The Big Sleep
Characterization of Marlowe in The Big Sleep
In The Big Sleep, private investigator Philip Marlowe solves the puzzle created by a multi-layered, interrelated series of heinous crimes for his client, at a fee of twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. Marlowe strives first and foremost to protects his client’s interests and fulfill his duty even in the face of imminent danger. He encounters a plethora of dangerous members of the criminal underworld, yet always remains calm and capable – preserving not only his own safety, but also that of others. He is ultimately never bested, intellectually or physically. What do his skill, privacy, and sense of duty say about his character, modern moral sensibilities, and the ideal of the private investigator?Marlowe is hired by the ill and affluent General Sternwood – a former military man who made his money in the oil business – to investigate a blackmail scheme being put on him by one Mr. Geiger. Geiger is a book dealer whose dealings turn out to be more sinister than they first appeared; he has a pornographic lending library that Marlowe describes this way: “Photos and letterpresses alike were of indescribable filth… elaborate smut” (26). Rather than indulging in such books as some might, Marlowe recognizes them as perverse and reprehensible. Marlowe stands in striking contrast to the man who left the volume behind: an lavish dandy with a cane and gold bordered wallet who, when he sees he has been trailed by Marlowe, hides behind a tree, departing the scene only after having safely ditched the book. Pornography such as this is not then for men of Marlowe’s character, but for those who are wealthy, hedonistic, and without moral strictures. Marlowe further reveals his disgust with sexual perversion when he visits Geiger’s home that night, finding Carmen Sternwood naked and drugged, in the process of being photographed by Geiger, who has been freshly killed, shot three times. “The three shots had been somebody else’s idea of how the proceedings might be given a new twist,” Marlowe thinks. “The idea of the lad [who killed Geiger]. I could see merit in his point of view”(31). As his killer may have, Marlowe recognizes Geiger as a dangerous and selfish deviant – one who has taken advantage of the misguided young daughter of his client and likely many others prior. Geiger’s womanly bedroom and his homosexuality contribute to Marlowe’s seeing him as an unwholesome character, in keeping with Marlowe’s early/mid-20th century inspired moral ideas.Marlowe understands that Carmen is a damaged young girl, intent on showing everyone how wild and naughty girl she is. She waits for Marlowe in his bed, fully naked, one evening, beckoning him to join her. Patiently, Marlowe tries to coax Carmen from his bed: “You’re just showing how naughty you can be. But you don’t have to show me,” he says to her (134). He refuses to take advantage of this girl, to be complicit in her corruption. Ultimately he succeeds in making her leave, but only after he convinces her of his complete lack of interest and thoroughly angers her. Such things as feelings cannot get in the way of Marlowe’s abiding by his personal code; he is infrequently a delicate man.Though intensely frank, and often seemingly cold, Marlowe is a man of quiet compassion; he is not a murderer, or cruel. Marlowe uses his intelligence, deftness, and perpetual composure to protect and save the lives of those in danger – those who deserve saving. Carmen in Geiger’s home is naked, and drugged, and therefore temporarily unable to move or speak coherently. Marlowe dresses her, carries her out to her car and drives her to her home. He does not leave until he is certain that the butler and maid of the Sternwood home have the situation under control and that Carmen will be safe. He is discreet and, as nearly as he can be, gentle. He takes Carmen home in her own vehicle, relieving her of the responsibility of having to pick it up at a later date or becoming potentially incriminated due to its presence at the scene of Geiger’s murder. Because of this, he must walk miles in the rain back to Geiger’s bungalow from the Sternwood estate to retrieve his own vehicle: he has put his own comfort second to serving his duty to the Sternwood’s and protecting Carmen, the damsel in distress.Carmen, ever the child, is only days later wrestling – armed – on the floor of Joe Brody’s apartment. Joe Brody has the developed slide containing Carmen’s nude image as taken by Geiger. Before Carmen arrived, Marlowe was in the final stages of negotiating with Brody to have the images returned; Marlowe had the entire situation under total control. Carmen enters, bungles Marlowe’s negotiation, and is nearly shot in the process. Brody has pinned Carmen and is reaching in his pocket for his gun when Marlowe “showed him the automatic. [Brody] stopped trying to get his hand in his pocket” (75). Once more, Carmen is protected by Marlowe – and in this instance it is not only her physical safety Marlowe preserves; in taking the images from Brody, he protects Carmen from any messy police snooping into why she was with Geiger the night of the murder. Marlowe is doing his part to give the girl another chance and to keep the General, his client, from any potentially stressful or embarrassing controversy.In the climactic scenes of the novel, Marlowe kills Eddie Mars’ chief hitman and saves himself as well as Mars’ imprisoned wife, Mona, from death. Vivian, Carmen’s older and slightly less neurotic sister, is held at gunpoint by one of Eddie Mars’ henchmen trying to steal back Vivian’s gambling winnings; Marlowe adeptly disarms the young man and protects Vivian from harm as well as robbery. He