An Inspiration for Murder? The Blakean Images in Popular Culture

September 6, 2016 | Amadeus Chen

So what particular propensities in Blake’s poetry and art inspire fictional murders of the most gruesome kind? Or inspire the author to deem Blake a suitable spokesman for serial killers’ psyche? We can first take a look at Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, the painting Dolarhyde is so obsessed with that he has a full-scale tattoo of its image on his body. The gigantic and muscular figure of the Dragon unfolding its wings is imbued with sexual energy and daunting radiance, in contrast to the fragile woman lying at its feet. Such a depiction of the avatar of Satan from the Book of Revelation might remind us of one of Blake’s key texts The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he argues that Devil stands for the “true Poet” because of its exuberant passion while God is trapped in the fetters of reason and morality.

Blake’s argument for sexual liberation against Christian and rationalist repression is somewhat reflected in his illustration of the Red Dragon, which is interpreted by Dolarhyde as an aesthetic actualization of power and sexual violence. Dolarhyde, a victim of family abuse and self-perceived inferiority due to his cleft lip, believes that through murder and molestation he can undergo his “great Becoming”— to transcend his inborn limitations and achieve wholeness and greatness as the Red Dragon. This can be seen as an alternative reading of Blake’s idea of going beyond the confinement of common perception through artistic creation and sexual ecstasy (as in mystery novels, a sophisticatedly designed murder is often elevated to the level of art).

Apart from the Red Dragon, the tiger is also a significant Blakean image in Red Dragon. When his Dragon-persona lies dormant, Dolarhyde falls in love with Reba, his blind colleague. In one scene he arranges a session in a zoo where Reba caresses a tiger under sedation. The harmless tiger lying asleep presents a different aspect of the dangerous beast, analogous to a portion of Dolarhyde’s self as a gentle man longing for love. This is a reflection of Blake’s God in “The Tyger” who made both the tiger and the lamb, suggesting that every human being created in God’s image has manifold personalities that conflict with each other. Dolarhyde is both a timid boy and the powerful Red Dragon. Similarly, with the ability to empathize with murderers, the novel’s protagonist FBI inspector Will Graham has to evoke the dark side of his nature to put himself in the position of serial killers in order to catch them. Blake’s belief that good and evil co-existing in human nature seems to inspire Harris’s molding of both the villain and the hero in Red Dragon.

In the scene where Dolarhyde devours the real Red Dragon painting in the Brooklyn Museum, Blake’s presence shifts from an influential subject to a victimized object. This scene echoes the controlling motif of the entire Hannibal Lecter franchise: cannibalism, which, as Maggie Kilgour proposes, is in essence a metaphor of incorporation in cultural and philosophical contexts. Cannibalism, a practice of extreme barbarity, is the utter antithesis of civilization. But these two are incorporated in Dr. Lecter, who not only eats human flesh but also handles it with exquisite culinary skills, accompanied by the music of Bach, Chopin, and Debussy. Such is the boundary-dissolving integration of high and low cultures. Dolarhyde eating the Blake painting epitomizes Harris’s appropriation of Blake in his novels, which is another form of cannibalism that assimilates the so-called canonized (higher) literature into (lower) popular culture.

In his Hannibal Lecter novels, Harris successfully grasps some of the essential ideas in Blake’s works and employs them effectually to present his serial killers as compelling and dramatic characters. Besides Red Dragon, there are still numerous novels, graphic books, films, and TV series that are influenced by Blake’s works. Perhaps the poet’s strong presence in popular culture suggests a reverse critical route for Blake scholars to revisit the often-overlooked dark and violent images in his poetry and art.


About Amadeus

I am a first-year PhD student in English literature. My proposed project examines the sexual and religious images in the works of William Blake, Matthew Lewis, and Percy Shelley. Aside from that, my research interests include Christian archetypes in literature, seventeenth-century libertinism, and theories on eroticism and pornography (especially Georges Bataille). My major non-academic interest lies in classical music, especially Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Mahler.

Article edited by Robyn Pritzker and Matthew Tibble.

Works Cited

Kilgour, Maggie. “From Communion to Cannibalism. An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation.” New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Williams, Nicholas M. “Eating Blake, or an Essay on Taste: The Case of Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon.’ ” Cultural Critique, 42 (1999): 147-162. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

Image Credit (in order)

1. The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. 1805. Brooklyn Museum, New York. The Blake Archive. Web.

2. “The Red Dragon tattoo on Francis Dolarhyde (played by Ralph Fiennes)” in the 2002 film Red Dragon directed by Brett Ratner.

3. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. New York: Bantam Dell, 1990.

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