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The Big Sleep | Themes

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Language and Communication

For Philip Marlowe language and communication are crucial in his field as a way of understanding and dealing with situations and people. Philip Marlowe speaks in the language of the criminal class, but thinks with his education, and in his narrative style, the two become confused. He observes carefully and reflects a great deal, but his dialogue is spare: direct, tough, cynical, and laced with wisecracks, which he uses even when he's thinking to himself. His reaction to Agnes, for example, when he first meets her working in Geiger's store, is she knows "as much about rare books as I knew about handling a flea circus."

Part of Marlowe's skill as a detective is his ability to speak with people from different sectors of society and understand shifts in language. Marlowe seems equally at ease speaking with a wide range of characters—from General Sternwood to Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Vivian Regan, and the district attorney. When he and General Sternwood discuss Rusty Regan, for example, Marlowe concludes the General liked Regan because he "learned to talk the language." He also notes Joe Brody talks the way he does because movies taught him to do so. Marlowe knows what different professions should know, and how that should emerge in language. When he first visits Geiger's store, Marlowe figures out it is a scam because Agnes—who does not speak the language of the trade—can't tell his request for a "Ben Hur 1860" is phony.

In addition, communication plays a significant role in the novel. Characters in the know can "read" people and situations, as the woman at the second bookstore senses something amiss with Geiger's store and trusts Marlowe. This skill also lets Marlowe adapt his approach and his own language use accordingly, as he does when he reads and then manipulates Captain Gregory. In fact the ability to pick up on clues saves Marlowe's life, for Mona Mars is adept at picking up on clues and understanding what to do.

Deception

Deception, misdirection, lying, and miscommunication play major roles throughout The Big Sleep. This theme—that deception is pervasive—is intertwined with the theme of communication and often complements it. The theme is first introduced in the description of the Sternwoods' stained-glass window showing a knight rescuing a woman with strategically placed hair covering certain parts of her naked body. Marlowe continues this practice of hiding information by giving fake names, lying to get what he wants, or using his wit to redirect those he's talking to. For example, when Carmen Sternwood comments on how tall he is, Marlowe replies, "I didn't mean to be." This whimsy is enough to derail Carmen's train of thought.

Marlowe's deceptions generally have a noble purpose. He admits his method and goal: "I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favor." If Marlowe's deceptions are for someone else's good, others' deceptions are less upright. The Sternwoods share only parts of their stories with him, as do the criminals trying to blackmail them. Geiger's business is an illegal pornography ring, run under the cover of a bookstore specializing in rare items, and records are kept in code. Geiger himself keeps two bedrooms, one to give a masculine appearance—to deceive—and one more feminine, for his own pleasure. Dishonesty and deception define the darker characters in the novel as well. Lash Canino, for example, plays at friendship even as he poisons people. And Carmen Sternwood, arguably the most corrupt of all, is nothing but one deception after another, from her self-consciously child-like flirtation to her ability to handle weapons.

Money

That money brings power is a continuing theme in The Big Sleep. Chandler signals at the beginning Marlowe is turned out as he should be for someone who is "calling on four million dollars." His clients' wealth dictates particular behavior from Marlowe as well as from the other characters whose lives intersect with the Sternwoods. Because they are rich, they are targets for blackmail, having gotten into trouble in part because of their wealth. And they can hire Marlowe to get them out of their trouble because they are rich. In fact Vivian Regan voices the opinion Owen Taylor had a criminal record only because "he didn't know the right people," suggesting different treatment for rich and poor and that her family's influence has bought special consideration more than once.

Near the end of Chapter 3, as Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood house after his first visit, he sees some of the oil wells that made the Sternwoods rich. He reflects they "could still look out of their front windows and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to. I didn't suppose they would want to." This thought indicates the Sternwoods' fortune arose as part of the Los Angeles oil boom and suggests they want to forget they were ever anything other than rich. Money therefore becomes associated with deception.