masters each dangerous situation thrown his way and protect those at risk.Marlowe – as evinced by his saving young Carmen Sternwood on two separate occasions, and his saving Vivian Sternwood and Mona Mars – is able to ultimately achieve control over any situation in which he is involved, turning the tables in his favor every time. He is a man whose existence is predicated on order, reason, and control: he is a quick thinker who can protect himself and others from harm in dangerous situations; he is able to, without breaking a sweat seemingly, unravel the most convoluted of crime webs; also, he is a chess hobbyist. The night Carmen waits for Marlowe in his apartment, he feels, next to his mixture of sadness and disgust at Carmen’s life choices, a violation of his mastery over his environment. Marlowe gradually became more and more angered at her having entered his sacred space, his apartment: “This was the room I had to live in. It was all I had in the way of a home. It was everything that was mine, that had any association for me. . . I couldn’t stand her in that room any longer” (135). Her presence there undermines his control; he is unable, for a time, to make her leave. It is as if she is mocking him, by taking from him one of the few things he has: control over this single room.Marlowe’s reason, his intellect, his control, and his sense of personal integrity compose his being, and he refuses to let them go. His actions as a private investigator are all based on, ultimately, a unique sense of duty to his client. He refuses on many occasions to divulge the specifics of his work for General Sternwood, even to Sternwood’s daughters. His client, he says, is “entitled to . . . protection” (96): “[I use] what little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and my willingness to get pushed around a little to protect [my] client” (98). It is not about money, however, – and Marlowe makes precious little, – it is about using his talents and using them as well as he is able, being as faithful and true to his client. He tells Vivian in his office that honest private investigators do not make money. She asks, “’. . . Are you honest?’ ‘Painfully,’” he says (49).In accordance with his desire to be faithful to his client above all else, Marlowe openly admits to police that in recounting his version of the past days’ events, he left out some “personal matters” and intends to keep leaving them out (96). Here, he bends the code of law to suit his personal code. This code means, also, doing his job for his client thoroughly, and according to Marlowe’s set of standards that includes researching a disappearance he was not explicitly asked to research. Because he did not successfully find this individual – Rusty Regan, Sternwood’s son-in-law – he has done an “unsatisfactory job” (180); he offers payment back to Sternwood because of this. If the job has not been completed satisfactorily, if he has not done all he can for the client according to his way of doing things, he would rather not be payed as if he had.Marlowe is a man with a unique, personalized set of moral standards which he abides by, consistently. He laments the world around him and its lack of a moral compass; there is no decency any longer. The youth is sick, the Sternwood girl’s are evidence of that; the police and the state are corrupt, cops shooting down, in cold blood, “some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare” (94) or the state delivering cyanide fumes in the gas chamber, “what they call humane execution . . . now” (87).He is a private investigator – the word private being important. Marlowe is a private man: he lives alone, works alone, and he lives and works according to standards which he alone is responsible for creating. The PI has this prerogative; as a private entity, a free agent, he is able to play by his rules. He is at odds with the world; he literally battles with the evil that inhabits it in an effort to help those who put their faith in him. In doing battle with these criminals and setting right their evils in some small way, he orders part of the world according to his moral code.Marlowe is the knight of his chess-board and of the piece of “stained-glass romance” above the entrance doors to the Sternwood place (4). He struggles to free the damsel(s) in distress as does the knight of the stained-glass; but, as Marlowe says, “Knights had no meaning in this game. This wasn’t a game for knights” (134). He is almost an anachronism, a knight in the modern world. However, Marlowe is not so idealistic as the knight of the stained glass, not as “sociable” (3); he is a jaded product of his time. He is the existential PI: he follows his own rules, lives his own way, apart from the loose and corruptible strictures the world has set up; his religion is his work, his sanctuary his apartment. Police, the law, it all means little to Marlowe. He answers to himself and himself only, willing to bend the rules the world has set up so as to more fully abide by his own.It is impossible, though, for one man to order the world, to control more than a small slice: a room perhaps, a fleeting situation. Marlowe knows that though he has ordered and sorted all the intricacies of the case in his mind and done some good, served justice in some way, the world still goes on, he having made little discernible impact. Eddie Mars – racketeer, murderer, thief – gets away untouched, while good men like Harry Jones are murdered. All Marlowe can do is continue to do what good work he is able, order his life and the situations in which he is involved to the best of his ability, and, every once in a while, after a long day’s work, relax at a bar downtown and have a couple of double Scotches.