The Stained-Glass Panel
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Let's set the scene, shall we? The Big Sleep opens with a description of the Sternwood mansion and the first thing that catches Marlowe's eye is a stained glass panel:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. 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. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying. (1.2)
We're not sure about you, but Marlowe's sarcastic sense of humor in this passage had us laughing out loud. Now in terms of symbolic importance, this panel ranks pretty high up there. It is the perfect visual encapsulation of how Marlowe understands his role as the knightly detective in modern society. So what's wrong with the stained glass panel, according to our new favorite detective? Well, the knight in "dark armor" is taking his good old time untying the lady. In fact, Marlowe thinks that the knight doesn't even really seem to be trying to loosen the knots in the rope. Not very chivalrous. At least, not in Marlowe's eyes.
This image of the knight not getting very far in the task put in front of him also contains a note of cynicism. Is Chandler perhaps making fun of this knight—notice that his armor is "dark"—and turning the whole "knight in shining armor" myth upside down? And what exactly is Marlowe's relationship to this knight?
Marlowe jokes about eventually having to go up there and give the knight a hand, which indicates his dedication to being chivalrous. But he also gets caught up in the corrupt family history of the Sternwoods, so is he the upright "knight in shining armor" or is he closer to this not-so-awesome knight in dark armor depicted in the stained glass? The symbolic importance of this stained glass, as well as the motif of the knight, will resurface constantly throughout The Big Sleep, so keep a weather eye out, Shmoopers. What other moments can you spot?