The Big Sleep: Theme
Models of Manhood
Philip Marlowe is a noir protagonist, which means he’s no hero—but he’s the closest thing to a hero in The Big Sleep. The first-person narrator through whose eyes we see Chandler’s vision of a Los Angeles with a corrupt heart dictates how readers perceive other characters. His narrative voice firmly in control, Marlowe tells readers what to think about the characters readers meet and the trouble they get themselves into. Marlowe’s LA is a man’s world, so readers get their idea of what a man should be from his actions, thoughts, and reactions. The traits Marlowe values are sometimes antiheroic, by traditional judgment, but they are consistent with his personal code—an ethic that sustains him in a nihilistic landscape that seems almost random in its punishments and rewards of the good and the bad.
Marlowe values competence, and he doesn’t care where he sees it. A wealthy man who is competent gets Marlowe’s approval, as does a working man, and, grudgingly, even a man competent in killing, like Lash Canino. The “fresh-faced kid” who helps Marlowe tail the mover to Brody’s apartment impresses him because he doesn’t give up when they lose sight of the van; he just seeks another vantage point. (The movie adaptation, set in World War II, features a fresh-faced female at the wheel; the fresh-faced kid, viewers assume, is at war, but she handles his job competently. One other woman in the novel is so competent that Marlowe admires her—the bookstore assistant who is studying law. In the movie adaptation, this character becomes a pretty brunette who locks the door and pulls the blinds to spend time with Marlowe till the rain stops. She is perhaps competent in other skills.) Norris, the Sternwoods’ stoic butler, is utterly competent despite the near constant challenges of riding herd on the Sternwood daughters and caring for their dying father—and competently leads the other household staff as well. Mars’s roulette man, suave and composed in the face of Vivian’s scorn and clearly worthy of his employer’s trust, is another competent man. Marlowe even has words of praise for Eddie Mars, though on principle he despises the racketeer, who runs his club competently and with taste. Bernie Ohls, though Marlowe couldn’t work for him and is rankled by his “by the book” approach, is keen and able. But Marlowe himself is the model of competence, as demonstrated by his refusal to drop the case until he finds Regan. Even when Sternwood tells him to drop the case, Marlowe won’t. “When you hire a boy in my line of work,” he explains with some passion, “it isn’t like hiring a window-washer and showing him eight windows and saying: ‘Wash those and you’re through.’” Only Marlowe can say when he has acquitted his contract to his satisfaction—which may not be to the law’s satisfaction. His professional ethic is internal, not dictated by social expectations.
This is because Marlowe also prizes integrity andtrueness to the self. That self, in Marlowe’s case, may be morally ambiguous when judged by societal expectations. It may be grim and resigned to the corrupt state of the world. But it is consistent, even when it comes at a price. Marlowe keeps the confidences he thinks he should, even when pressured by Ohls or Gregory. He protects his client, “unless he’s crooked,” he tells the General, and “Even then all I do is hand the job back to him and keep my mouth shut.” He measures his salary by what he alone thinks he has achieved and wants to give Sternwood some of the money back because, though Sternwood thinks Marlowe has done the job well, Marlowe disagrees, and only he can judge himself. Marlowe admires men of integrity—and even women, to a lesser degree and in Mona’s case alone—men like Harry Jones. Jones is a small-time criminal, out of work now that liquor is no longer illegal, and unimpressive. But Jones does not flinch when he realizes what Canino is and how their brief encounter is likely to end. Marlowe admires the unflappable Norris and even the love-stricken Owen Taylor because both act with integrity. The value Marlowe places on this trait speaks to his goal: the truth. Justice may follow—or not, since Marlowe covers for various characters, such as Lanny and of course Carmen. Indeed, it’s possible that Carmen’s inability to be a person of integrity—because of her epilepsy—and thus Marlowe cannot in good conscience turn her in. But whatever his decision in a situation, truth must be served.
Finally, Marlowe measures men and is a model himself of loyalty. Marlowe protects his clients—even and especially when it means breaking the law. He is particularly loyal to General Sternwood because, perhaps, the General himself is a deeply loyal man. He has many faults, including reckless pride, but to the end, the General, having found a good man in Regan, is loyal to his son-in-law, offering Marlowe an exorbitant sum to find Regan, not to bring Regan home, but merely to make sure that Regan is okay and to offer financial support if necessary. Regan himself acted loyally—to Vivian and perhaps even more so to his father-in-law—by refusing Carmen’s advances, and that loyalty got him killed. Norris is calmly, patiently loyal to the General and his daughters. From the moment that he ushers Marlowe into the greenhouse, Norris chooses to withhold what he knows about Carmen and Regan. As the novel ends, Marlowe asks Vivian, “Does Norris know?” and she responds, “He’ll never tell.” Jones is loyal to Agnes (who dismisses the news of his death as if she were brushing away an annoying bug); Lundgren is loyal to Geiger to the point of killing for him and posing his body in the manner of a shrine (who knows whether Geiger was worthy of that loyalty). Vivian loyally protects Carmen even when it exposes her to Mars’s blackmail, and this is perhaps why Marlowe walks away from the case, though clearly, Vivian would betray Marlowe in a heartbeat if it served her purposes. But, as with the other traits that Marlowe admires in other men—and now and then in a woman—he himself is the novel’s central model of that trait. In the case of loyalty, he proves it by sparing the General the truth both want so much to know. The pain that the truth would cause is not worth the cost because Sternwood’s “heart was a brief, uncertain murmur” and there is no reason to send him to the big sleep of death with this painful knowledge. Because Marlowe does not close the case, he does not get paid, and he sorely needs his salary. That is the price he pays for his own loyalties.
