LastName 1Student LastNameENG 102Prof. BoltonDue Date Philip Marlowe: A Knight in the City Set in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep chronicles the lifeof Philip Marlowe, a private detective, as he tries to solve the mystery he has stumbled into.Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to locate and handle the man who is blackmailing theSternwood family; however, the mystery turns out to be more complicated, with multiple crimes(and criminals). The Sternwood daughters, Carmen and Vivian, both lead lives unknown to theirfather, lives that involve shady characters and confusing situations.Marlowe tracks down theblackmailer, Geiger, but learns information that leads him to additional crimes and criminals.According to Edward Margolies, “While trying to [expose an unknown blackmailer], Marlowediscovers venality, guilt, and shame wherever he turns” (42).Los Angeles, home to the charactersin the novel, is a busy city whose residents have, unfortunately, turned to crime to survive.Though the novel appears to be a typical detective story, Chandler has purposely set The BigSleep in the time period immediately after the Great Depression in order to accurately portray theincreasing corruption during that time. According to “Organized Crime,” when Mussolinicracked down on the mafia in Italy, many mafia members were forced to flee the country, and agood number ended up in the United States (331).Furthermore, in the early 1930s, the homiciderate “reached a high point for the entire century” (Phillips-Fein 217). Most believe the increasedcrime rate was a consequence of prohibition (Phillips-Fein 217). In the United States, crime wasrampant during the 1930s, and Chandler’s novel reveals that nobody was exempt from corruption
LastName 2at the time. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the knight, the orchids, and the weather allsymbolize the corruption that prevailed in the United States during the 1930s. Throughout the novel, knights are a subtle part of Marlowe’s thoughts and interactionsand are used to symbolize his “goodness” in a world full of corruption. In the beginning of thebook, when he arrives at the Sternwood house to meet his future employer, he notices a stained-glass panel featuring “a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t’have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor ofhis helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the ladyto the tree and not getting anywhere” (3). Marlowe decides that if he lived there, he wouldeventually have to “climb up there and help him. He didn’t really seem to be trying” (4).Immediately, Marlowe sets himself apart from the rest of society as he suggests he would helprescue the lady when nobody else—not even the knight—would. Marlowe, as we later learn, isarguable the only honorable character in the novel, a “knight errant in a nonchivalric world”(Margolies 42). The stained-glass panel represents this characterization and foreshadows theinstance later in the novel when Marlowe, our knight, must “rescue” a naked Carmen Sternwoodfrom Geiger’s house.As corruption persists around him, Marlowe’s chivalry is surprising, whichdemonstrates how persistent the crime was during the time—in a setting with multiplecharacters, we can only see one, Marlowe, who is uninvolved in crime. The knight image arises again later, when Marlowe returns home to find Carmenundressed in his bed. As he enters his bedroom, he absentmindedly moves a piece on hischessboard: the knight. He has a conversation with Carmen in which she repeatedly calls him“cute” and insists that he join her in bed (155). After he turns her down (like the knight he is), helooks again at his chessboard and realizes, “The move with the knight was wrong… Knights had
LastName 3no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (156). To Marlowe, the chessboard isthe world, and he is the knight; just as chess is not a game for a night, the world is not a place forhim. Around him, corruption prevails, as it did in reality during the time. For example, thekidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 was “one of the most famous cases of the twentiethcentury” (“Lindbergh” 261). Additional notorious criminals of the time included Bonnie andClyde, who performed a string of bank robberies, and Al Capone, who was responsible foroperating gangs and gang murders (Phillips-Fein 218-219).In the novel, as Marlowe is the onlyone who makes respectable moral and ethical decisions, the rest of society appears even morefraudulent. According to John Irwin, “Marlowe’s sense of honor in professional dealings is verymuch a matter of pride with him” (226). When contrasted against the upstanding citizenMarlowe, it becomes clear that the residents in the country have stepped far beyond the normalamount of dishonesty. Immediately after the first image of the knight, we are introduced to another symbol thatprevails throughout the novel and also serves to portray the abundant corruption in society:orchids. Marlowe’s initial meeting with General Sternwood takes places in a greenhouse filledwith orchids, plants that appear beautiful but release a strange odor. Upon entering thegreenhouse, Marlowe describes the atmosphere: The air was thick, wet, steam, and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants… The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meat leaves like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket. (Chandler 7)
LastName 4The seemingly harmless, but truly rotten, orchids represent society: no matter how innocent aperson appears, there is often malice lying underneath the surface. General Sternwood reaffirmsthis idea when he says, “[Orchids] are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute” (9). Sternwood concurs withMarlowe as he uses the oxymoronic term “rotten sweetness” to describe the deceptive plants. As“rotten” as the characters are in The Big Sleep, most of them still appear “sweet.” This isparticularly applicable to the Sternwood sisters. They present themselves as elegant,sophisticated, and harmless, but are truly deceptive, manipulative, and even responsible for themurder and disappearance of Rusty Regan. Again, the corruption in society is revealed, as thecitizens are like orchids: seemingly innocent, but always up to something immoral. Furthermore, when describing the orchids, Marlowe’s description of the smell, “asoverpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket” (7), reflects the ban on alcohol, Prohibition,that is considered largely responsible for the rampant crime during the time period. According toKim Phillips-Fein, “In 1925, prohibition agents shut down 172,000 illegal alcohol shops” (218).The crackdown on alcohol prompted distillers to find more ways to hide their liquor sales, andMarlowe’s comparison of the orchid smells to the smell of boiling alcohol reminds readers thatProhibition was the primary reason for the increase in crime (Phillips-Fein 217), especially sinceMarlowe mentions it being under a blanket, or hidden from prohibition agents. The fact thatMarlowe knows that “secret” smells indicates how close he has been to the corruption and againsets him apart from the rest of the corrupt society. Finally, the weather throughout the novel represents the corruption, as the city of LosAngeles is caught in a constant spell of rain. Rain is gloomy and shady, as are the characters inthe novel. The weather plays heavily into Marlowe’s life, as it often changes depending on the
