Will Graham Vs. Jane Eyre: Standoff at the Organ of Veneration
A chat with Zoe Selengut about Hannibal
Below is an edited transcript of a conversation Zoe Selengut and I had in June about Hannibal and Jane Eyre, prompted by this Twitter thread of hers on the subject.
DANNY: Happy afternoon! How are you? I just started Hannibal season 2 this minute
ZOE: You are right at the beginning of everything wonderful and good in the world
you said before you liked spoilers but I can try to restrain myself if you want, for this
or speak in grandiose cannibal generalities, I got so many of them
DANNY: Since the show went off the air five years ago, I’d rather just say “spoiler alerts” now and have at it
but what I really want want to hear from you is more about the Jane Eyre parallels
ZOE: ok yes yes yes
so you are at the part where Will thinks he has been betrayed most dreadfully by the only man he trusted to tell him what a clock looked like?
then he is just about to learn that this is in fact Hannibal carrying out his idea of a sacred trust
DANNY: Yes! It's like when Jane hands over her drawings of drowning elves for inspection
and Rochester says, basically, “This is…fine. Thomas Kinkade fine. You're good at making eyes look unhappy.”
ZOE: Jane Eyre is the story of a girl with an inflexible iron Will and the fullest expression of the Protesant Erotic Ethic in literature, who has no family (nobody on Hannibal has parents, it's part of the whole deal) and who is dependent on the man who controls her employment
DANNY: Iron Will!!
ZOE: The man who toys with her for sport but who she still believes has some basic respect for the rules of God and man deep down, even if she loves him for his little wickednesses and his ability to See her , like a good psychiatrist does
and she is catastrophically betrayed in a scene of truth discovered that changes the meaning of her memories and casts doubt on any emotion the awful man seemed to feel for her before
and the absolute trust placed in a man who can ruin your reputation and thereby your employment prospects and your whole life, with a word, is the same for Jane and for Will
they would both say they hold themselves for themselves and don't give everything away, but they do, really
DANNY: “Even when it looks like I’m losing, I secretly have the upper hand at all times, due to my Interiority” (which is a moral failing I share with them and perhaps all novel-readers)
ZOE: “conspicuous, frequent references to my vulnerability in Public ensure I will always win"
There’s an upcoming line of Hannibal’s – “Nothing happened to me. I happened” that is a point of contention among Hannibal people, because some believe him, which is ridiculous. He is explaining his fantasy secret self: immune from the Anxiety of Influence, inventor of all perversions, and so on. Like a fairy tale monster in a way other than the way psychiatrists are fairy tale monsters generally
but the posture! that is Jane's posture too, even though she’s not much like him otherwise
but the denial of trauma as shaper of character, that’s Hannibal’s self-myth
he believes that he wants to help his patients express themselves to the fullest extent possible. not health, but unfolding, evolving, fruition is his ideal
so Rochester & Jane are like Hannibal & Will in the points laid out above but characterologically they are like Odysseus & Penelope, with the sameness of mind – outside eyes might not see it, but they know they’re alike (Will doesn't know right away but Jane does)
that is a fundamental conflict of the show, when you have two people in love, but half the couple is in love with their differences (perceived) and the other half is in love with their similarities (also perceived)
DANNY: Jane’s response to learning about Bertha feels so much like, “Oh, you're not ready to eat me alive at all. You said you were ready for dinner but the table’s not even set.”
ZOE: I can't remember if she's jealous as well as horrified at that point
Will would have been. “Why didn't you put ME in the attic,” he'd say. “Why didn’t Grace Poole tie ME to the chair.”
the other Jane & Will point is just that Rochester & Hannibal have both had many other lovers & worshippers but spurned them all sooner or later. Jane is insistent that she’s not beautiful and Will, who knows if he has a mirror, but they are not prizes for their looks, but because they are so expensive to buy. In the eyes of one who looks at lovers as very dear possessions
like there's the Isak Dinesen story with the proud old maid who catches the gallant young man's eye just because she says No
Will & Jane can say No forever: No to the universe, no to god
DANNY: guess which two characters get described as “a wild animal” the most in Jane Eyre (Jane and Bertha both)
and Will is also very much saving himself for marriage
ZOE: Do you think he's resigned himself to being an old maid or no?
