The Maltese Falcon | Study Guide

Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon | Chapter 13 : The Emperor's Gift | Summary

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Summary

When Spade arrives at Gutman's apartment he hands him two guns and says the boy shouldn't be running "around with these. He'll get himself hurt." Gutman laughs and calls Spade "a chap worth knowing, an amazing character." Over cigars and whiskey, Gutman tells Spade the history of the black bird. It dates back to Emperor Charles V of Spain. The emperor gave a group of exiled men, who had been knights during the Crusades, a gift of three territories: "Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli." In return the Knights of Malta, as they became known, had to give the emperor one falcon every year to show that if they left Malta, the island would revert back to Spain. The knights were very wealthy, and instead of giving the emperor a real bird they opted for a "golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels." This jeweled bird never made it to Emperor Charles and for centuries changed hands without anyone realizing its true worth because the bird had been "painted or enameled over to look like ... a fairly interesting black statuette." The falcon had been discovered in Paris by a Greek dealer named Charilaos Kostantinides, but he was killed in a burglary, and the bird was taken.

Gutman explains he had been searching for the falcon for 17 years before finding it in the home of a Russian general living in Constantinople, Kemidov. He sent his "agents" to get it, and they did, but they did not give it to him. Spade and Gutman assume Brigid has it. Spade says he has Brigid "safely tucked away" and can get the statue "when the time comes." Gutman offers Spade two deals: $50,000 now or 25 percent of the statuette's worth in a few months. Suddenly Spade becomes woozy. He realizes he has been drugged, and Gutman calls for his boy Wilmer, who trips Spade. When Spade crashes to the ground, Wilmer kicks him in the temple.

Analysis

The actual story of the Maltese falcon is in part true. Emperor Charles V of Spain did in fact make a deal with the Knights of Malta, signing an "Act of Donation" in 1530. In exchange for the island they were to give him one falcon every year on All Saints' Day. Those falcons, however, were live birds and not jeweled statues. The idea that the falcon is a statue encrusted with jewels is invented by Hammett.

The Maltese falcon is not just a symbol of greed in the novel, in which characters are willing to do almost anything to get it. The statuette is black because it has been painted or enameled, perhaps to disguise its jewels and therefore its true value. In a novel whose characters often have hidden agendas, it is amusing that they are trying to obtain a statue that itself has something to hide. But unlike the people who pursue it, who are trying to conceal their greed and capacity for evil, the statuette hides jewels beneath its black surface, things of beauty and value. Does the falcon symbolize Spade, who, beneath his dark and deceptive exterior, may also be hiding something?

Gutman tells Spade the history of the Maltese falcon. It's clear Gutman is obsessed with finding the statuette because he thinks it is worth millions. The history of the statue is interesting because it is hard to know how much of it is fact or fiction, and Gutman has to decide what information to believe based on problematic evidence. Gutman has to piece together its history by researching a variety of sources, and much of what he discovers is hearsay. ("Pierre Dan believed [the bird was carried away by an English adventurer], and that's good enough for me.") Gutman's research is a reminder of how frequently during the novel characters must rely on piecing together evidence to gain knowledge, which often winds up as incomplete or incorrect.

Spade is less than truthful with Gutman. He says he knows where Brigid, and the bird, are. At this point he does not know where the statuette is and Brigid has disappeared. But he wants Gutman to believe him so he can find out more information about the falcon and how much money it might be worth. Gutman may appear jovial, gladly refilling Spade's glass as they do business, but the chapter reveals him to be a much more disturbing figure than he first appears. Gutman is actually frighteningly sadistic. For once Spade is not in control: Gutman drugs him and lets Wilmer kick him in the temple while Spade is passed out on the floor.

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