Study Guide

The Big Sleep Analysis

  • Tone

    Dark, Cynical, Sarcastic

    We know that working as a private detective has made Marlowe disillusioned by all the corruption he sees, so it's no surprise that the tone of the novel is primarily dark and pessimistic. Let's take a look at the opening of Chapter 6, a classic example of Marlowe's voice. He's staking out Geiger's bookstore, waiting to see if and when Geiger makes an appearance:

    Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. The rain drummed hard on the roof of the car and the burbank top began to leak. A pool of water formed on the floorboards for me to keep my feet in. It was too early in the fall for that kind of rain. I struggled into a trench coat and made a dash for the nearest drugstore and bought myself a pint of whiskey. Back in the car I used enough of it to keep warm and interested. I was long overparked, but the cops were too busy carrying girls and blowing whistles to bother about that. (6.1)

    This passage has many of the typical characteristics we expect to find in a Chandler novel: rain, booze, sketchy cops. The tone in this passage is definitely gloomy, and Marlowe doesn't sound like he's having such a great time.

    Plus, check out the unusual word choice he uses as he takes a drink of his whiskey: he drinks just enough to "keep warm and interested." The "warm" part makes sense since he's probably cold and wet sitting inside his rain-soaked car. But why "interested"? How would numbing his senses with alcohol help keep Marlowe interested in what is happening at Geiger's store?

    It's a classic example of Marlowe's cynicism. He sees so much corruption while on the job that alcohol becomes a way for him to cope with his disillusionment, to stay "interested" when he mostly just feels disgusted. And of course Marlowe's characteristic dark cynicism also comes through in his portrayal of the cops, who are too busy flirting with giggling girls to notice that he has been overparked.

  • Genre

    Mystery

    Okay, so it's pretty obvious that The Big Sleep falls under the genre of mystery since it's about a detective trying to solve a crime. We have many of the standard elements found in a good mystery story: blackmail, murder, gambling, gunfights and sex (or at least sexual situations).

    But The Big Sleep isn't exactly your typical mystery story. For one thing, Marlowe doesn't have the superior intelligence of a Sherlock Holmes when solving the case. He makes blunders, some of them costly, and he's portrayed as a flawed, vulnerable person. And when Marlowe finally succeeds in solving the crime, we're not left with that warm and fuzzy feeling of exhilaration that the criminal has been caught and justice has been served.

    On the contrary, The Big Sleep ends on a pretty bleak, cynical note, and Chandler doesn't tie all the loose ends neatly together in a big red bow (for example, we never know for sure whether Owen Taylor was murdered or committed suicide). So while The Big Sleep certainly belongs in the mystery genre, it's also a novel about a man named Marlowe who just happens to be a detective, and we spend just as much time figuring out what kind of person Marlowe is as we do piecing together all the clues.

    Literary Fiction

    Normally when we think of a detective novel, we'd associate it more with the genre of popular page-turners that tend to focus primarily on plot. But Chandler wanted to do more with the genre by bringing it closer to the realm of literary fiction, which emphasizes style, character development, and psychological depth. To pull this off, Chandler spends less time worrying about the plot (much to many critics' chagrin), and more energy developing the psychological complexity of his characters.

    Quest

    When we hear the word quest, we usually think of works like the Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings, where there's a whole lot of traveling involved. But quest stories don't necessarily have to include crossing endless miles of land and sea. In The Big Sleep, the idea of the quest is used more subtly. Marlowe has to navigate the seedy streets of L.A. to reach a goal (solving the blackmail case and the disappearance of Regan). He's gotta overcome numerous obstacles in his search for the truth. And most importantly, Marlowe sees himself as a knight-figure, and we all know that knights are constantly out on quests, looking for new adventure.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Big Sleep isn't exactly the catchiest of titles. It's not as blood curdling as Murder, She Wrote or as hair-raising as Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. We don't even find out what "the big sleep" even means until literally the very last page of the novel.

    For a discussion of the title's literal meaning, check out our "What's Up With the Ending?" section. For now, let's chat about why in the world Chandler would wait until the very end of the novel to (a) mention the title, and (b) tell us what it means in the first place.

    What are some of the things you thought "the big sleep" might represent as you were reading the novel? Did you think it had something to do with the act of sleeping? Is it just an extra long nap? To be sure, a whole lot of the novel does take place at night when people ought to be in bed catching some Zs. So the title seems to emphasize the nocturnal quality that is present throughout the novel. Plus, Marlowe seems to get very little sleep in the novel. He's always staying up late to track down leads or getting drunk.

