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The Big Sleep | Symbols

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Stained-Glass Window

When Marlowe first visits the Sternwood home, he pays close attention to a stained-glass panel over the entrance. It depicts a knight trying to rescue a woman tied to a tree. However, the image shows him before the rescue succeeds, so the knight always appears as he attempts to save the woman. For her part, the woman is almost on display: her hair strategically covers parts of her body. This image may be based on a painting of Sir Galahad that hung in the library at Dulwich College, where Chandler was a student.

The stained-glass panel introduces the knight frozen in an ambiguous position. He is trying to rescue her, but she is also in a sexually compromising position, barely dressed and covered only by her long hair. The knight symbol—and the image—recurs later in the book twice: first when Marlowe finds Carmen Sternwood naked with a dead body at Geiger's home and second when he comes home to find Carmen Sternwood naked in his apartment. Marlowe's reaction is first to rescue her and then to turn from Carmen's attempt at seduction and fiddle with the knight in a chess problem he has set up on his table. He explains to her, "I'm working for your father. He's a sick man, very frail, very helpless. He sort of trusts me not to pull any stunts." Like the knight in the window, Marlowe is frozen, not by time or indecision, but by the very person he's trying to save. He can't save Carmen, except in a very limited way. So he concentrates on saving himself.

Greenhouse

The greenhouse is an artificial environment and the general's refuge, which he uses for private conversation. Yet for all its expense and use, it is also a symbol of deception, for "the orchids are an excuse for the heat," which the greenhouse provides for his precarious physical condition.

Chandler describes the greenhouse in ways that characterize the Sternwoods, especially the general. Marlowe feels the heat in the greenhouse "like a pall," which can be either a cloud or a funeral cloth. Given the general's closeness to death and the theme of deception, most likely it is both. Greenhouses should be places to nurture plants and protect them from the elements, but the general grows orchids, which he calls "nasty," and he claims "their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute." The general's comment might well be applied to his daughters. He tries to protect them from the world, like flowers in a greenhouse, but they are essentially difficult to cultivate, nasty, and ready to sell their bodies for what they want.

Books

Books represent communication, language, and in a broader sense corruption and deception. The first books to play a major role are Geiger's. In addition to his blackmail practice, Geiger runs a bookstore dealing in "Rare Books and De Luxe Editions." However, this designation is a front to cover his main business of pornography. The books he sells are the opposite of deluxe, and if they are rare, it is probably because they are illegal. When people make purchases, their items are wrapped so no one else can tell what they are. After Geiger is dead, Marlowe finds Geiger's "blue leather book" with notes written in code. Marlowe recognizes Geiger's handwriting but can't otherwise read it, despite multiple attempts. Taken together these books symbolize a layered world defined by deception.

Books also play a role in how Marlowe defines himself and his calling. Late in the novel when Marlowe is explaining himself and how he operates, he says to General Sternwood he is not "Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance." He assumes the general will know these fictional detectives created by Conan Doyle and S.S. Van Dine and might make false assumptions about how detectives operate based on them. Even legitimate books distort reality, in other words, for Marlowe operates in the nitty-gritty underworld, while Holmes and Vance operate on more cerebral and elevated planes.

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