Sympathy For the Dragon

Published March 3, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

My first reading of Red Dragon came in my teens, after having seen and then read The Silence of the Lambs. The former introduces us to the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, here a minor character with a major influence on FBI profiler Will Graham’s life. After all, Dr. Lecter nearly killed him. In that first reading I doubt that I was capable of fully appreciating Thomas Harris’ many gifts. His greatest talent is the ability to humanize his characters, even the villains (Dr. Lecter just wants his books back). And while Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon, is monstrous both inside and out, I felt a curious arousal of sympathy for this terrible man.

When we first meet him, Francis Dolarhyde is deep in the throes of his delusion that he is Becoming the Red Dragon. Despite an obvious psychotic disorder, he is able to maintain a job and the veneer of a normal life. It is this very job through which Dolarhyde selects his victims, for he processes home movie film. However, we eventually learn that Dolarhyde’s life has been defined by fear (much like Will Graham’s), and it is difficult to imagine how one could survive such an existence mentally and emotionally intact, which Dolarhyde clearly does not. Abandoned by his mother due to the horrific cleft palate with which he was born, terrorized by his manipulative Grandmother, Francis finds his only friend in Queen Mother Bailey, his grandmother’s cook. Her perceived betrayal of him leads to that hallmark of future serial murder, the killing of animals. The Red Dragon that he identifies with in adulthood is the manifestation of the power Dolarhyde was denied throughout his childhood; he now possesses the power of life and death. No one will ever again threaten to cut off his genitals, no one will ever again call him “Cunt-Face.” The Dragon can destroy them all.

Dolarhyde keeps newspaper clippings recounting the disappearances of elderly women in the area. Has he been symbolically killing his grandmother all these years (and truthfully, who wouldn’t have at least thought about it)? With echoes of Psycho, The Dragon speaks with what appears to be Grandmother’s voice, and Dolarhyde wears her teeth when he murders. And, like Norman Bates, Dolarhyde begins splitting into two distinct personalities. Where he once considered himself and the Dragon one, he is terrifyingly aware of the bifurcation occurring in his own mind. The reason for this unraveling?

He is falling in love.

Dolarhyde is at his most sympathetic when he is puzzled and frightened by his feelings for Reba McClane, the blind co-worker who cannot judge him by his appearance. She knows he has a cleft palate by his speech, yet she accepts him and even initiates their first sexual encounter. His emotions are so intense that he begins to dissociate; the Red Dragon is now a separate entity, something he wishes to stop for Reba’s sake. In desperation Dolarhyde travels to New York to confront the original painting of the Red Dragon. To all involved in his manhunt it comes as a surprise that he kills no one, but this is what Dolarhyde seeks–an end to the killing. He stuffs the small watercolor into his mouth, intending to reclaim the Dragon’s power over him for his own by ingesting it, as so many tribes throughout history have ingested the blood or hearts of their enemies. By now, of course, it is far too late for Dolarhyde to stop his murderous impulses, and yet when he believes that Reba has betrayed him, he still cannot give her over to a horrific death at the hands of the Red Dragon. He chooses to let her burn alive in his house, an act that he tells her he cannot bear to witness even as he lights the fire.

Francis Dolarhyde is a richly imagined character, certainly one of the most memorable villains in the annals of crime fiction. From his facial deformity to his massive dragon tattoo to his immensely muscled body, he is an imposing and terrifying man. The delusions and personality split that drive him to murder make him even more frightening, but the reasons behind his psychosis remind us that, underneath it all, he is still the ugly and unloved little boy rejected by society. His crimes are ultimately a bizarre and bloody plea for what we all crave: acceptance.

8 comments on “Sympathy For the Dragon

  • This post is a great break down of Francis Dolarhyde and the Red Dragon. And I think you're right about readers entertaining the thought of killing Francis' grandmother, even before she officially hopped on the "crazy" train. Also, I definitely agree with you on Harris' ability to humanize his characters, particularly the villains. Without Reba bringing that important element of pitiable humanity, I don't think I would have been as frightened of Dolarhyde. Yes, I was certainly leery of Dolarhyde's killing methods, but seeing him as a person is what made him truly scary. A glimpse of Dolarhyde's humanity that was later so viciously seduced into destruction by the Red Dragon's personality made Francis Dolarhyde as an unnerving psychopath.

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  • This is such an insightful analysis of Dolarhyde. He is a compelling villian because his very existence evokes sympathy and that he grows up to be a serial killer is no surprise. What else could he have grown up to be, after having been so badly treated all his life? Of course, the romantic in me loves that he fell for Reba and that the love of this good woman facilitated his quest for an end to the killing. That she was blind but was the only person who could "see" him for the person he could be was an irony not lost on me. Good stuff!

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  • Excellent post, Jenn. Dolarhyde's such a great character, and your analysis is spot-on. I've always thought that it's a testament to Thomas's ability that he could bring that one character could generate so much compassion, fear, and loathing. You do an especially nice job breaking down his "becoming" and all that means to him. One of my favorite parts in the book is when he walks up to the magazine stand and demands copies of THE TATTLER.

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  • I think the fact that making the reader feel sympathy for Dolarhyde is another way to catch the reader off guard and intensifies the horror. I mean, really, you find yourself thinking "that poor guy. No wonder he… Holy cow! I almost felt sorry for the miserable bastard! What kind of person am I?!?!" I think bringing the sympathy in was a brilliant stroke by Harris. Thanks for pointing that out. Good post!

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  • I must say I find your post both insightful and touching. As someone who shares Dolarhyde’s . . . interesting personality, I thank you. It means more than I can express in words to simply know that someone understands and does not judge.

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