    And what might the adjective "big" signify? Does it have something to do with being in a big city? Are there more sleepless nights in a big city like Los Angeles? And if it's a sleep that's bigger than a usual sleep, then does that mean it's a sleep you wouldn't wake up from? Maybe, as you read, you realize that the title seems to be hinting toward death (spoiler alert: it is). But by waiting until the second-to-last paragraph of the novel to tell us what "the big sleep" is, Chandler also creates a little suspense. He's prolonging our anticipation until the last possible minute.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending of The Big Sleep doesn't have the same wow factor of a Sherlock Holmes novel, where Holmes ties together all the loose threads in a virtuoso display of intellectual superiority over his adversaries. On the contrary, there are still plenty of loose ends in The Big Sleep, most notably what happened to Owen Taylor. Was he murdered or did he commit suicide? 

    Chandler hated the expectation that all detective stories needed to tie up every loose end. He also didn't want to have perfectly rational explanations for human behavior because in real life nothing is tied up neatly with a big pretty bow. Life is messy and sometimes things are unexplainable.

    Sure, in the final pages of The Big Sleep, Marlowe has solved most of the case. He figures out who killed Rusty and how his murder was covered up. But in many ways the ending of the novel leaves things unresolved and open-ended. Mars doesn't get any prison time, even though he was behind many of the murders and crimes. The secret of the Sternwood family won't be made public, and Carmen will (in theory) be cured, not punished. Vivian also won't have to pay for covering up the truth. And the General may have been spared the painful knowledge of Regan's murder, but he'll also die without ever learning the truth.

    Case Closed?

    All of this raises the question of how successfully Marlowe has performed his job. Is it even possible for Marlowe to ensure that justice has been met in such a depraved world? Has Marlowe himself been able to keep his own hands clean while trying to dig up the truth behind the Sternwoods' sordid family history? At the end of the novel, Marlowe contemplates the events that have unfolded, and we finally learn the meaning behind the novel's title

    What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep. (32.77)

    Okay, so there's a lot that Marlowe is saying in this moment of reflection. Keep in mind that the guy's at his most cynical right now. He has just left the Sternwood mansion knowing that no one will pay the price for the crimes that were committed. Justice shmustice. 

    So what's his takeaway from all this? Marlowe thinks that the only way to escape the nastiness of life is through death. In fact, only the character of Regan (who we never get to meet) is left untarnished since he's already dead when the novel begins. He doesn't have to care about the "dirtiness" of life. Similarly, when General Sternwood dies, he'll also be at peace. Marlowe realizes that as long as he is still alive, he'll always be mixed up in the "nastiness" of the Sternwood case. Ironically, Marlowe's moment of supreme pessimism is also a moment of optimism in that death is portrayed here not as the gruesome murders we've witnessed previously, but as a gentle sleep. 

    We leave Marlowe as he attempts to come to grips with what has happened, to make sense out of everything. But he can only reach a partial understanding. As a detective who does his best to act as a modern-day knight, Marlowe can only be so successful in his quest for truth. He's able to solve some mysteries and partially expose certain crimes, but he ultimately realizes how little control he actually has over things. In the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, Marlowe must resign himself to the fact that the immoral standards of modern society will remain.

  • Setting

    Los Angeles and Hollywood, California in the 1930s

    The Big Sleep is set in 1930s Los Angeles and Hollywood during the Depression. Even though we usually associate Hollywood with sultry palm trees and sunny skies, Chandler instead portrays L.A. as a rain-soaked city that is dark, dirty, and depraved. L.A.'s a dangerous urban jungle that Marlowe has to struggle through in his journey toward the truth.

    And in this jungle, we encounter a wide variety of settings that range from the wealthy Sternwood mansion to Mars' illegal gambling joint to Marlowe's sparsely decorated office. As a detective, Marlowe is the only character who is able to access all these different social settings and he passes judgment on each place he visits. So at the Sternwood house, we can feel Marlowe's contempt for the rich as he looks around at the expensive furniture. And it becomes important that Marlowe's own office isn't lavishly decorated; it's a sign that he doesn't put up any false pretenses. What you see is what you get.

