Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon Women and Femininity

By Dashiell Hammett

Women and Femininity

There are a limited number of female characters in The Maltese Falcon, and most of them aren't portrayed in a very positive light. Of the three main female characters, Spade likes one (Effie Perine), loves another (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), and avoids the other (Iva Archer) entirely. Spade's relationship to women is particularly ambiguous because on the one hand, he relies a great deal on Effie's sound judgment, but on the other, he has a bad habit of referring to women by impersonal diminutives such as "darling" and "angel," which implies that these characters are stand-ins for all other women. Both Brigid and Iva appear as seductive, manipulative women (Brigid more so than Iva, of course), and an argument could be made that this is a sexist commentary on the untold dangers of the female sex. On the flipside, we could also say that The Maltese Falcon is actually a feminist novel because the women are seen as no better or worse than the men. They have the same fears and insecurities, and are consumed by the same desires and needs. In this sense, both sexes are shown as equals playing on the same field.

Questions About Women and Femininity

  1. How are feminine sexuality and sexual relations treated in the novel? Is femininity seen as a virtue or a vice?
  2. What is the nature of the relationship between Spade and Brigid? Between Spade and Iva? And between Spade and Effie? In what ways do these three female characters both transgress and adhere to traditional notions of femininity?
  3. Why is femininity so closely associated in this novel with deceit? Does Brigid lie because its part of her feminine nature to deceive, or is she forced to lie in order to make her way through an overly masculine world?
  4. Is there possibility for true romance in this novel or only lies and deception? Is Brigid telling the truth when she says that she's in love with Spade? Do you think Sam will get back together with Iva in the end?

Chew on This

Brigid is a victim of her unfortunate circumstances and is forced to lie in an effort to protect herself.

Most of the female characters in the novel, with the notable exception of Effie, use their femininity to manipulate and control the men around them.

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