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The Big Sleep | Study Guide

Raymond Chandler

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The Big Sleep | Motifs



Chandler initiates the weather motif with the novel's opening sentence: the sun wasn't shining and a "look of hard rain" was visible in the foothills. Weather does more than simply highlight the mood—bad things happen in the rain, and good things, or revelations, happen in the sun. The ominous presence of rain foreshadows difficult times. Marlowe ends the book with the sun shining, but with a "mysterious something in its light." In between, rain often colors the narrative and sets the mood. For example when Marlowe is watching Geiger's store from inside his car, the "rain drummed hard on the roof," water fills the gutters, and puddles form on the floor of the car. His leaking car roof allows the rain to penetrate his car just as intensely as emotional experiences, like the killing of Harry Jones, penetrate Marlowe's emotional armor.

Rain makes tasks more difficult, even playing a key part in the plot when Marlowe's car skids while he is searching for Eddie Mars's wife in Realito. Rain obscures visibility, and at one point Marlowe refers to "rain-clouded lights of the stores." In this case weather is a special obstacle for Marlowe, whose job depends on seeing things clearly. In other ways rain demonstrates a person's character. In Chapter 8, after Marlowe drops Carmen off at the Sternwood house, he walks through the rain back to Geiger's house. He mentions "I was as wet as I could get already," and that the night is so wet taxis won't stop for fares, but he keeps going, because it is his duty. Weather obscures events but reveals character and heightens the mood.

Mind-Altering Substances

From Chapter 2 when Marlowe and General Sternwood share a drink in the greenhouse, through the final paragraph, when Marlowe "stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches" to mark the end of the case, drinking is a continual presence in the story. General Sternwood, no longer able to do so on his own, enjoys his vices—smoking and drinking—through Marlowe as a proxy. The general's missing son-in-law, Rusty Regan, is a bootlegger, who makes his living transporting and selling alcohol illegally. When Vivian Regan interviews Marlowe in Chapter 3, it is over a drink—and Marlowe shows his defiance by telling her she's drinking her "lunch out of a Scotch bottle." When he's stuck in the rain, Marlowe drinks to stay warm. When he finds Carmen naked beside Geiger's body, she appears high.

In addition heavy drinking, as opposed to social drinking, supports pivotal moments in the plot. Marlowe has to drive Vivian home from Mars's club because her escort, Larry Cobb, is too drunk to drive her himself. Marlowe drinks himself to sleep out of frustration in Chapter 8, waking up with a hangover. Alcohol seems to provide a way to make sense of the world: Marlowe speaks of having a hangover "from women," a way of explaining overindulgence or the inability to handle too much. Alcohol repeatedly provides a sense of camaraderie, as when Marlowe and Mars share a drink at Mars's club. Drinking fills Marlowe's world, even extending into death, as Canino poisons Harry Jones by putting cyanide in his drink.

Given that the novel is set during prohibition, a time when alcohol was illegal in the United States, the use of drugs and alcohol in the novel extends the theme of corruption. Everyone in the novel drinks. Every scene contains alcohol. The corruption is pervasive. But that doesn't mean everyone is evil. Many good people drink, and some bad people don't. Again, Chandler strips traditional moral values away and forces the reader to judge characters and situations based on their own terms.

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