    In The Big Sleep, the grittiness of L.A. makes for a dark tone and emphasizes the fact that chivalrous Marlowe feels out of place in this modern world. For example, let's take a look at the scene when Marlowe and Vivian leave Eddie Mars' club and drive through the streets of Los Angeles:

    We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness. (25.117)

    When we read this passage, it made us want to curl up next to a warm fire. All the dark and damp imagery used: "dank" beach towns, "dark" houses, thick "fog," "moist" concrete, "wet emptiness"? Yeah, it's a pretty bleak world out there for Mr. Marlowe. We get the sense that in the sprawling expanse of Los Angeles, it's easy to feel lost and alone. And the constant rain sure doesn't help either.

    Traditionally, rain symbolizes some sort of cleansing, but Chandler seems to use the rain for the opposite effect. Los Angeles is never purified of its sins, no matter how much rain pours down on its dirty streets. Much of Marlowe's cynicism arises from his realization that he'll never be able to rid the city of its deep-seated corruption. This cynicism is ultimately a mark of Depression-era Los Angeles when honest jobs were scarce and the streets were filled with crime.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    How hard can it be read a detective novel, right? The Big Sleep is definitely a page-turner, but don't be fooled into thinking it'll be a walk in the park.

    You might not believe it, but Chandler's famous for saying that he doesn't care a lick about plot. But how can you write a detective story and not care about plot? Isn't a detective story all about the plot? Well, as you read The Big Sleep, you'll find that the events of the novel are pretty hard to follow. In fact, about three-quarters of the way through the novel, Marlowe appears to have solved the original case which he had been hired to solve, so the story should be about over. And yet there's still fifty pages left to read because a second plotline takes over. What does it allow Chandler to accomplish? Mainly, it allows him to further develop Marlowe's psychology, as well as the motives of the other characters, even if it totally confuses the plot.

    Bottom line, you may get more than a little befuddled when trying to piece together the different puzzle pieces in The Big Sleep, but the true challenge lies in understanding what makes Marlowe tick. And it can get pretty tricky unpacking the complexity of his character. But we know you're up to the challenge.

  • Writing Style

    Hardboiled, Witty

    Chandler is most known for his contributions to the development of what is usually referred to as a "hardboiled" writing style. Marlowe never minces his words or beats around the bush. He is blunt, terse, direct, sometimes dismissive and frequently rude. He talks tough and he talks smart. Throughout The Big Sleep, talking tough becomes a way of asserting power. So what are some of the characteristics of tough talk? Allow Shmoop to elaborate:

    The Wisecrack

    Marlowe's a wise guy, or at least he wants people to see him as a wise guy.

    A wise guy is someone who talks too much, asks too many questions, and talks back when he should keep quiet. A wise guy goes against authority figures and is contemptuous of the rich and powerful. A wisecrack is any "wise" (i.e. smart-alecky) remark from a "wise guy." In Marlowe's case, his wisecracks also tend to be extremely witty and clever. And Marlowe uses his wit as a kind of weapon to expose people for what they really are.

    For example, when Marlowe confronts Brody about the nude photos of Carmen, Marlowe tries to see if Brody had any involvement in Geiger's death by saying, "You shot Geiger to get it. Last night in the rain. It was dandy shooting weather" (14.69). In that third sentence, Marlowe's playing the part of the smart-aleck to test Brody's reactions and control the situation. Chandler drops in these witty wisecracks throughout the novel to make the writing more vivid and lively. And on a thematic level, these wisecracks also show how Marlowe acts as the voice of reason by pointing out people's follies.

    The Simile

    In addition to Chandler's famous wisecracks, another stylistic device that's unique to Chandler's style is the simile. Chandler's similes are usually exaggerated or overstated (often for comedic effect) and this quality is a defining aspect of Marlowe's voice as a narrator. Let's take a look at some of the wittiest and most unusual similes in The Big Sleep:

    (1) The heat […] made me feel like a New England boiled dinner. (2.46)
    (2) Her eyes became narrow and almost black and as shallow as enamel on a cafeteria tray. (12.56)
    (3) She was as limp as a fresh-killed rabbit. (14.72)
    (4) The boy stood glaring at him with sharp black eyes in a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat. (18.10)
    (5) You leak information like a radio announcer. (23.29)
    (6) Her eyelids were flickering rapidly, like moth wings. (25. 125)
    (7) I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets. (25.1)
    (8) There was a dry click, like a small icicle breaking. I hung there motionless, like a lazy fish. (26.9)
    (9) The purring voice was now as false as an usherette's eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed. (30.44)

    Notice how most of the similes here are negative. They help to emphasize just how jaded Marlowe is, sure, but they also show a sharp and clever mind at work, and Marlowe never runs out of biting remarks to say. Pay attention to how, in each of these examples, Chandler uses the simile to make really unexpected comparisons. What if Chandler had simply written "as limp as a wet noodle"? Sure, that's a pretty good image, but it's also very common. We've all heard that comparison being made many times before. But the simile "as limp as a fresh-killed rabbit" is a much more startling comparison.

