Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Violence

By Dashiell Hammett

Violence

"He talks in a rather loud, blustery way and has a nervous, irritable manner. He gives the impression of being—of violence." (1.58)

Brigid's description of Thursby doesn't present him as a very likeable guy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Thursby sounds like an unpredictable thug, who thinks violence will solve any problem. We wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley….

He raised the muddy revolver. "Ever seen this before?"

Spade nodded. "I've seen Webley-Fosbery," he said without interest, and then spoke rapidly: "He was shot up here, huh? Standing where you are, with his back to the fence. The man that shot him stands here." He went around in front of Tom and raised a hand breast-high with leveled forefinger. "Lets him have it and Miles goes back, taking the top off the fence and going on through and down till the rock catches him. That it?" (2.24)

The plot of The Maltese Falcon is centered on two main goals: (1) finding the falcon, and (2) finding Miles's killer. The fact that two murders occur with the first ten pages of the novel emphasizes how pervasive violence is in this world. Moreover, Spade's reaction to the news of how Miles was shot is unemotional and seemingly indifferent. Does Spade have to develop a thick skin to deal with all the constant violence and deaths that he witnesses?

"Why all the guns?"

"He lived by them. There was a story in Hongkong that he had come out there, to the Orient, as a bodyguard to a gambler who had to leave the States, and that the gambler had since disappeared. They said Floyd knew about his disappearing. I don't know. I do know that he always went heavily armed an tat he never went to sleep without covering the floor around his bed with crumpled newspaper so nobody could come silently into his room." (4.73)

Brigid explains to Spade that Thursby's lack of trust for anyone meant that he never went anywhere without a gun. And the streets San Francisco are full of men like Thursby, toting loaded guns, their fingers ready at any moment to pull the trigger. No wonder so many deaths occur every day.

"I could've butchered Miles to get his wife, and then Thursby so I could hang Miles's killing on him. That's a hell of a swell system, or will be when I can give somebody else the bump and hang Thursby's on them. How long am I supposed to keep that up? Are you going to put your hand on my shoulder for all the killings in San Francisco from now on?" (7.118)

Spade is getting pretty fed up with the police's constant questioning. But we can't deny that Spade is a pretty likely suspect for Miles' murder, and Spade has been known to lose his temper in fits of violence.

"Then they attacked me. She struck me first, and then he choked me and took the pistol out of my pocket. I don't know what they would have done next if you hadn't arrived at that moment. I dare say they would have murdered me then and there." (8.19)

In this scene, Cairo claims that Brigid had attacked him, but Brigid swears that Cairo is lying. Here was see how violence is linked to another important theme of the novel: lies and deceit. Spade is unable to parse out the truth from either Cairo or Brigid, but one thing's for certain, violence offers yet another means of self-protection.

Red rage came suddenly into his face and he began to talk in a harsh guttural voice. Holding his maddened face in his hands, glaring at the floor, he cursed Dundy for five minutes without break, cursed him obscenely, blasphemously, repetitiously, in a harsh guttural voice.

Then he took his face out of his hands, looked at the girl, grinned sheepishly, and said: "Childish, huh? I know, but, by God, I do hate being hit without hitting back." (9.3)

Here's a moment when Spade completely loses it and his temper explodes violently in a string of curse words. Spade is furious at Dundy for bullying him, and he's even angrier that he couldn't really fight back without landing himself in jail. The fact that Spade hates "being hit without hitting back" pretty much sums up in a nutshell the general attitude toward violence in the novel. An eye for an eye. And every man out for himself.

Thomas, in a tone whose matter-of-factness did not quite hide his excitement, said: "That opens another angle. Monahan's friends could have knocked off Thursby for ditching Monahan." "Dead gamblers don't have any friends," Spade said. (15.106)

Here, we see violence (and death) getting linked to the theme of loyalty (and friendship). Spade argues that dead gamblers don't have any friends because they've likely burned too many bridges and gotten too many people angry to have any loyal supporters. This theory holds true for pretty much every other character in the novel, too. Since the world is so violent, it's impossible to trust anyone.

When he withdrew his hand presently it came out smeared with blood. The sight of his bloody hand brought not the least nor briefest of changes to Spade's face. (16.71)

Spade's head has just been bashed in my Wilmer's foot, but Spade is completely unfazed by the sight of his own blood. What does this say about Spade's desensitized perspective on violence?

"Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing, and threatening to kill."

"Sure," Spade agreed, "but they're not much good unless the threat of death is behind them to hold the victim down." (18.87)

The "other means of persuasion" that Gutman refers to here could mean any number of things: bribery, torture, intense therapy sessions (okay, well, maybe not that last one). Spade, on the other hand, believes that nothing is effective without the "threat of death" to make the victim feel trapped. Does this mean Spade is advocating violence? Or is violence a necessary evil in a corrupt world?

"You were in my arms when the trap was sprung—I couldn't have gone for a gun if I'd had one on me and couldn't have made a fight of it if I had wanted to. And if they didn't take you away with them it was only because Gutman's got too much sense to trust you except for short stretches when he has to and because he thought I'd play the sap for you and—not wanting to hurt you—wouldn't be able to hurt him." (20.67)

Spade explains to Brigid why he's unwilling to play the sap for her. She not only prevented him from "fighting it out" with Gutman, but she also lied and double-crossed him every chance she could find. Maybe if Spade had been able to reach for his gun, there would have been a shootout and the bad guys would be dead. But instead, Spade is unable to use violence, even if he had wanted to. Moreover, Gutman counted too much on Spade being too soft to want to hurt Brigid. But in the end, Spade turns Brigid over to the police, even if it means she might be hanged.