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“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

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“The Big Sleep” is about a private detective that is trying to solve a blackmailing case for a dying millionaire. The detective, Philip Marlowe, finds that the case not only involves blackmail, but also murder. This book was Raymond Chandler’s first novel and it explores the oppressive and corrupt society of 1930’s America. Chandler uses Philip Marlowe as the immoral yet heroic protagonist.

The corruption of 1930’s society is present in the government of Los Angeles. Throughout the novel Chandler brings to question the credibility of the police. Vivian Sternwood is the daughter of General Sternwood, the man Marlowe is working for. She says this about the police system: “He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.” She obviously implies that one could ignore the law if he or she was influential, powerful, or rich. When Vivian says this statement, she shows the reader how corrupt the police are. Another example of how the police are corrupt in the novel is how they allowed Geiger, an illegal pornography vendor, to continue his immoral and illegal business for their own personal gain. This crooked action shows the unethical and unprincipled manner of the police. In this instance the misconduct the police show proves the corruption of the society as a whole in the 1930’s.

The newspapers in the city of Los Angeles show how the people of the city are corrupt. A person uses a newspaper to understand, but in The Big Sleep the newspapers lie about the truth. One example of the dishonesty of the newspapers is seen when they lie about the murders of two men. Geiger had been killed by the Sternwood’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, but the newspapers claimed that a man named Joe Brody, who was a small time blackmailer that was trying to take over Geiger’s porn racket, was the one that killed him. This kind of lying is one of the things that corrupts the society of Los Angeles. Marlowe says this about the newspapers: “Their accounts of the affair came as close to the truth as newspaper stories usually come-as close as Mars is to Saturn” (118). This quote implies that the newspapers lie on a regular basis. The fact that the newspapers lie proves that Los Angeles at this time is full of dishonesty and corruption.

The last example of how the society of 1930’s is corrupt is how the individuals of Los Angeles are deceitful and evil. Carmen Sternwood is another daughter of the General and is a corrupt individual, if not simply a maniac. Her own father described her in this way: “Carmen is a child who likes to pull the wings off flies” (13). If her own father describes her in such a grotesque way than one can only imagine how wicked she actually is. Later in the story the reader finds how she killed a man because he didn’t have sex with her. Although one can be deceived because she is seductive and beautiful Carmen is obviously one of the corrupt individuals of this society. Another example is Eddie Mars. Mars is a man that runs a casino but is also involved in anything that would make him money.

Marlowe describes Mars in this way: “You think he’s just a gambler. I think he is a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it” (194). All of Marlowe’s comments are true to some extent. These actions prove that Mars is a man that cares only about money. Chandler illustrates the atrociousness of the society by using examples like Carmen and Mars as corrupt people in Los Angeles. If a society is full of individuals who act like Carmen or Mars then the society becomes ruined as a whole.

Another theme of “The Big Sleep” is the role of Marlowe as immoral yet heroic protagonist. His immorality is found in his tendencies to protect unethical behavior and his alcoholism. Marlowe drinks heavily throughout the novel and on the very first page Marlowe notifies the reader that drinking is a habit of his. “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it ” (3). The quote implies that he was not always this way and that would mean that he drinks regularly. After this quote Marlowe finds several occasions to drink liquor. Marlowe also hides things that are unethical. One example of this behavior occurs when Marlowe doesn’t tell the police about Mars’ various illegal acts. Because Marlowe keeps this information secret, he keeps Mars from being held responsible for his actions. This evidence proves that Marlowe is immoral because of his alcoholism and his tendency to cover unethical behavior.

While Marlowe may be unethical he is the hero of the story. Marlowe doesn’t take advantage of either of the Sternwood sisters. This self-control is a rare occurrence in the novel. He also seeks the truth in a world where everyone else is trying to hide it. His occupation is virtuous in itself. After Vivian tries to become sensual with Marlowe, Marlowe is surprised in his home by a naked Carmen waiting on his bed. When Carmen tries to coax Marlowe into having sex with her, he examines a chessboard and makes a move with the knight. Later in their conversation Marlowe decides that “[t]he move with the knight was wrong.

I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (156). In this example Marlowe is the knight (the virtuous man that fights for justice) and the game of chess is a symbol for the environment of Los Angles in the 1930’s. Marlowe is basically saying that an ethical modern-day knight has no place in the corrupt Los Angeles. This quote shows how Marlowe is a hero in this story. Because he is a “knight” he was able to turn down the Sternwood sisters and search for truth alone in the dark jungle of Los Angeles. These attributes make him the hero of The Big Sleep.

“The Big Sleep” emphasizes the problems with society in 1930’s Los Angeles. The book tells a story about blackmail, deceit, and murder. Chandler shows the reader how the world is corrupt throughout the levels of society. His main character Marlowe is struggling to be a hero in such an immoral world. Marlowe is not a perfect knight, but he fights for understanding by his own set of unorthodox morals.

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