LastName 5events he has just experienced or witnessed. The novel begins immediately with a description ofthe weather, as Marlowe tells us, “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, withthe sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills” (Chandler 3).Chandler continues to use the rain as the primary description of setting, which automatically setsa gloomy tone for the novel. In chapter six, as the rain “filled the gutters and splashed knee-highoff the sidewalk,” Marlowe notes that “It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain” (30). Aseveryone is caught up in corruption of some kind, they are also caught in a spell of rain, which isabnormal for that time of year. This emphasizes that the crime rate is not something the citizensare used to but are having to adapt to in the changing times; life hasn’t always been corrupt but isduring the 1930s, when the novel takes place. The weather fluctuates throughout the novel, but always returns to rain after Marlowe hasan unsettling or negative experience. For example, the day Marlowe returns home to findCarmen in his bed starts out as a typical day. The city is foggy, but the rain has ceased, andMarlowe has made progress in solving the mystery. After his unsettling encounter with Carmenthat night, however, the weather suddenly changes. Marlowe tears “the bed to pieces” (159) andgoes to sleep angry with Carmen for insulting him. The next morning, “It was raining again… aslanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads” (159). Once something unusual happensto Marlowe, the weather shifts to accommodate his feelings and, ultimately, the feelings of thereaders. Marlowe remains a “knight” throughout the novel, but his attention to the weatherdemonstrates how he too is affected by the corruption. During the time period, despite citizens’disgust at the rampant crime, they couldn’t help but be intrigued at the same time. For example,Bonnie and Clyde were finally ambushed and killed in 1934, and according to Kim Phillips-Fein,“After [Bonnie and Clyde’s] deaths, crowds gathered around the ambush site to seek bits of the
LastName 6bullets that had killed them, and their funerals were mass public events” (220). Although societydidn’t necessarily agree with Bonnie and Clyde’s crimes, there was still a level of respect forthem, and we see Marlowe’s fascination with the corruption surrounding him. Although hedoesn’t take part, he still finds himself intrigued by the ongoing crimes. For example, later in the novel, Harry Jones gives his life in order to protect Agnes, hispartner in crime. At the beginning of the chapter, Marlowe informs us that “the rain hadstopped” as he enters the Fulwider Building searching for Canino. Marlowe finds Canino withHarry Jones, who had previously been tailing Marlowe, so Marlowe eavesdrops from the nextroom to try and understand the connection between the two. Canino kills Jones after Jones giveshim the wrong address for Agnes. When Marlowe leaves the building, Marlowe says, “It wasraining hard again. I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face” (180). The weatherchanges with Marlowe’s emotions and experiences, so Marlowe is presumably upset by Jones’sdeath. This is significant because Jones is not an honorable man like Marlowe. The reasonMarlowe comes to see Jones in the first place is because Jones wants to sell Marloweinformation or “secrets.” Jones practically bribes and blackmails for a living, yet Marlowe isemotional when Jones dies. To Marlowe, Jones dies an honorable death; even though Jones wasscheming for money, he still protected his partner to the end. Marlowe’s conflictiondemonstrates the challenge with the corruption around him: he doesn’t know where to draw theline, as others didn’t either. The fact that the country was so caught up with Bonnie and Clydewas likely because of their “romantic” story. Perhaps citizens could relate to Bonnie and Clyde,who were small-time criminals until they met each other and started striving for bigger paydays(Phillips-Fein 220). In the end, they died together, and we see a similar event in Harry Jones andAgnes. Jones is willing to die to protect her, and to Marlowe, this is the right thing to do, so
LastName 7despite the fact that Jones is a criminal, Marlowe can respect his character, just as the countryadmired Bonnie and Clyde. Marlowe’s attention to the rain shows his disdain at Jones’s death,and he demonstrates that during the time period, the line of morals and ethics was blurred for notonly the criminals, but the general public as well. The symbols of the knight, the orchids, and the weather blend together to effectivelyportray The Big Sleep’s underlying theme of corruption in American society. In the novel,orruption prevails, from a pornography dealer to easily bribed policemen. Despite thetemptations, Marlowe remains true to his morals, becoming a modern-day “knight.” However,even he finds himself questioning what makes a person “good” as he respects some criminalsdespite their activities. The Big Sleep is more than just a detective novel; it is a historicaldepiction of life during the 1930s.
LastName 8 Works CitedChandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Books, 1939. Print.Irwin, John T. “Being Boss: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.” Southern Review 37.2 (Spring 2001): 211-248. Print.“Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Poster, 1932.” Crime and Punishment: Essential Primary Sources. Eds. K. Lee Lerner, and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 260- 263. Gale U.S. History in Context. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.Margolies, Edward. Which Way Did He Go? New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1982. Print.“Organized Crime.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2nd ed. Vol. 7. Eds. Shirelle Phelps, and Jeffrey Lehmen. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 331-333. Gale U.S. History in Context. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.Phillips-Fein, Kim. “Crime.” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. Vol. 1. Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. New York: Macmillian Reference USA, 2004. 217-220. Gale U.S. History in Context. Web. 19 Feb. 2012.