The Big Sleep: Metaphors
Games, illegal and legal, and their players come up in the plot, sometimes in unlikely places. A character’s choice of game can function as a metaphor that reveals traits and motivations. Two instances of games as metaphors stand out in the novel. One occurs in Chapter Eleven, when Vivian explains her attraction to the high-stakes game of roulette. Marlowe isn’t at all surprised that roulette is Vivian’s game, given her affinity for pastimes of the wealthy, but Vivian ascribes her attraction to a different motivation: “All the Sternwoods liking losing games, like roulette and marrying men that walk out on them and riding steeplechases at fifty-eight years old and being rolled on by a jumper and crippled for life.” With the buffer of money, the Sternwoods can play to lose, and in fact, Marlowe’s agreement to hide the facts about Regan’s death means that the family will both lose and win: The General will die in ignorance of Regan’s end, but Carmen will pay with her freedom, and Vivian will be alone.
Chess is the game metaphorically connected with Marlowe. In Chapter Twenty-Four, when Marlowe confronts Carmen, nude in his bed, he turns away from her to a chessboard on which he has set up a practice problem—a “six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems,” he says, but moves a knight anyway. As he spars with and, ultimately, crushes Carmen, he returns to the board to take back his move because “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” Marlowe, who would prefer to act the knight, as readers learn from his reaction to the stained-glass knight in the novel’s first chapter, can’t protect or shield Carmen from the truth she must know—that even beautiful women’s bodies “are not irresistible.” His inability to play the knight—both in the game and in the situation—may be what motivates his increasingly animalistic descriptions of Carmen. If he can cast her as a beast rather than a woman, his problem is easier to play out.
The novel’s plot itself is a kind of game. Carmen plays to win male affection, Mars plays for power and wealth—each character tries to game others to reach a goal. And the overarching game is like hide and seek: “I’m not looking for Regan,” Marlowe insists throughout the novel, but Marlowe’s attempts to find Regan and Vivian’s determination to keep her missing husband hidden drive the plot.
The Big Sleep is fast-paced, and quick-witted verbal sparring consumes many pages as well; yet Chandler repeatedly pauses to describe buildings: homes, offices, rooms, and other physical settings. Each building does more than contain the actions that happen in it. The buildings add a figurative layer of meaning to the events and characters. The Fulwider Building, a setting in Chapter Twenty-Six, provides a good case study. This run-down building is where Marlowe has agreed to meet Harry Jones to pay for the information about Mona’s location, and it is where readers first meet Lash Canino and where Harry Jones dies. “A nasty building,” Marlowe observes, with a “clandestine air,” the place has “Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous” and is home to “small sick businesses that had crawled there to die.” Sensory details reinforce the description: the smell of cigar butts is “the cleanest odor” in the building; a “well-missed spittoon” sits on a “gnawed rubber mat,” suggesting both stench and rats; the dingy walls are “mustard” yellow and the lights are dim. This is appropriate, as it hides the evidence that, once, this building mattered and was a place where respect and ambition could thrive. Marlowe notes, “A single drop light burned far back, beyond an open, once gilt elevator.” Once, this place shined. Once, Harry Jones had been somebody. Now the building is faded, seamy, shady—a perfect setting for the little man’s end.
Other buildings that carry figurative meaning and reinforce characterization and action are the Sternwood mansion, with its impressive yet passive stained glass images, marbled sterility, and spotless lawns, all masking the moral rot at its heart; Marlowe’s apartment, which, like he himself, is unassuming and out of the way; and Geiger’s house, with its faux-Oriental décor (and heavy aromas of intoxicants) suffusing the action that goes on there—the creation of pornography, a substitute for or false form of love and desire. Another outstanding example is the insufferably hot, cloyingly scented greenhouse with its mixture of beauty and rot, life and death—just the right setting to frame the dying General, whose poor decisions, he admits, brought him and his wayward daughters to need Marlowe’s help. Yet his admission of his faults, his regrets about his daughters, and his loyalty to Regan prompt Marlowe to admire the man, comfortable (relatively) only in these humid, sweaty, decaying surroundings.
Weather and the Environment
An extension of Chandler’s figurative use of buildings is his use of weather and other elements of the environment to stand for or enhance important ideas. Marlowe describes the weather so often that readers may come to think of him as an amateur forecaster, but in fact weather, and particularly “the pressure in the air” that precedes rain, is used figuratively in the novel to foreshadow events and parallel the course of Marlowe’s investigations. Thunderstorms, for example, often occur before big events happen; persistent rain that leaks into Marlowe’s car and leaves him cold and damp characterizes the early, frustrating days of investigation; and less figuratively, rain abets some events, such as Owen Taylor’s death, by making the curving mountain roads treacherous. The rain in the novel makes scenes murky and hard to read, adding to the suspense and mystery of the plot, but what rain does not do, in this noir novel, is to cleanse the city of its crime. Noir mysteries call for darkened sets, and the rain—especially when it falls at night—adds shadows to the scenes of investigation.
The physical environment in which this rain falls (and falls) also acts figuratively and pragmatically in the novel. Steep cliffs and winding hilly roads keep Marlowe from pursuing Geiger’s killer, but they also represent the twists of the plot and the neck-breaking risks some characters run. In addition, contrasting environments allow Marlowe to imply judgments on some characters. The best example of this is the contrast between the impeccably kept gardens behind the Sternwood mansion, the “terraces with flowerbeds and trimmed trees” and “the high iron fence with gilt spears that hemmed in the estate.” But as he looks down the winding drive to the gates, he can see beyond them the polluted oil fields that fund the Sternwoods’ lavish home. “The Sternwoods,” he notes, “having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil,” and though they could still see the fields if they cared to, Marlowe “didn’t suppose they would want to.” Later, with Carmen in the abandoned oil field, Marlowe says that the stench is strong enough “to poison a herd of goats” and describes the rusted junk left behind when no more wealth could be extracted from that area. The ravaged environment, in this case, passes judgment on greed and carelessness for costs.
Throughout the novel, guns represent power, and Marlowe takes time to describe them: what they look like, how they feel to hold, how many bullets they hold, and who has them. Guns are necessary tools in the noir detective genre, but they can become almost alive in Chandler’s writing. He personifies them as jumping unexpectedly, as peeking around doors and out of windows, and cling to dying hands.
How characters handle their guns reveals their traits. When Brody tells Marlowe about confronting Taylor on the side of the road, he sneers, “He had a gun but his nerve was bad”; so Brody was able to knock him out. Taylor, in love with Carmen, was able to kill Geiger, but he is not himself a killer, and the gun does not empower him further. Carmen on the other hand is a killer, and her little pearl-handled gun suits her small frame and pearlescent skin. With her gun in hand, she seems to leave rational fears behind. Brody watches his guns intently as they lie on his desk and is visibly nervous not to have one in his hands when Marlowe confronts him in his apartment.
That Marlowe doesn’t always carry his gun with him—despite being trained in its use—suggests that he doesn’t need it to feel empowered or in control. In violent situations, he’s more likely to strike someone with his gun than to fire it. Canino, too, is a man confident in his power who does not need to use his gun to kill and maim. Canino himself is a hired gun—he is his own weapon. But more common are characters who, like Lanny, derive their authority from a gun and collapse or flee Marlowe when he takes that gun away.