    Plus there's the vividness and its precision. Take the simile "as false as an usherette's eyelashes." Why is this such an effective comparison? Why not say "as false as a $3 bill"? Because for Chandler, that would be too obvious. Too boring and predictable. Instead, Chandler chooses the more unusual image of an usherette's eyelashes, which has greater comedic effect. Chandler's dedication to perfecting his writing style is what ultimately separates The Big Sleep from the mass of cheap pulp stories and elevates it to the status of high literary art.

  • The Stained-Glass Panel

    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?

  • Rain

    In the very first sentence of The Big Sleep, Marlowe tells us that, "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills" (1.1). Of course, there's nothing unusual about mentioning the weather in a novel—especially at the beginning—but in this novel, it seems to be doing a bit more work than just setting the scene.

    When it's about to rain, that means something is about to happen. Usually something bad. That's when we'll hear the sound of distant thunder. If you've ever lived or spent time in Southern California, you probably know that it doesn't rain that much. Sure there'll be some drizzly days here and there in the later months of the year, but the constant downpour that occurs in The Big Sleep is pretty implausible for the dry, desert-like climate of L.A.

    So for Chandler, the motif of rain is used less for realistic purposes and more for adding symbolic value. And to figure out that value, we'll have to ask ourselves, what does rain traditionally symbolize? Dark clouds usually symbolize that something bad is coming round the bend, and rain is often associated with some sort of cleansing or purification. The washing away of sins and whatnot. So as you read the novel, try to keep track of when Marlowe mentions the weather and try to keep those themes in mind.

  • Chess

    For this one, turn to Chapter 24 when Marlowe finds Carmen lying naked in his bed. Trying to be the chivalrous knight, Marlowe asks Carmen to get dressed and leave. He looks down at his chessboard and moves the knight piece, but a few minutes later, he realizes that it was the wrong move, and puts the knight back to its original square, saying that, "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights" (24.29).

    Is your symbol alarm going off? Ours certainly is. Marlowe claims that knights have no place in a world like modern-day L.A. He lives in a society run by more powerful chess pieces like the king or queen. He feels that knights are not valued in such a world, and that they rarely end up the winners. Marlowe chooses not to sleep with Carmen, which maintains his knighthood—sortakinda. But eventually he'll have to ask himself why he bothers. Does his effort to remain a chivalrous knight in a corrupt world mean that he'll ultimately lose the game?

  • Orchids

    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.

  • The Oil Pumps

    First things first: the oil pumps serve as the burial ground for Rusty's murdered body. Now there's all kinds of symbolic baggage there. But let's look beyond the obvious for a second, and take a look at two important descriptions that Marlowe gives us of the Sternwood oil pumps. The first description comes at the very beginning of the novel, as Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion after meeting with the General. Standing outside on the front doorsteps of the mansion, Marlowe gazes past the fence surrounding the house and looks down at the oilfield:

    […] far off I could barely see some of the old wooden derricks of the oilfield from which the Sternwoods had made their money. Most of the field was public park now, cleaned up and donated to the city by General Sternwood. But a little of it was still producing in groups of wells pumping five or six barrels a day. The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil, but they could still look out of their front windows and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to. I didn't suppose they would want to. (3.18)

    So you've heard of the phrase "filthy rich," right? Well, this description gives it a whole new meaning. The oilfields are what made the Sternwoods richer than their wildest dreams, but we get the sense here that Marlowe thinks that no one can get that rich without getting their hands dirty. We know that Marlowe is pretty contemptuous of the wealthy upper class, and as the novel progresses, we learn that the Sternwood family is mixed up in some very corrupt stuff.

    See, having money means having power in the world of The Big Sleep. And Marlowe recognizes that the Sternwood family thinks they can buy their way through life without having to look down at the dirty oilfield where they got that money from. Put simply, the Sternwoods tend to turn a blind eye to their own corruption, living in denial that their money is tainted.

