Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Women and Femininity

By Dashiell Hammett

Women and Femininity

She began to cry audibly, holding a white handkerchief to her face.

He got up and stood close behind her. He put her arms around her. He kissed her neck between ear and coat-collar. He said: "Now, Iva, don't." His face was expressionless. (3.19)

Iva is making quite the scene here, but are these merely crocodile tears? Is she really upset about her husband's death? Spade isn't trying very hard to be comforting, either. His face is "expressionless," and he seems to be pretty suspicious of this act that Iva is putting on.

"You're an angel," he said tenderly through smoke, "a nice rattle-brained angel." (3.50)

Spade makes constant use of diminutive words throughout the novel, calling Effie things like "angel," "darling," "sister, and "sweetheart." Are these simply terms of endearment or is Spade subtly asserting his masculine authority?

She squirmed on her end of the settee and her eyes wavered between heavy lashes, as if trying and failing to free their gaze from his. She seemed smaller, and very young and oppressed. (4.35)

This is Brigid at her most dangerous. The keyword here is "seemed." Brigid seems young and small and helpless. But she's far from the innocent school-girl she's pretending to be. And Spade isn't easily fooled be her feminine charms.

Spade, who had held his breath through much of this speech, now emptied his lungs with a long sighing exhalation between pursed lips and said: "You won't need much of anybody's help. You're good. You're very good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like, 'Be generous, Mr. Spade.'" (4.39)

Brigid appeals to Spade's masculine strength by begging him to help poor little helpless her. She tells him a sob story of all the things she's had to struggle through, but Spade isn't buying it. He sarcastically commends her on her fine acting ability, that "throb" in her voice" and the effective use of her doe-eyes. Most guys would probably be swooning at Brigid's feet at this point, but Spade is no sucker.

"You're an invaluable angel. How's your woman's intuition today?"

"Why?"

"What do you think of Wonderly?"

"I'm for her," the girl replied without hesitation. (4.123)

Effie is the only female character in the novel who doesn't use her femininity to manipulate and deceive. Her sensible nature is what allows Spade to trust her judgment and he frequently appeals to her "feminine intuition" for advice. Surprisingly, Effie is in favor of Brigid, which seems important since Effie thinks that Iva is a louse. Why does Effie approve of Brigid even though she's a liar?

"You aren't," he asked as he sat down, "exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean," she said in her hushed voice, looking at him with puzzled eyes.

"Schoolgirl manner," he explained, "stammering and blushing and all that."

She blushed and replied hurriedly, not looking at him: "I told you this afternoon that I've been bad—worse than you could know."

"That's what I mean," he said. "You told me that this afternoon in the same words, same tone. It's a speech you've practiced." (6.35)

Spade isn't afraid to call Brigid out when she's lying to him. Brigid is of course not used to men being able to resist her charms. Her normal tricks won't work, the stammering, blushing school girl act and her pretty speeches have absolutely no effect on Spade at all. So why is Spade able to see through Brigid's deception?

"I've given you all the money I have." Tears glistened in her white-ringed eyes. Her voice was hoarse, vibrant. "I've thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I'm utterly lost. What else is there?" She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: "Can I buy you with my body?" (6.68)

Brigid appears to be desperate now. She has run out of money and needs Spade's protection, yet won't be completely honest about why she wants his help. We don't blame Spade for being suspicious, but we can't help wondering why Brigid is so afraid to tell the truth.

"What makes you think I wasn't home?" she asked slowly.

"Nothing except that I know you weren't."

"But I was, I was." Her lips twisted and anger darkened her eyes. "Effie Perine told you that," she said indignantly. "I saw her looking at my clothes and snooping around. You know she doesn't like me, Sam. Why do you believe things she tells you when you know she'd do anything to make trouble for me?"

"Jesus, you women," Spade said mildly. (11.27)

Iva comes off as yet another manipulative female liar in this scene when she accuses Effie of trying to turn Spade against her. Iva's jealousy leads her to do spiteful things (like sending the police to Spade's apartment), and she seems to be overly clingy and attached to Spade. But at the same time, Spade is unusually cold with her, even though he's sleeping with her. So who's to say whether Iva or Spade is more flawed in this scenario?

Effie Perine was sitting at her desk when he opened the door. He said: "You ought to know better than to pay attention to me when I talk like that."

"If you think I pay any attention to you you're crazy," she replied, "only"—she crossed her arms and felt her shoulders, and her mouth twitched uncertainly—"I won't be able to wear an evening gown for two weeks, you big brute." (12.62)

Right before this exchange between Effie and Spade, Spade had violently twisted Effie's arm in reaction to the news of Brigid's disappearance. Spade feels guilty for his behavior, but Effie extends a little female tenderness by forgiving him for his angry outburst.

She [Effie] glared at him between tightened lids. "Sam Spade," she said, "you're the most contemptible man God ever made when you want to be. Because she did something without confiding in you you'd sit here and do nothing when you know she's in danger, when you know she might be –"

Spade's face flushed. He said stubbornly: "She's pretty capable of taking care of herself and she knows where to come for help when she thinks she needs it, and when it suits her." (16.24)

Here, we see two different commentaries on two contrasting women. Effie is scornful towards Spade because he's not doing everything in his power to help Brigid. Even though Spade insists that Brigid isn't who Effie thinks she is, and that Brigid is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, Effie's strong sense of loyalty can't stand the fact that Spade is sitting idly by. Would Brigid have been as loyal to Effie if the tables were turned?

"I'm not ashamed to be naked in front of you, but—can't you see?—not like this. Can't you see that if you make me you'll –you'll be killing something?" (19.84)

Brigid is pleading here with Spade not to make her take off her clothes. She wants Spade to trust her that she didn't take the money that Gutman accused her of stealing. But Spade needs to know for sure, and forces her to undress. Even though Brigid complies with Spade's orders, we can tell that she feels betrayed that Spade is willing to humiliate her and take Gutman's word over hers.