Study Guide

The Big Sleep Morality and Ethics

By Raymond Chandler

Morality and Ethics

"Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever has." (2.50)

These words are spoken by General Sternwood during his first conversation with Marlowe. From the first pages of the novel, we already get the sense that the Sternwood family is corrupt, and as Marlowe digs deeper into the family history, he only finds more evidence to confirm the Sternwoods' lack of morals.

"The gun might have been planted—say by Brody, the actual killer."

"It's physically possible," I said, "but morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that's out of character for Brody and his girl […]. He was a crook, but not a killer type." (18.45-46)

Here we get a glimpse into Marlowe's method of deduction. He's able to eliminate certain scenarios by drawing on what is morally and immorally possible in a given situation. Marlowe's strong sense of ethics allows him to make judgments on the extent to which those around him adhere to or depart from moral behavior.

"What's a loogan?"

"A guy with a gun."

"Are you a loogan?"

"Sure," I laughed. "But strictly speaking a loogan is on the wrong side of the fence."

"I often wonder if there is a wrong side." (23.72-76)

This conversation between Vivian and Marlowe is a witty play on words. Technically speaking, loogan is a slang word for a hooligan, hoodlum, or petty gangster. But here Marlowe defines a loogan more specifically as a "guy with a gun," and then quickly qualifies his answer by saying a loogan is on the "wrong side." But what exactly does it mean to be on the wrong side? As Vivian remarks, it's often very difficult in this novel to figure out where exactly to draw the line between right and wrong.

"She's a grifter, shamus. I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel. Okay. See can you make me." He […] stared at me level-eyed, a funny little hard guy I could have thrown from home plate to second base. A small man in a big man's world. There was something I liked about him. (25.77)

These words are spoken by Harry Jones to Marlowe. A grifter is someone who swindles you through deception or fraud, which brings up yet another key moral question in the book: is it unethical to sell someone out for your own self-interests? Keep in mind that the novel is set during the Depression, when people were hard-pressed for money, and couldn't be too choosy when it came to getting their hands on some. The mood of 1930s L.A. was one of desperation as individuals turned to crime because they had nothing left to lose. Even though Jones seems to be someone Marlowe would normally despise (Jones admits to being a grifter and cheating people out of money), yet why does Marlowe say that he liked Harry? What is about Harry that commands Marlowe's respect?

"Well, you fooled him, Harry. […] You lied to him and you drank your cyanide like a little gentleman. You died like a poisoned rat, Harry, but you're no rat to me." (26.81)

Marlowe expresses admiration here for Harry's noble death. Instead of ratting out Agnes, Harry protected her by giving out false information to Canino. In this case, lying and deception are seen in a morally good light. He even calls Harry a "little gentlemen."

"I'm a copper […] Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style." (30.13)

These words are spoken by Captain Gregory to Marlowe. Gregory seems to be one of the few honest cops left in L.A. What does this quote suggest about the state of the police in 1930s America? What does Gregory mean by "reasonably" honest? How can you measure the level of honesty?

"I'd like to offer you your money back. It may mean nothing to you. It might mean something to me. […] It means I have refused payment for an unsatisfactory job." (30.58)

Oh Marlowe. Why'd you have to go and be all Mr. Noble here? He could have just taken the money and peaced out, but instead he gives it back for a job-not-well-done. What's up with that? Does he think taking the cash will make him somehow corrupt? Guilty? Nasty like the rest?

"I risk my whole future, the hatred of cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, […] I do all this for twenty-five bucks a day—and maybe just a little to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood." (32.57)

Marlowe takes great pride in his work as a detective, and we can't help but think that a big reason for that is that he prioritizes his morality above, well, absolutely everything else. Otherwise, what would he have to be proud of?

"I was playing for time. Just for time. I played the wrong way, of course." (32.63)

Vivian says this to Marlowe at the end of the novel to explain the reason why she covered up Rusty's death. What does she mean by saying she "played the wrong way"? What makes her actions morally wrong? Does the fact that she hid the murder to protect her father excuse any of her actions?

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. (32.77)

At the end of the novel, Marlowe realizes that despite his efforts to remain morally pure, he's down there in the muck and the mire with the rest of these blobs. But is it really that simple?