the Alana thing is very strange and her character is eventually given fairer treatment but it is hard to like her in season one
DANNY: Will's thing seems to be that he is filled with contempt for uncertainty – or rather that he’s only interested in his own uncertainty, so Alana's waffling turns him off. When she says “I wish I was at your house with you cuddling by the radiator with your five dogs” shortly after she said he was too unstable to date, he grimaces, and I said to Grace, “She needs to be either 50% nicer, or 500% meaner to him, for this to work.”
Jane and Will both have endless appetites for discussing the conditions of their own servitude
they don't care as much if it's fair or unfair, what they care about the most is having the opportunity to discuss it, argue about it, delineate it, name it, exchange terms
they both have terms they consider unacceptable, and once that line gets crossed, it's all Spartan boys chewing off their own legs
ZOE: I found an old old thing from 2013 when I thought the show was silly and vulgar and rather offensive about morality (I was expecting it to be more of a rational murder show than it is I guess). But one criticism I had (and still have) is that everybody says Will's an empath. empath empath empath! But he's not especially empathetic at all, even in his work he is more imaginative than empathetic. There are exactly two kinds of creature he has real empathy for and they are dogs and murderers
DANNY: or is it Spartan foxes chewing off their own legs, and Spartan boys letting Spartan foxes chew out their vitals?
ZOE: boys, vital, yes! hiding foxes under their homespun tunics
DANNY: something's chewing something, anyhow
I'm inclined to agree he’s more imaginative than empathic – the key seems to be his innate susceptibility, and which may speak to his and Jane’s shared appeal in being The Pearl of Great Price
He's incredibly porous physically, emotionally, psychologically, psychically – both Jane and Will’s come-on is something like “You wouldn’t believe how adoring, adaptable, and available I could be; but I will never be available. But just think about how available I could be.”
ZOE: yes yes yes
DANNY: I think of him most often in connection to Jane's organ of veneration monologue – you know, “I suppose I have a considerable organ of veneration, for I retain yet the sense of admiring awe with which my eyes traced her steps…”
ZOE: In the books he’s explicitly afraid he has no self
he picks up other people's accents, mannerisms, body language as part of the job
and so Hannibal's treatment of show-Will would have been irresistible to book-Will because Hannibal believes with absolute certainty that Will has an inner core self and only he can bring it out
And yes, Jane wants to worship but is too proud and too anti-idolatry to get right into it
DANNY: they both have High Priest written all over them, but somewhere between vocation and execution things seem to fall apart
ZOE: And for both it is not enough, not safe enough, to become the lover’s equal; you have to become his superior or ideally his captor. Put the bear on a chain, parade it around.
the dog ownership in Hannibal never stops being screamingly thematic. (Explicitly I believe, a couple of times.)
And re: imagination, empathy, porousness
the “murder pope/empathy detective” part of it all strikes me differently now that it's more widespread knowledge that a lot of “scientific” blood spatter analysis and other such things has a lot of room for error and isn’t as straightforward as it’s been presented
all the consultants are empathy charlatans, not just Will!
though I liked it first, and like it still, for the unreality
DANNY: Yes, it feels very much like Twin Peaks in that the FBI in this universe explicitly runs on empathy
it also seems true that this is a universe where there are roughly 500% more serial killers than we have in ours
It’s more like a zombie virus than a pathology – you can end up contracting serial killer-ness whether you want to or not, simply by proximity and exposure
so everyone who works for the FBI is at least partly aware that the work of studying serial killers means they’re in line to become the next wave
ZOE: Yes – it struck me a lot in the first season how Will's most tender & empathetic towards Abigail when she’s unconscious and the big elk-thingamajig's clomping through the hospital corridors. Because he can imagine her being pure on the surface but with uneasy murder-depths, just like him
I watched the show angrily for a while and only began to love it when watching season two in my childhood house as my mother was dying.
that was the 2015 crux
The unnatural deaths were so soothing, and such a respite from the horror of natural death: the empathy, the beauty, the exquisite corpses, the rivers of blood, the ghost images.
