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The Big Sleep | Study Guide

Raymond Chandler

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The Big Sleep | Chapter 1 | Summary



On a mid-October morning detective Philip Marlowe visits the Sternwood house to discuss a case with General Sternwood. Marlowe is "neat, clean, shaved and sober ... everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. [He] was calling on four million dollars." While Marlowe waits for the butler to make sure the general is ready, the general's 20-year-old daughter, Carmen Sternwood, enters the front hallway. She flirts with Marlowe and then slumps against him. The butler re-enters and pulls Carmen off Marlowe. Carmen vanishes up the stairs, and the butler tells Marlowe the general will see him.


This first chapter establishes many of the novel's attributes. It introduces Philip Marlowe as a mature, suave, fashionable man, who knows how to dress and how to behave. It also introduces Marlowe's strong and stylized first-person narration and the distance he keeps from others. It establishes Marlowe's profession (private detective), the thematic importance of money—he is there to call "on four million dollars"—and the power imbalance money creates. Despite his impeccable dress and demeanor, he is forced to wait in the hallway like a common servant while the daughter of the house paws at him.

Marlowe's description of the stained glass introduces the symbol of the knight and the limits of a knight's power in this context. His description of the house indicates his detachment, or disdain for the trappings of wealth as opposed to nature, as he notices "decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs" in contrast to the "solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills."

Carmen Sternwood is introduced, appearing either drunk or high and out of control. Marlowe notices eyes with "almost no expression ... predatory teeth" and a generally unhealthy pallor. There is something off, but Carmen doesn't seem ill or weak. Indeed her actions hint at later developments: her dubious and shifting relationship with reality, her flirtatiousness, and her lack of control over her own body.

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