Study Guide

The Big Sleep Themes

  • Isolation

    As a private detective (emphasis on the word "private"), Marlowe leads a very lonely life. He keeps his own company and can usually be found whiling away the hours at the bottom of a bottle. Sure, we can chalk up Marlowe's alone time to the fact that he's chosen a particularly solitary line of work, but we can't help but wonder if it isn't a symptom of Chandler's America as a whole. 1930s Los Angeles with its murderers and blackmailers is primarily a city of distrust where each person has to look out for his or her own selfish interests, before finally succumbing to The Big Sleep.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why is Marlowe's life as a detective so isolated? Is this a reflection of society as a whole, where people feel alienated from everyone around them? Or is it just Marlowe's way?
    2. Marlowe doesn't seem to get along well with others. Is this by choice or necessity? Does he mistrust people because his job as a detective requires it, or has he become too hardened by all the corruption he sees?
    3. What does Marlowe do to cope with his sense of isolation? Plenty of women are attracted to him, yet he continually rejects them. Why might Marlowe prefer being alone?

    Chew on This

    Marlowe chose the loneliest job in the universe because he was a lonely guy to begin with.

    Marlowe's solitary lifestyle is a way of distancing himself from the corruption he sees every day.

  • Morality and Ethics

    With corrupt criminals running rampant in the streets of Los Angeles, Marlowe faces a daunting task to preserve his own sense of morality. Nearly every one he meets seems to have some secret to hide, and even Marlowe isn't able to keep his hands completely clean. But he really, really wants to. He's got that moral code of his, and in the end, what depresses Marlowe the most is how low he has to go to stick to it.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Is it possible to decide between what's right and wrong in the world of The Big Sleep? Are there gray areas where issues of morality are ambiguous?
    2. How does Marlowe attempt to remain honest and morally upright in a corrupt society? Does he succeed or fail? How can you tell?
    3. Does Marlowe remain ethically pure, or does he have to make choices that compromise his morality? What makes you say so?
    4. Which characters in the novel are moral or immoral? How do you determine whether someone is on the right side or the wrong side, and is that even possible?

    Chew on This

    Marlowe's desire to remain entirely moral is nothing but a pipe dream because he lives in a world that no longer upholds standard values of ethics. He's doomed to fail.

    The Big Sleep can be considered a moral critique in its portrayal of the corruption of 1930s American society.

  • Justice and Judgment

    According to Marlowe, there is a huge difference between law and justice. As someone with a strong personal conscience, Marlowe feels that the law often is just not up to snuff when it comes to bringing the bad guys to justice. For one thing, Five-Os, according to Chandler (and Marlowe) are totally corruptible. Policemen accept bribes and dole out false information. And for another, in The Big Sleep, sometimes working outside the law is just more effective. For Marlowe, law breaking isn't necessarily the same thing as being immoral, especially if bending the rules allows him to reach justice.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Why does Marlowe believe that there's a difference between justice and the law? 
    2. In what ways does Chandler suggest that the American justice system is corrupt?
    3. Why do some of the criminals in The Big Sleep get away without being punished? What does Chandler have to say about this gap in the justice system?
    4. Even though Marlowe follows a strict code of honor, why does he think it's okay to break the law?

    Chew on This

    Marlowe considers himself to be a modern-day knight fighting for justice, and yet he is willing to break the law to find the truth. Double standard, much?

    Marlowe has to break the law every now and then because the cops are breaking it, too. That makes the law pretty worthless, so he'd rather just serve justice instead.

  • Principles

    Despite being a hardboiled tough guy, Marlowe has his own set of principles that he sticks to firmly. Marlowe sees himself as a modern-day knight, following a code of chivalry in a fallen society that no longer knows the meaning of integrity and honesty. In a depraved city where everyone is out to make (or steal) a quick buck, Marlowe remains underpaid and even refuses money when he feels he hasn't performed his job satisfactorily. Even though he realizes that his efforts are mostly futile, and will only end in The Big Sleep, Marlowe isn't afraid to admit when he's wrong and this honesty with himself enables him to preserve his own sense of dignity.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Why is Marlowe so determined to follow his code of honor when the world around him no longer recognizes the value of morals?
    2. To what extent does his strong sense of principles help him to solve the case? To what extent does it hinder his ability to solve the case?
    3. Are there any instances in the novel when Marlowe compromises on his principles? If so, when and why is Marlowe forced to break his own rules for the benefit of his client?