DANNY: Yes, I felt particularly drawn to the “t4t couple seeks murder family” given my own annus horribilis
sleepy trans guy falling for an exquisite murder transfemme
ZOE: you wait till the season two finale. just you wait
DANNY: Hannibal is EXTREMELY Mommy; I cannot countenance that Mads Mikkelson has even a drip of Daddy on her
ZOE: Oh, wow, do you think?
DANNY: Murder Mommy is the hottest available sexual dynamic
they hide from you until you’ve earned it
ZOE: this is all personal bias because my own dad was a self-important culture connoisseur who built a harpsichord from a kit but was NOT beautiful like Mads Mikkelson, but
he is a bad dad! A very particular kind of bad dad that you don't see so often anywhere
although his stoicism and refusal to let anyone see him either practicing or suffering is very maternal in my mind – yes, I can talk myself around here.
Part Two of our chat coming tomorrow! You can also visit Zoe’s newsletter, Wolf Tree, in the meantime.
“Even when it looks like I’m losing, I secretly have the upper hand at all times, due to my Interiority”
Oh thanks a LOT for calling me out :)
Okay I gotta say that as a trans lady I am *fascinated* by your analyses of the Hannibal-Will dynamic through a transmasculine lens. Because, tbh, though I've long been aware of the show's popularity among transmasculine folks (as evidenced by the bulk of works under the trans!Will tag on AO3), I have never gotten the "why." For my part, the most obvious queer reading of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal is as a forced-feminization story for people too dignified to admit to being into that kind of thing. And as a result, it's been nebulously confined to my guilty pleasure box, and has been a source of some angst, the kind which must needs be associated with enjoying a narrative with problematic! underpinnings.
Like, here we have a nominally cis, heterosexual man who is nevertheless smol and woman-sized, who is good at FEELINGS and who is constantly shown up by Hannibal's LARGENESS, his sheer Scandinavian bulk, etc and who is like, symbolically fucked by Hanni in every way it is possible to symbolically fuck someone? Put another way, Hannibal is the story of a classic European ubermensch (suave, cosmopolitan renaissance man) who meets a fey, twitchy, effete "man" who is full of piss and vinegar and staggering levels of potential fuckability and that man is like, (to Will:) I will now make u my wife. And then the show is the long, slow process of Will being stripped of the meager trappings of his masculinity, With Will kicking and screaming every step of the way. In short, Hannibal is a classic heterosexual romance in which a man comes along and asserts his will/desires onto an initially-resistant female love interest who later caves to the pressure and accepts her fate, but one where the woman is played by a man who is forcibly made into a bride and where lovemaking is replaced with murder.
Which, unfortunately, feels kind of morally bad? Like, I don't want to love a show that's about a woman-by-proxy's agency being torn from her piece-by-piece by a dude who is able to do so in part because he possesses the exact same traditionally masculine traits the hero lacks: great physical strength, a willingness to commit brutal acts of violence without remorse, etc, etc. And then there's the whole isn't-it-kinda-gross-to-metaphorically-associate-being-gay-with-doing-a-murder thing!
And yet, your reading of Hannibal as, in fact, a depiction of t4t energy pulls me in like a fruit fly to a glass of honey. I want to believe; I really do-- especially as an angular transsexual of Northern European descent with a penchant for both purple prose AND overly elaborate meals cooked for myself. And yet-- And yet--
Look, I'm willing to take a risk and open up my heart once more. Just so long as no one stabs it with a linoleum knife.
P.S. If you're right about this than we have no choice to include Cate Blanchett's Carol (and Rooney Mara's Therese) as an iteration of the exact same energy. In fact, there is without doubt (and I feel this in my bones) a Hannibal Lector-- Carol Aird continuum, although what I must do with this information I know not yet.