Marlowe, walking the streets of noir Los Angeles, is an outcast, hardly a winner by LA’s standards, and as far as the hero of a novel goes, a morally ambiguous figure. He nevertheless, by his actions and descriptions of others, models a manhood that holds up under pressure and is steadfast in search of the truth, no matter how unpleasant.
Doom, Justice, and Unhappy Endings
In a 2010 essay titled “Noir Fiction is about Losers, not Private Eyes,” published in the Huffington Post,Otto Penzler, author and expert on noir fiction, describes his attraction to the genre in this way, “I love noir fiction. It makes doom fun. And who doesn’t like fun?” There are no happy endings in noir fiction, Penzler points out, nor should there be. Everyone is doomed in a doomed society. Why, then, do readers and movie goers continue to enjoy the noir world? Reading The Big Sleep suggests reasons.
In noir fiction, characters often experience unhappy endings—because their behaviors preclude happy endings and because they are static characters. Noir stories are satisfying reads because the same character types show up again and again. Readers know these types—the goodhearted woman in love with the criminal, the worn-down but faithful cop, the “little man” whose love for a cold woman goes unrequited. These and other typical characters are familiar, and they don’t change—not from story to story or within a novel’s plot. They find themselves in predicaments because of the kind of people that they are. Even if delivered from the current predicament, they will likely work themselves right back into the same kind of trouble because they don’t learn and they don’t change. As Penzler says, “noir is about losers.”
Mona Mars is a loser. A woman so beautiful that even her terror is lovely—Marlowe says that her “beautiful thin tearing screaming . . . rocked me like a left hook”—she is also smart. Yet she is a loser because, even when she grasps what Mars is, she can’t stop loving him, a fault she blames on her gender: “It’s very funny . . . . Very funny, because, you see—I still love him. Women—,” and she stops, unable or unwilling to finish the thought. When Mars greets Mona during the interrogation with “Hello, sugar,” she doesn’t look at him or reply, but she goes with him all the same—knowing that he knows the role she played in his hired killer’s death. Readers can project that Mona is in trouble—but she still loves Mars. She cannot change. She is doomed.
Vivian and Agnes are other losers. Vivian will soon be alone, her father dead and her sister institutionalized. Readers know that the other people in her life are one of two kinds: servants like Norris and the “gentle-eyed, horse-faced maid,” and drunkards like Larry Cobb. She has wealth, she has beauty, but she also has a mercenary heart and an addiction to risk. Because she’s static, she won’t learn from her experiences and is headed for an unhappy ending. Agnes is something of a foil to Vivian. She craves the wealth that Vivian has and connives to get it, partnering with—or preying on—men who find her beautiful. Yet she too ends up alone, on the lam with a small stack of cash that won’t hold her long. Then she’ll have to risk another partnership—no doubt with another criminal sort like Brody or Jones. It won’t end well for Agnes.
Even those characterswho seem to get away with their crimes have bleak futures. Eddie Mars is riding high with his racketeering, but he pays the price—literally, in the form of hired protection and goons. Marlowe tells Mona that Mars is “a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops.” In other words, he is a man who must live looking constantly over his shoulder, waiting for an attack by a rival racketeer, a betrayal by an ambitious associate, some sudden death or ruin (and in the movie adaptation, Mars is in fact killed by his own men, who mistake him for Marlowe).
It is hard to name a character who ends well, in fact. Carmen is institutionalized; Sternwood is dying of bad decisions and hard living; Canino, who lived by the gun, dies by the gun. Marlowe is no exception. Underpaid, beaten up, unappreciated, Marlowe tells Mona that all he expects is “a plain pine box.”
What is so satisfying, then, about seeing these characters end unhappily? Perhaps readers feel that the characters get what they deserve—richly, in some cases. Fickle, snobbish Vivian doesn’t deserve Regan, a decent, brave man. Sternwood’s risky behavior—riding steeplechase at much too late an age—puts him in the wheelchair. Brody’s attempt to steal the pornography causes Lundgren to peg him for Geiger’s murder and shoot him in revenge. Repeatedly, poor choices lead to poor outcomes; cause leads inevitably to effect. No moment of grace intervenes; no one has an epiphany and reforms. A primal sort of justice holds throughout the novel, and yet readers can say, “That could never happen to me—I’m not a blackmailer/racketeer/deluded lover/gambler.” They can watch justice be dispensed, or befall characters without the cathartic “That could be me” moment that other genres urge on readers. Readers get the fun—without the insinuated guilt.
Even so, the world in which these characters reap what they sow is so thoroughly fallen, so entirely corrupt, that readers may wonder whether the novel makes a deeper claim about human nature. Are people doomed to repeat their mistakes, continue in poor judgment, and selfishly wreck each other’s lives? Where is the hero who rises above the flaws of his or her society and provides the model that inspires readers to imagine a better world? That hero does not walk the rain-soaked streets of Chandler’s noir Los Angeles or, in general, show up in the pages of noir fiction. In fact, some critics argue that the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep violates noir conventions, and perhaps should not be called noir, because Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Vivian fall in love and drive away together into a happy ending—an ending entirely out of keeping with the story arc of doom in the novel.