The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Marlowe tells us that inside the Sternwood greenhouse, "the plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket" (2.1). This is one of Chandler's most famous descriptions because of all that vivid imagery. Check out Chandler's word choice in this passage. The orchids have "nasty meaty" petals that look like human flesh. Pretty gruesome image, right? We normally think of orchids as beautiful exotic flowers, but here they appear corrupt and disgusting. They're associated with death and decay. They even give off a strange, sickening odor that is "overpowering." Basically, these orchids are nasty pieces of work, and we might think of them as a symbol for the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in the thirties. On the surface, L.A. has a certain sensual attractiveness with its luxurious mansions and high-end casinos, but the city's opulence quickly gives way to a deeper sordidness as Marlowe uncovers murder and corruption.
If the Orchids are the Underbelly, What's the Greenhouse?
Marlowe describes the orchid greenhouse as a "jungle" (2.2), saying,
The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. (2.1)
Chandler uses a ton of adjectives to describe the humid atmosphere of the greenhouse. Check out that string of adjectives in the first sentence: "thick, wet, steamy and larded" and "cloying." What's the effect of reading this quick series of words? For us, we started to feel like we were running out of oxygen, slowly suffocating in the damp, moisture-filled air. The "unreal greenish color" of the light has a sickly quality to it, and of course the image of the aquarium tank again emphasizes the water-soaked imagery of the entire passage.
So what might this jungle-like greenhouse be a symbol of? Well, all the water imagery reminds us of Chandler's constant use of rain throughout the novel. In this case, the dampness in the greenhouse is oppressive and harsh, just like the environment of Marlowe's rain-soaked L.A. Marlowe has to fight his way through the "urban jungle" of Los Angeles with its corrupt "cloying" around him like vines in a jungle.