Analysis: Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
First Person, Philip Marlowe
Exactly what kind of narrator is Marlowe? Technically speaking, the type of narration in The Big Sleep is called a first person limited point of view. It's first person because Marlowe is the "I" who's telling his own story. And it's "limited" because Marlowe doesn't have access to the inner thoughts and feelings of other characters in the story and he doesn't know everything that's going on. That kind of total access is reserved for what we call an omniscient narrator.
Obviously, giving the narrator omniscience would be a disaster for a detective story, right? If the detective already knows everything's that's going on, then there wouldn't be any mystery to solve. A detective has to have a limited point of view because his job is to infer, deduce, observe, and piece together clues. So that means that a typical detective story is always working its way towards omniscience. Towards total knowledge.
In The Big Sleep, Marlowe's task is to acquire knowledge about the blackmail scheme and Rusty's disappearance. In the end, Marlowe does achieve omniscience since he solves the crime, but when he arrives at the knowledge he was seeking, he's not exactly pleased. In fact, he becomes extremely disillusioned (maybe we should tell Mr. Marlowe that sometimes ignorance is bliss). And this sense of disillusionment brings us to the second important feature of The Big Sleep: Marlowe's distinctive narrative voice.
Since we're in Marlowe's head the entire time, we get to know the guy pretty well. His personality shines through in every sentence we read. The way that Marlowe narrates is a combination of sarcastic asides, objective commentary, and cynical observations. And what makes his voice so interesting is his unusual way of describing things. For example, read his description of the stained glass panel at the beginning of the book, and while you're at it, we want you to pick the funniest word:
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. (1.2)
When you read this passage, which funny word jumped out at you most? We at Shmoop chose the word "convenient." Why might this word be both so funny and so fitting at the same time? By itself, the word "convenient" isn't all that interesting. But in this particular sentence, he's using it in a new, surprising way. He definitely doesn't mean convenient in the literal sense, as something that involves little trouble or effort. Anyone with long hair knows that there's nothing convenient about it. It gets tangled easily, it gets in your eyes, it takes longer to wash.
So why does Marlowe use the word convenient here? Well, we think it's because by using this one simple word, Marlowe is able to create a very vivid image. What did you picture in your head when you read that the lady was naked except for "some very long and convenient hair"? What we pictured is long flowy tresses of hair cascading down her naked body, and "conveniently" coiling around and covering up her nakedness.
Why are we making such a big deal out of this one word? It's because this is what makes Chandler stand out so much as a writer of detective fiction. There's more going on in this novel than just predictable plot twists and cheap payoffs. What makes The Big Sleep different from you're your plain old, run-of-the-mill detective stories is Marlowe's ability to find the mot juste—the "right word" to describe something perfectly, with just the right combination of humor and cynicism. It's a hallmark of the hardboiled narrative voice that made Chandler so famous.