    Chew on This

    Marlowe's principles do nothing but stand between him and solving the case. If he'd gotten down and dirty sooner, this case would have been closed ages ago.

    Marlowe should uphold the law, no matter what. The fact that he breaks it now and again just means he's just as bad as the rest.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Most of the male characters in The Big Sleep like to think of themselves as macho. There are constant fistfights, arguments, and shootouts that arise out of this sense of challenged masculinity. They talk tough, hit hard, and never apologize. If we're to take Chandler's view, that's pretty much a requirement for surviving in 1930s L.A. The streets are mean, so the men must be meaner.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. What characteristics make Marlowe a tough guy? What characteristics make him a sentimental romantic (non-tough-guy)?
    2. In what way has the post-WWI, Depression-era world of Los Angeles shaped the masculinity of the men in The Big Sleep?
    3. In what ways do the male characters assert their authority? Are they trying to hide their insecurities or is their male aggression a symptom of the corruption in 1930s society?

    Chew on This

    The men in The Big Sleep are forced to talk tough and act tough because it's the only way to survive in the gritty streets of L.A.

    Marlowe's tough guy exterior hides an inner romanticism that he hides from the rest of the world.

  • Wealth

    Money talks in The Big Sleep. Well, not literally. But if you have a lot of money in this novel that pretty much guarantees you all the power and influence you want. The Sternwood family is the epitome of the wealth = power equation: their money comes from oil wells, and various members of the family succeed in using this wealth to buy what they want. But money also corrupts. And that's is why Marlowe not only despises the filthy rich, but also prefers being poor and underpaid if it means he doesn't have to compromise on his own morals.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. To what extent does wealth equal power in The Big Sleep?
    2. Why is Marlowe so contemptuous of the wealthy? Why does he seem to equate poverty with honesty? Does that seem like a fair equation to you, based on the characters of the novel?
    3. Money seems to be behind the motives of nearly all the criminals in The Big Sleep, from Geiger to Brody to Mars. How is this symptomatic of the crumbling economy of Depression-era America? To what extent does the desire for money motivate the characters in the novel to do what they do?

    Chew on This

    It's all about the benjamins, baby. Money is the driving force behind the criminal activities throughout the novel, from the blackmailing schemes to the various murders.

    Marlowe attempts to preserve his own integrity and honesty by living modestly, yet he still finds himself somewhat attracted to the life of the rich.

  • Violence

    A detective story without a dash of violence for flavor would be pretty bland, and The Big Sleep is definitely not lacking in the spicy action department. Fistfights, shootouts, bloody corpses—all the bases are covered. In the end, we realize that violence is the inevitable result of the total moral depravity going on in society. These tough guys only have a few options when it comes to getting their way, and violence is often their method of choice.

    Questions About Violence

    1. To what extent is the pervasive violence in The Big Sleep a commentary on the moral corruption of 1930s America?
    2. Marlowe occasionally has to slap around the female characters in The Big Sleep. Is the novel misogynistic in its treatment of violence toward women?
    3. In what ways is the theme of violence related to the issues of masculinity in the novel? Why do the men in The Big Sleep feel that violence is an appropriate means of asserting authority and masculinity?

    Chew on This

    Violence isn't only a man thing in The Big Sleep. Carmen has proven herself to be just as violent as all the tough guys.

    Marlowe's use of violence during his own investigation shows that his high-minded principles are really just a bunch of codswallop. He's no different than the rest of the tough guys.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Sexuality is a weapon in The Big Sleep. From Vivian's femme fatalish ways to Carmen's aggressive sexual advances, it's clear that women here are using their sexuality to achieve their goals—however sketchy they may be. It probably works on most men, but Marlowe manages to resist their advances, proving that his asexuality can be an asset, too.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. How is female sexuality portrayed in the novel? Is it seen as empowering, dangerous, or corrupt? 
    2. What is Marlowe's opinion of women? Why doesn't he want to get involved romantically with women, even when he finds himself attracted to one?
    3. How is homosexuality portrayed in The Big Sleep? What kinds of assumptions or associations does Marlowe make about homosexuality when he encounters Geiger and Carol?

    Chew on This

    The female characters in The Big Sleep use their sexuality to exercise power in the novel, but Marlowe appears to be the only one who doesn't fall for their womanly wiles.

    Chandler shows us that when women try to use their sexuality as a tool to control men, they're doomed to fail.