Study Guide

The Big Sleep Isolation

By Raymond Chandler

Isolation

A racket like that, out in the open on the boulevard, seemed to mean plenty of protection. I sat there and poisoned myself with cigarette smoke and listened to the rain and thought about it. (5.35)

In this scene, Marlowe sits in his car and watches Geiger's store. The key phrase in this passage is "poisoned myself." Not only is Marlowe's job as a private detective lonely (he has no loyal sidekick and sits alone in his car), but it's also pretty dangerous. And it's definitely not good for him.

I parked, aired out the convertible, had a drink from my bottle, and sat. I didn't know what I was waiting for, but something told me to wait. Another army of sluggish minutes dragged by. (6.6)

We've lost count of how many times Marlowe tells us he's having a drink by himself. It's a wonder he's sober enough to shoot straight.

I didn't go near the Sternwood family. I went back to the office and sat in my swivel chair and tried to catch up on my foot-dangling. (21.1)

Marlowe's sense of humor comes through in his remark here. He makes light of his boredom and sense of isolation, but beneath his witty sarcasm we can sense the deep-seated loneliness that comes with being a detective. Is Marlowe's sarcastic wit a coping mechanism to help him deal with his isolation? We certainly think so.

I was thinking about going out to lunch and that life was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat if I took a drink and that taking a drink all alone at that time of day wouldn't be any fun anyway. (21.1)

Marlowe's characteristic cynicism toward life seems to spiral out of control in this sentence. He starts off feeling depressed about the "flatness" of life, then realizes that even alcohol won't improve anything, and that worst of all, drinking alone before it's even lunchtime would be sinking to the lowest of lows. And yet, Marlowe still opens his bottle and takes a drink. Bleak, much?

The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race. (21.18)

Marlowe knows that he shouldn't drink first thing in the morning, but he disregards his own advice. He gives up his own self-respect, and yet he's still someone who adheres to his own personal moral code. So the question here is how do we reconcile Marlowe's alcoholism with his strong sense of principles when it comes to performing his job? Marlowe follows a strict moral code when he puts his life on the line for his client, and yet he also knowingly harms himself by constantly drinking on the job. Is this just a flaw in his character or does drinking allow him to better cope with the isolation of his line of business?

She called me a filthy name.

I didn't mind that. I didn't mind what she called me, what anybody called me. But this was the room I had to live. It was all I had in the way of a home. In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family. [...]

I couldn't stand her in that room any longer. What she called me only reminded me of that. (24.39-41)

Marlowe's rejection of Carmen's (naked!) advances may seem puzzling to some since we know that he complains about his isolation. But Marlowe is definitely the loner type. We can tell from the way he describes his apartment that he has no family and that he considers his bedroom as a sort of safe haven. So maybe Carmen's presence in this room is a threat to his privacy. Sure, he might find her attractive, but not attractive enough to break his solitude.

I reached for my drink and drank it slowly. The apartment house door closed itself down below me. Steps tinkled on the quiet sidewalk. A car started up not far away. It rushed off into the night with a rough clashing of gears. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely. (24.45)

After Carmen leaves his apartment, Marlowe goes back to his usual solitary drinking. Check out the sounds described to emphasize Marlowe's sense of isolation: we hear the steps gradually fading away, then a car engine starting and disappearing in the night. Marlowe's act of savagely tearing apart his bed is yet another sign that he is determined to preserve the sanctity of his own private space, even if that means he'll be alone for the rest of his sorry life.

I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the window, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwood still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets. (25.1)

As the novel progresses, Marlowe becomes more and more disillusioned by his dealings with the Sternwood family. Here we have one of Chandler's characteristic similes (see the "Writing Style" section for more on this). What makes this simile so unusual isn't the image of pockets (we're used to pockets being empty), but rather the fact that it's a scarecrow's pockets. Why a scarecrow? Why not a pauper's or a homeless person's pockets? Well, just picture a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a vacant field, and ask yourself whether that image accurately captures the feeling of isolation and emptiness that Marlowe feels.

Nobody came into the office. Nobody called me on the phone. It kept on raining. (25.84)

Chandler keeps his sentences short and succinct here. And he repeats the word "nobody" two times in a row at the beginning of the sentence. Combine those two elements with the rain and you've got a recipe for a lonely dude on a lonely day.

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? (32.77)

At the end of the novel, Marlowe contemplates the meaning of life and death. He comes to the conclusion that we're always alone, and that nothing really matters in life once we're dead. Yeah, kinda bleak.