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The Big Sleep | Chapter 3 | Summary



Marlowe meets with Mrs. Regan, perceiving her as "worth a stare" but "trouble." She dresses and moves to show herself off, and Marlowe looks. With a glass of Scotch in hand, she quizzes Marlowe about being a private detective, indicating she "didn't know they really existed, except in books. Or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotels." Then she asks about his meeting with her father. Marlowe doesn't tell her much.

When Marlowe refuses to reveal more information, she gets angry. When he doesn't back down, she flirts with him, calling him a "dark handsome brute." After they verbally spar about the case and each other's lack of conventional manners, Marlowe leaves. As he exits the house, Marlowe looks out over the oil fields, the source of the Sternwoods' money.


This chapter further develops the Sternwoods' complex family dynamics, in particular, the way the daughters use their sexuality. In Chapter 1 Carmen makes sexual advances toward Marlowe casually, almost instinctively. Vivian, by contrast, uses her sexuality and position as tools: both are ways for her to get what she wants. For all Marlowe finds her attractive, he does not bend to her will. He has given his loyalty to the general and holds to it, not easily swayed. He also understands his place, as a hired man, and he is bound by his pride to refuse advances designed only to put him at odds with his boss.

Vivian Regan's choice to ring for a maid to refill her drink, rather than pour it herself, is a window into her character. It also reveals something about the Sternwoods and the theme of money: these are people who because of their wealth expect others to do even basic tasks for them. Chandler reinforces this idea several times in these first chapters: the butler greets and escorts Marlowe, the maid refills a glass, Marlowe is hired to do the family's dirty work. The delegation of these duties creates a tension that will run through the book: the Sternwoods hire Marlowe for his skill and independence, but various family members act as if he will function as a servant. As in this chapter, Marlowe asserts his independence in small, subtle ways that work to his advantage both as a detective and as a man.

Further, the Sternwoods often behave as if their wealth places them a superior position on a human level—as though they are some kind of royalty. Marlowe's glimpse at the oil derricks near the Sternwood house reminds readers where their wealth comes from, that its roots are not deep, and it is new. The old field is now a park, its ugliness covered by cultivated nature—and serves as another example of deception. Although the Sternwoods' wealth is theirs to enjoy, it is looked down upon by those with "old" money. Further, the oil field foreshadows significant events.

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