    Target Practice

    The second description of the oilfield comes at the very end of the novel when Marlowe drives Carmen out to the oilfield to teach her how to use a gun. As they approach the foothill ranch, Marlowe sees the oil pumps:

    Then the oil-stained, motionless walking beam of a squat wooden derrick stuck up over a branch. I could see the rusty old steel cable that connected this walking-beam with a half a dozen others. The beams didn't move, probably hadn't moved for a year. The wells were no longer pumping. There was a pile of rusted pipe, a loading platform that sagged at one end, half a dozen empty oil drums lying in a ragged pile. There was the stagnant, oil-scummed water of an old sump iridescent in the sunlight. (31.32)

    In this description, there is a much clearer connection made between the oil sumps and the corruption of money. Notice the dirty imagery that Chandler uses: the "oil-stained" beam," the "rusty" steel cable and "rusted" pipe, and the "oil-scummed water" of an old sump. Everything here is falling apart and decaying. The beams don't function anymore and the wells are no longer pumping oil. This scene reeks of death and filth, which is of course appropriate since this is where Rusty is buried. Marlowe can sense the nastiness of the oilfield when he says, "the smell of that sump would poison a herd of goats" (31.35). For Marlowe, the oilfields are the ultimate representation of the idea that money corrupts.

  • Narrator Point of View

    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.

    Marlowe's 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.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      Marlowe lives in the corrupt, crime-ridden streets of the City of Angels, and he's hired by General Sternwood to dig up information on a blackmailer named Geiger. Usually when we think of stories featuring a quest, books like the Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings come immediately to mind. Chandler's Big Sleep definitely isn't what we would typically describe as a quintessential quest tale.

      But even though there's no life-affirming ending, Marlowe does have to go through numerous trials to reach his end goal. And there are many key elements that make this novel what we'd see as a modernized quest story. For one thing, Marlowe's a bit of a modern-day knight. Plus, Marlowe's search for clues can be described as a quest for knowledge as he tries to find all the pieces to solve the puzzle.

      The Journey

      As Marlowe proceeds to follow up on every lead that comes his way, he has to face many life-threatening situations. He's placed at gunpoint when he confronts Joe Brody about his scheme to blackmail Vivian. He has to resist many temptations, most of which come from Carmen, who flirts with him constantly.

      Even though there are too many twists and turns in The Big Sleep to list all the stages of Marlowe's journey, notice how Marlowe's goals change as the novel progresses. His initial goal is only to track down Geiger, but after he is killed, Marlowe's journey develops into a search for Joe Brody, which then leads him to Eddie Mars.

      In all of this, Marlowe is also trying to find out information about the General's son-in-law, Rusty Regan, who has disappeared without a trace. Suffice it to say, the more Marlowe becomes involved in the lives of the Sternwood family, the greater the dangers that he faces.

      Arrival and Frustration

      Marlowe has finally discovered a lead that takes him straight to the hideout of Mona Grant, who had apparently run off with Regan. But when Marlowe finds her, he learns that she had never left with Regan.

      Marlowe seems to have finally reached his goal when he is able to speak face to face with Mona and ask her where Regan is. But upon learning that she never ran off with Regan, Marlowe's forced to go back to square one. No one seems to know the whereabouts of Regan, or else they're all hiding it from Marlowe. Poor guy, he just can't seem to catch a break.

      The Final Ordeals

      Marlowe goes to tell General Sternwood that he's off the case. As he's leaving the Sternwood mansion, he runs into Carmen, who asks him to teach her how to shoot. But when Marlowe's back is turned, Carmen fires at him. Luckily, the gun is loaded with blanks.

      Marlowe's final showdown with Carmen may not be as life-threatening as his previous experiences of being held up at gunpoint, but Marlowe definitely wins points for outwitting the femme fatale. Putting blanks into her gun was a stroke of genius and it allowed him to finally tie together all the loose ends of the Sternwood family history.

      The Goal

      Marlowe tells Vivian he knows the secret that she's been trying to cover up, and he gives her three days to put Carmen into a mental institution and to leave town.

