himself for unexplained reasons. His gender has very little, if anything, to do with it.

  • Manipulation

    We live in a world where people try to manipulate us every minute of the day.

    Advertisers want to sell you stuff. (This body spray makes you irresistible!) Charities want you to donate money (Dump water on your head and cure a disease!) And movies want you to purchase a ticket, stream them, or buy the DVD. (This is the best serial killer movie ever!) Some of these manipulations are more harmless than others. The Silence of the Lambs however, doesn't have the word "harmless" in its vocabulary. In this movie, the characters are engaged in a game with life-or-death stakes, making the way they try to influence other very interesting indeed.

    At least no one tries to impersonate a Nigerian prince for money.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How do the characters manipulate each other into getting what they want?
    2. Does Lecter trick Clarice into telling him her life story, or does she do it of her own free will?
    3. How does Jack Crawford manipulate Clarice? Is he right to do so, or should he give her the insight and information she wants?

    Chew on This

    The Silence of the Lambs shows people manipulating others for bad (Buffalo Bill tricking Catherine into the van) and for good (Clarice making a fake offer to Hannibal Lecter in order to save Catherine). There's a big gray area when it comes to manipulation.

    Despite needing to manipulate Lecter, Clarice does not like feeling manipulated herself. No one does. But she does see that it's necessary for Jack Crawford to keep things from her in order for them to succeed.