Thomas, you and I are in sync about how the story is very much about The Self and one’s True Nature. I believe most good stories have multiple themes: A Central Theme, Sub-Themes, and Adjunct Themes. Here’s my take on TSOTL:
Central Theme: To silence the nightmare of the past, one must confront it.
Sub-Themes: (1) Death — its power to inflict pain [the murder of Clarice’s father]; its power to provide redemption [the killing of Buffalo bill]. (2) Transformation — Buffalo Bill seeks to become a woman (i.e., his obsession with moths, sewing a female body suit made out of his victim’s skin, dressing like a woman); Clarice seeks to resolve the guilt she feels about her father’s death and become a whole person.
Adjunct Themes: (1) Father — Clarice’s loss of her own father; Jack Crawford as a substitute father figure; Hannibal Lecter as patriarchal mentor. (2) Blood — the shadow of her father’s death; the scratch on Clarice’s thigh as she crawls into Lecter’s storage unit; the desiccated blood of the victim upon whom Clarice performs an autopsy; the blood on the walls of the pit where Catherine Martin is being held captive; the blood covering Lecter after he slaughters a prison guard; the blood shed when Clarice shoots Buffalo Bill countless times.
Per the Central Theme, here is my take on Clarice’s psychological journey in which she confronts her nightmare.
On one level, TSOTL is a story of metamorphosis: Buffalo Bill’s search for it, Lecter’s understanding that Clarice needs it, and Clarice herself as she goes from Disunity to Unity:
- Disunity: So many elements here. (1) She is an orphan. (2) She is a victim (by her father’s murder). (3) She was victimized again when she experienced the spring slaughter of the lambs on the Montana ranch. (4) As Lecter notes in his searing assessment of her persona — “A well-scrubbed hustling rube with a little taste” — Clarice is a West Virginia girl attempting to become something else (5) And that something else is an FBI agent working in Behavioral Sciences, going after serial killers. What is that obsession about? (6) Because she is haunted by her shadow — the murder of her father (“Why did those two men kill him?”), that confrontation with the suddenness and chaos of evil, and her desire to catch the “bad guys.” (7) Finally while she seems like she is totally professional and has a bright future ahead of her, she is scarred and damaged and living a lie: As long as she resists confronting that which she fears most — immersing herself in the memory of the lambs’ slaughter — she will never move beyond her state of psychic Disunity.
- Deconstruction: (1) On one level, it is the Buffalo Bill case itself which ‘assaults’ her Old World way of being: getting semen flung on her face, scratching her inner thigh when she enters Lecter’s storage unit, made all wobbly when she conducts the autopsy on the West Virginia victim’s body. More symbolically, by becoming more and more immersed in the details of the case, Clarice is forced to move from FBI agent in training [theory) to FBI field agent (practice). The New World of the investigation is a real one and confronts her with real challenges. (2) But mostly her Deconstruction derives from her increasingly intimate relationship with Lecter. And the whole quid pro quo business serves as a Transition where Clarice not only defies Crawford’s injunction — “Don’t let Lecter inside your head” — but does so in a blatant way, willing to share personal truths about herself in exchange for information about Buffalo Bill.
- Reconstruction: She survives her initial quid pro quo exchange that takes her perilously close to confessing what happened on the Montana ranch. She also survives the autopsy of the body. In both cases, she is rewarded with vital information about the Buffalo Bill case: The autopsy reveals the moth cocoon, Lecter reveals details about Bill’s identity. Clarice builds on that to the point where — on her own!!! — she flies to Tennessee to see Lecter, completely going against Chilton and the authorities. That is a sign of substantial proactivity where she has become emboldened by her increasing connection to the power of her Self. Then the critical moment: She confesses what happened in Montana. That takes an act of courage Clarice had never managed to summon to this point in her life. That act sets the stage for her to take on Buffalo Bill. What Lecter reveals is that Clarice believes she can silence the lambs by saving Catherine Martin. But what he doesn’t say is a more dangerous and powerful truth: She has to kill Buffalo Bill. Why? We can not understand this unless we understand what is going on with young Clarice when she picked up a lamb and tried to escape years ago. What does the lamb represent? Her father. He was an innocent, like a lamb, when he was ‘slaughtered’ by those two ‘evil’ men. By picking up that lamb, Clarice is — subconsciously — trying to save her father. “But it [he] was too heavy. So heavy.” Why heavy? Because Clarice has been weighed down her entire life since her father’s death by guilt. A child often does this when a loved one dies, assume that they were responsible. While this seems illogical, in terms of one’s psychological protection, it is entirely logical. Rather than live with the incomprehensible possibility that at any moment, something horrid can just happen without cause — like opening a door to a store, surprise two thieves, and they shoot you to death — a child would rather assume some measure of responsibility and guilt. That they can understand, that they can control. So Clarice has had an enormous guilt tied to her father’s death. In part she wants to become an FBI agent to follow in her father’s legacy as a sheriff. In part she wants to in order to catch “bad guys.” But in part she wants — subconsciously — in order to redeem herself for her father’s death.
- Unity: Lecter sees that. He knows she needs to slaughter Buffalo Bill [a buffalo is an animal, just like a lamb], shedding his blood as an expiation of her sins [there is a whole Old Testament dynamic running through TSOTL including the scene where Lecter beats and kills the two guards, dressed in white, covered in blood like a High Priest involved in blood sacrifice]. It’s not enough for Clarice to save Catherine, she has to kill Buffalo Bill in order to gain ‘redemption’ tied to the guilt she feels about her father’s death. Which she does, leading to her Unity, signified in the Denouement, a celebration of her achieving agent status.
That is my neo-Jungian interpretation of Clarice’s psychological journey in TSOTL which is tethered to the story’s central theme. On a thematic level, the story is about her confronting and exorcising her inner demons, a classic example of metamorphosis.