      Marlowe has finally solved the case, but he leaves the Sternwood residence feeling pretty down in the dumps. Unlike a typical quest tale where the hero returns home with a more positive outlook on the future, Marlowe knows that he's now a part of the corruption behind Rusty's death and the novel ends on a dark note with Marlowe feeling disillusioned.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Marlowe Takes a Case

      We find out in the opening pages that Marlowe, as a private detective, faces a ton of difficult, moral decisions on how to best serve his client at every turn. Does he do everything in his power to perform his job to the best of his ability? How much does he protect his own safety while on the job? To what extent is he allowed to break the law in order to better serve his client's interests? We'll see that Marlowe has a rough job as a private dick, but he seems to always make a point of upholding his moral beliefs.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Marlowe Finds a Stiff

      Geiger's been shot to death and now Marlowe has to deal with another blackmail scheme involving nude photos of Carmen. Sheesh, this novel is just one series of blackmails after another.

      The first blackmailer (who was playing the General) Geiger is bumped off, and when Marlowe identifies the second blackmailer (the one after Vivian) as Joe Brody, Marlowe tries to blackmail the blackmailer. But then Brody is also knocked off, and the cycle of blackmailing continues with the introduction of Eddie Mars and his crew. If you're scratching your head in confusion here, just try to roll with the punches.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Marlowe Gets KO'd

      We already mentioned the deaths of Geiger, Taylor, and Brody, each climax-worthy in our book. But then there's also the sad death of poor Harry Jones. He dies drinking water poisoned with cyanide, in an effort to protect Agnes. His death leads Marlowe to the information regarding the hideout location of Eddie Mars' wife, Mona. All of this culminates in Marlowe being knocked out cold by Mars' gunman, Canino.

      After recovering consciousness, Marlowe finds himself handcuffed, sitting next to Mona. With Mona's help, Marlowe manages to shoot Canino and make his escape. Chandler does a masterful job here of making us hold our breaths as Marlowe sneaks out of the house to make his escape. And the real suspense that closes this scene is the fact that as Marlowe drives away unscathed with Mona sitting beside him in the car, we're left asking: If Mona didn't run off with Rusty Regan, then where could Rusty possibly be hiding? Better yet, is he even still alive?

      Falling Action

      Marlowe at the Wrong End of a Gun Barrel (Again)

      The scene between Carmen and Marlowe probably doesn't sound like your typical falling action. In fact, it sounds more like the climax, right? But in The Big Sleep, it's almost impossible to clearly distinguish between complications, climaxes, and denouements since they're all closely tied together. And of course, everything happens incredibly fast (again, imagine that you're on a roller coaster).

      The reason we think this scene can be read as falling action is because Marlowe knew in advance to load the gun with blanks. This means that he suspected Carmen and was setting up a test for her. And when Carmen confirms Marlowe's suspicions, he's then finally able to put together all the pieces of the puzzle.

      Resolution (Dénouement)

      Marlowe Contemplates The Big Sleep

      After Carmen's attempt to kill him, Marlowe is certain that she's the one who murdered Regan. Like Marlowe, Regan rejected Carmen's advances and Carmen's response was to flat out shoot the poor guy.

      The novel comes to end at breakneck speed and we're left practically gasping for breath as we realize that Carmen is the murderer, or should we say murderess. Marlowe leaves us on a note of cynicism as he contemplates the unfairness of life and how death is the only escape from life's cruelty.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to discover why Geiger is blackmailing him. As Marlowe follows the trail of clues, he stumbles on Geiger's dead body and finds out that Carmen is somehow mixed up in the blackmail scheme. When questioned by the police about what he knows, Marlowe leaves out Carmen's involvement, and from then on, he is committed to digging to the bottom of the secrecy surrounding the Sternwood family.

      Act II

      Marlowe follows up on one lead after the next, each one bringing him to yet another murder, from Owen Taylor to Joe Brody to Harry Jones. In the midst of trying to uncover the motives behind the various blackmail threats directed at the Sternwood family, Marlowe's also trying to find out what happened to Vivian's husband, Rusty Regan, who has disappeared without a trace after apparently running off with Eddie Mars' wife, Mona Grant. But no one seems to know where Rusty is or whether he's even still alive.

      Act III

      All the clues finally lead Marlowe to a hideout, where he finds Mona and learns that that Rusty never actually ran off with her. When Carmen attempts to kill Marlowe (using a gun loaded only with blanks), Marlowe finally pieces together the puzzle: Carmen was the one who killed Rusty because he rejected her, and Vivian had been forced to ask for Eddie Mars' help to cover up the murder and protect her father from discovering the truth.