On the other hand, if money is a corrupting source, Marlowe seems almost heroic in his relationship to it. He has to earn his living and so is available for hire. Once he takes a case, he risks both violence and legal retribution, but he has no illusions of getting rich and accepts his lot: "I get paid for what I do. Not much by your standards, but I make out." He neither worships nor discounts it and doesn't allow it to influence his attitudes or ethical stance. He sees it instead as a necessary evil. His early comment about meeting General Sternwood and his four million dollars can be interpreted as sardonic, but Marlowe is not against making a positive impression no matter who hires him.

Corruption

The world of The Big Sleep is fundamentally corrupt—individually and systemically. The general blames his daughters' behavior on his biological shortcomings: "a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets." Although General Sternwood may blame his age for causing him to neglect his daughters, the real corrupting force is the source of his money. Vivian Regan, cynically admits they all live in a "rotten crime-ridden country" where knowing the right people keeps one out of jail. The police are corrupt, politicians are corrupt; everyone has a price, and the money that pays it is often dirty as well. The oil fields, where the Sternwood fortune was made, are also the place where Rusty Regan's body is buried. Vivian is corrupt in protecting her even more corrupt—and violent—sister who killed Regan for rejecting her.

Chandler has created a world where corruption is the norm. Corruption operates almost like gravity, so those who want to act ethically must stand against its forces. Marlowe tries to hold to his own ethical code, but even he seems to despair at times, such as his reflection in Chapter 24 that he is not in a "game for knights." There is no simple battle of good against evil, with sides clearly defined. Instead, in this world the hero drinks himself unconscious, lies to protect his client. He makes deals not to expose known corruption in the police department, which has allowed Geiger to operate a pornography ring, a suspicious death to be considered suicide, missing persons to be left missing, and favors involving the Sternwoods to be done by and for the district attorney. Marlowe may kill one killer—Lash Canino—but he arranges for another—Carmen Sternwood—to get treatment.

In this corrupt world there are no innocent maidens: the maidens kill, cover up murders, and blackmail. And, a "maiden" like Mona Mars, whose conduct may be questionable if not illegal, seems quite able to take care of herself. Marlowe established the standard for goodness, which can perhaps best be defined as being true to your own self. The corrupt are fundamentally so because they display a sort of hypocrisy; whereas the good, while not innocent, are consistent and honest about their flaws.

Sexuality and Gender

Sexuality is pervasive, from the characters of the Sternwood sisters to the plot development of the pornography. As early as the second paragraph in Chapter 1 Marlowe notices the Sternwoods' stained-glass window in which a knight is shown trying to rescue a maiden who "didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." Soon after noticing the image Marlowe meets Carmen Sternwood, who gives him a "look that was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air." There's an ongoing sexual undercurrent, as well as obvious sexuality. Chandler describes sexuality as power women can exert over men, a power that Marlowe resists because it would compromise his work ethic. He is attracted to the glamorous, complex, and intelligent Vivian, more subtle in her seductiveness than the disturbed and childish Carmen. But even with Vivian, he recognizes an ulterior motive and keeps his distance.

Along with money, sexuality also drives the plot. Nude pictures of Carmen are fodder for blackmail. The Sternwood daughters both use their sexuality for attention and to get what they want. General Sternwood refers to prostitutes casually, suggesting intimate knowledge of them, and his current state of health forces him "to indulge his vices by proxy." Geiger runs a thriving business distributing pornography, giving people access to sexual images society has forbidden. In addition, Geiger is homosexual at a time when homosexuality was considered deeply unnatural—and criminal.

In addition, sexual passion can be intoxicating. At one point Marlowe even says he has a hangover from women, adding, "women make me sick." The implication is sexuality can be unhealthy, and even deadly. Both Carmen Sternwood and Carol Lundgren kill because they cannot pursue their sexual passions as they would like. Marlowe is aware of the dangers inherent in both money and sexuality and steers clear of both.

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