On the surface, Philip Marlowe appears to be your quintessential tough-guy private eye. He's tall, dark, and ruggedly handsome, Rick Castle-style. He's got a dry sense of humor and a quick wit. He smokes cigarettes (Camels are his go-to) and drinks booze constantly (usually whiskey or brandy). He gets into violent fistfights and has a tendency to treat women, um, callously (he's been known to slap a few of them). He leads a solitary life—no friends, no family, no main squeeze—and is basically a straight up cynic when it comes to his lot in life.
Marlowe's sarcastic wit appears right away in the opening paragraph of the novel. Let's take a quick look at how he describes himself as he prepares to meet with General Sternwood:
I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks and dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. (1.1)
It would be easy to breeze through this passage and not think much about it. Sure, it's funny enough, but it's just a straightforward description of Marlowe's clothes, so let's just get on with the story, right?
Ah, but there's actually a whole lot more going on than that in these four sentences. First of all, why does Marlowe take so much time giving us all these seemingly insignificant details about his clothes? To answer that, we have to look at the second sentence when Marlowe says, "I didn't care who knew it." What does that mean exactly? Marlowe's saying he doesn't care if anyone finds out that he's a "neat, clean, shaved and sober" detective. So is he saying that normally he would care if someone saw him so well dressed, but that today he doesn't seem to mind? Does that also imply that he has a reputation for being an unclean, unshaven and drunken detective?
As the novel progresses, we know that Marlowe regularly forgets to shave and frequently pours himself a few stiff drinks in the middle of the day. So why is he willing to change his regular behavior on this particular day? Well, Marlowe tells us that he's "calling on four million dollars." That's a big hint that the reason for the change is money. Marlowe's willing to dress in a way he normally doesn't because he's calling on one of the richest men in L.A. So already in the opening paragraph, we know that money will be an important factor influencing the events in the novel.
And it also asks us to consider what Marlowe's attitude toward money is, and we eventually realize that he's not exactly keen on the rich folks of the world. Marlowe's witty sarcasm in the opening sentences becomes more and more cynical as he uncovers the dark mystery surrounding the Sternwood family.
Okay, so Marlowe's most distinguishing characteristic is his hardboiled cynicism, which makes sense given the seedy world of Depression-era L.A. where he lives. While on the job, Marlowe witnesses a series of criminal activities from blackmail to bribery to murder to illegal cover-ups. You name it and he's probably seen it. So it's only natural that Marlowe would develop a hardened exterior in order to contend with the gun-toting, trigger-happy criminals that he meets on the mean streets.
But what separates Marlowe from your standard hardboiled private dick is the fact that he has a strict code of ethics that he almost always sticks to. For one thing, he hardly makes any money from his work. With all the dope he has on the people that hire him, Marlowe could easily be rolling in dough from all the scoops and skinnies. He could totally get in on some blackmail action. And yet, Marlowe is willing to work for a measly twenty-five bucks a day for General Sternwood (who's filthy rich, by the way), simply because he wants to find the truth.
So does his noble quest for truthiness mean Marlowe's tough guy attitude is all an act? Not exactly. There's no question that Marlowe is as hardboiled as they come and he makes no apologies for his cynicism. But despite his misanthropic streak, he's also just an honest detective trying his best to survive in a dishonest society.
First of all, we know that Marlowe is a stand-up because he works independently, for himself and not directly for the law. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the police in Chandler's world are easily corruptible. Marlowe's also surprisingly sensitive, even sentimental, when we least expect him to be. He develops a genuine fondness for General Sternwood, and goes out of his way to protect the General's interests. What does all of this add up to? Well, the best way to understand Marlowe's paradoxical personality is to think of him as a modern-day knight.
Let's take his name, for example. Philip Marlowe. It has a certain knightly sound to it, don't you think? Chandler had initially intended to name his detective Mallory because he was a big fan of Thomas Malory, who wrote about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table in his famous work Le Morte D'Arthur (source). It's pretty clear that Chandler wanted to portray Marlowe as a modern knight errant fighting for General Sternwood—he's the vassal to Sternwood's lord. So in "knightly" terms, we could say that Marlowe is on a quest for justice, dedicated to serving his lord with honor and loyalty, despite any sexual or financial temptations and threats of physical harm that come his way. Plus, since he's got a strong sense of morals, we might also say that Marlowe is deeply invested in a personal code of chivalry. So we took the liberty of making a handy list of "Marlowe's Rules to Live By":
Okay, so Marlowe might not be wearing shining armor and riding a white horse, but he still fights for justice in his own way. And he never strays from his personal code.
Chandler hammers the Marlowe-knight connection home right from the beginning. The novel opens with Marlowe looking up at a stained glass panel of a knight trying to rescue a damsel in distress. The "Symbols, Imagery and Allegory" section explains the meaning behind this stained glass in greater detail, but for now, suffice it to say that Marlowe finds himself identifying with the knight depicted in the scene. In fact, Marlowe even does his own knightly good deed when he stumbles onto Geiger's dead body and finds Carmen naked at the scene of the crime.
Like the knight in the stained glass window, he "rescues" the naked Carmen and returns her to the Sternwood house, her secret intact. There's just one problem here: Carmen can hardly be considered a virtuous damsel in distress. This is the root of the problem and the reason why Marlowe sometimes seems to be out of sync with his modern world. He wants to be chivalrous, but there aren't any honorable women left who are worth saving. And what's a knight with no one to rescue?
In a world littered with corpses, Marlowe's position as a modern-day knight is a tough role. He gets himself involved in some shady transactions during his search for truth, and we can't help but wonder whether chivalry is even possible in modern times. Marlowe seems to be aware of this when he says in the closing pages of the novel that he "was part of the nastiness now" (32.77). Which, aside from all the dead bodies lying around, is the real bummer at the heart of this novel: Marlowe's chivalric code ultimately fails. In the crime-ridden society of the 1930s, old standards of honor no longer exist.
Of course this doesn't change anything for Marlowe. He still stands by his principles, no matter the cost.