Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Men and Masculinity

By Dashiell Hammett

Men and Masculinity

"I don't know anything about women." (2.62)

Spade jokes that he knows nothing about women, and in many ways, he's right. Some of the female characters in the novel, such as Brigid and Iva, aren't exactly the easiest people to read. As a result, there are frequent clashes between the blatantly macho characters like Spade and the extremely feminine figures like Brigid.

"I never know what to do or say to women except that way." (3.46)

Spade admits to being a womanizer. He's been having an affair with Iva even though he's not that crazy about her anymore. And when he meets Brigid, it doesn't take long before the two of the wind up in bed together.

"You always think you know what you're doing, but you're too slick for your own good, and some day you're going to find out." (3.69)

Effie cautions Spade not to be overly confident in himself. Spade's tough guy act might work on some, but Effie can see straight through it.

He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened. (7.2)

Spade's manner of speaking, his gruff "matter of fact" voice that lacks any sign of sentimentality or emotion, is a sign of his hyper-masculinity. In a world that is run by ruthless criminals, Spade needs to develop a thick skin and hardboiled attitude in order to make his way through it.

Spade's lip twitched over his eyetooth. He said: "You're not coming in. What do you want to do about it? Try to get in? Or do your talking here? Or go to hell?"

Tom groaned.

Dundy, still speaking through his teeth, said: "It'd pay you to play along with us a little, Spade. You've got away with this and you've got away with that, but you can't keep it up forever."

"Stop me when you can," Spade replied arrogantly. (7.105)

It sometimes seems as if Spade gets a kick out of angering the police department, especially when it comes to Dundy. Spade and Dundy clearly don't get along, and they both hate each other's guts. Dundy is constantly bullying and badgering Spade, while Spade goes out of his way to get under Dundy's skin. As a private eye, Spade isn't part of the police force, so Hammett is drawing a clear distinction between Spade's work and that of the police. Dundy is seen as a man who abuses his authority as a cop, and Tom Polhaus is one of the rare honest policemen that we see in the novel.

Spade rose and put his hands in his trouser-pockets. He stood erect so he might look that much further down at the Lieutenant. His grin was taut and self-certainty spoke in every line of his posture.

"I dare you to take us in, Dundy," he said. "We'll laugh at you in every newspaper in San Francisco." (8.56)

Spade asserts his masculinity here by standing up and pulling himself taller so that he can look down at Dundy. Notice the emphasis on Spade's self-certainty. He's very sure of himself, a necessary requirement for a detective dealing with abusive cops and dangerous criminals.

The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second "you."

"People lose teeth talking like that." Spade's voice was still amiable though his face had become wooden. "If you want to hang around you'll be polite."

The boy repeated his two words. (10.45)

The constant battle to assert one's masculinity in the novel continues when Spade is confronted by the thuggish Wilmer. Even though it is hinted that Wilmer is Cairo's gay lover, he doesn't have the effeminate frailty that characterizes Cairo. Wilmer is as hard as nails, aggressively violent, and trigger-happy. Spade is generally able to get the better of Wilmer, but Wilmer is always trying to prove his masculinity.

"Ain't you ever going to grow up?" he [Tom] grumbled. "What've you got to beef about? He [Dundy] didn't hurt you. You came out on top. What's the sense of making a grudge out of it? You're just making a lot of grief for yourself."

Spade placed his knife and fork carefully together on his plate […]. His smile was faint and devoid of warmth. "With every bull in town working overtime trying to pile up grief for me a little more won't hurt. (15.8)

Even though Spade is still angry at Dundy for bullying him, he has to agree with Tom that it's not worth holding a grudge if it means leading to more grief. Spade has already had to swallow so much nonsense that he doesn't mind a little more, but we're starting to wonder whether Spade is taking on more than he can handle.

"You'd think you wasn't a dick yourself the way you bellyache over things. I supposed you don't never pull the same stuff on anybody that we pulled on you?" (15.28)

Tom is trying (rather unsuccessfully) to apologize to Spade for having to question him about Archer's death. But at the same time, Tom appeals to Spade's awareness that this kind of thing happens all the time, and that both Tom and Dundy were only doing their jobs in grilling Spade (he was after all a perfectly reasonable suspect for the killings). The fact that Spade is out of favor with the police emphasizes the tension that exists between the various male characters in the novel as they fight to keep the upper hand over each other.

Spade laughed. "You mean a couple of high-class sleuths like you and Dundy worked on that lily-of-the-valley all night and couldn't crack him?"

"What do you mean—all night?" Polhaus protested. "We worked on him for less than a couple of hours. We saw we wasn't getting nowhere, and let him go." (15.46)

In this scene, the "lily-of-the-valley" that Spade is referring to is Cairo. Hammett resorts to common stereotypes of the homosexual as fragile and delicate by describing Cairo as a flower.

"You're not the man that's afraid of a little bit of trouble. You know how to do things and you know you'll land on your feet in the end, no matter what happens." (18.34)

Gutman commends Spade here for being street-smart enough to know how to handle most anything. And Spade certainly is someone who always manages to land on his feet. At the end of the novel, it seems as if Spade's in for it because the bad guys have fled and he has no one to give to the police for the two murders. But Spade manages to skirt trouble by hitting on the fact that Brigid is the real murderer.

Joel Cairo's dark face was open-mouthed, open-eyed, yellowish, and amazed. He breathed through his mouth, his round effeminate chest rising and falling" (18.40)

Here, we see another stereotyped portrayal of Cairo as the effeminate homosexual. Does Hammett come off as homophobic in his depiction of homosexuality? Why is it necessary or important to have homosexual characters in a novel that is mostly populated by macho tough guys?

The boy lay on his back on the sofa, a small figure that was—except for its breathing—altogether corpselike to the eye. Joel Cairo sat beside the boy, bending over him, rubbing his cheeks and wrists, smoothing his hair back from his forehead, whispering to him, and peering anxiously down at his white still face. (19.1)

The narrator hints here that Wilmer and Cairo are lovers. We can tell from Cairo's anxious whispering and petting that he cares about Wilmer. What kind of information can we glean here from the nature of their relationship?