Study Guide

The Big Sleep Wealth

By Raymond Chandler

Wealth

I was everything a well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. (1.1)

From the very first paragraph of The Big Sleep, we know that money is going to play a huge role. Even though we don't know much about Marlowe yet, we know that he's a hard man to budge. And yet money influences his actions here, changing the way he would normally dress.

"It may cost you a little money, besides what you pay me. And of course it won't get you anything. Sugaring them never does. You're already listed on their book of nice names." (2.63)

Marlowe explains to the General that it's possible to get Geiger off his back, but that it may cost some dough. Yep, that sounds about right. In the gritty world of 1930s L.A., money will get you pretty far. In fact, it seems like the only thing that will get you anywhere.

On this lower level faint and far off I could just barely see some of the old wooden derricks of the oilfield from which the Sternwoods had made their money. (3.42)

The oilfields represent the corrupting power of money. Did the Sternwoods have to get their hands dirty to get so wealthy? Is it possible to acquire that much money honestly?

A man named Joe Brody had received five thousand dollars from General Sternwood to stop playing with Carmen and find some other little girl to play with. It could be the same Joe Brody. I felt like giving odds on it. (10.22)

Blackmailing schemes abound in The Big Sleep. Marlowe lives in a world where everyone's out to make a quick buck and it doesn't care how they get it. It's interesting that Marlowe uses a gambling metaphor ("giving odds on it") in the last sentence. He feels that his chances are good that he has found the same Joe Brody. Gambling will later become another important sign of the corrupting influence of money.

"You don't put on much of a front," she [Vivian] said.

[…]

"Neither do the Pinkertons," I said. "You can't make much money at this trade, if you're honest. If you have a front, you're making money—or expect to." (11.10-12)

Marlowe's dedication to honest means that he doesn't expect to make much money. Only people who "put up a front" are well off, such as Geiger who fronts his porn racket as a bookstore. Are there any instances in the novel when money is used honestly? No seriously—we're asking.

She crossed her legs and lit another cigarette. "Yes, I like roulette. All the Sternwoods like losing games, like roulette and marrying men that walk out on them […]. The Sternwoods have money. All it has bought them is a rain check." (11.45)

Vivian is a pretty big gambler. She sounds slightly cynical here when she says that the only thing the Sternwoods' money has gotten them is a "rain check." She seems to be suggesting that their money doesn't actually buy them anything concrete. Their money only ensures that they'll get something at a future unknown date. Yeah it sounds pretty confusing and ambiguous to us, too. But her comment here makes more sense when we get to the end of the novel and realize that she's been trying to buy time. She needed time to cover up Rusty's murder so she bribed Eddie Mars to help her. Classy.

A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick. (12.11)

Marlowe's contempt for the rich is clear from the first paragraph of the novel. In this passage, Marlowe is referring to Carmen, whose wealth is one of the root causes of her corruption. It's also important to notice that Marlowe is contemptuous of those who don't do anything when they see something is wrong. They're just as bad as the rest of 'em.

"First off Regan carried fifteen grand, packed it in his clothes all the time. Real money, they tell me. Not just a top card and a bunch of hay. That's a lot of jack but this Regan might be the boy to have it around so he could take it out and look at it when somebody was looking at him." (20.34)

Captain Gregory provides Marlowe with some background info on Regan. He obviously married into a very rich family. What kind of image do we get of Regan when we read that he liked to carry wads of cash around and flaunt it when somebody looked at him?

"We've done all we could, brother. If he [General Sternwood] wants to put out a reward and spend some money, we might get results. The city don't give me the kind of money it takes." (20.53)

Captain Gregory expresses disappointment in not being able to help Marlowe more. He also seems to have the same sense of futility as Marlowe since he knows that he doesn't have the resources to do what it takes to get results. Money also appears to be necessary to keep the law functioning properly. But there's not enough of it to go around.

"I got five hundred from your father, which I didn't ask for, but he can afford to give it to me. I can get another thousand for finding Mr. Rusty, if I could find him. Now you offer me fifteen grand. That makes me a big shot. […] What are you offering it to me for? Can I go on being a son of a b****, or do I have to become a gentleman?" (32.57)

Vivian tries to buy Marlowe's silence by offering him fifteen grand, but at the same time she also calls him "a son of a b****." Marlowe sarcastically points out that her motives, not his, are morally suspect. He has no intention of accepting any money, and sarcastically lists all the reasons why he's such a "son of a b****." But this list reveals that Marlowe has only been working in the General's own best interests, and that in fact all of his actions have been "gentlemanly" and morally upright.