RARA-AVIS: Philip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep"

Debbie Chilson (dlchilson@hotmail.com)
Wed, 30 Sep 1998 14:49:58 EDT I have been reading the works of Raymond Chandler--in particular, "The
Big Sleep" and "The Long Good-Bye"--and have come to some conclusions
about Philip Marlowe. I would like to throw these thoughts out to all
of you in hopes that I might come to understand Chandler's work a little
better. I am new to this list and to "hardboiled detective fiction, so
I hope you will excuse me if I say anything that has already been said.

In the beginning (Chapter One) of "The Big Sleep," Chandler has Marlowe
describing a stained-glass window of a knight in the process of rescuing
a a woman tied to a tree. Throughout the novel, the image of a knight
kept returning. Marlowe, like a knight of old, follows a code of honor
(his own) which compels him to seek justice and protect his client from
harm. By this, I mean that (in terms of "The Big Sleep" alone)
everyting he does, he does out of loyalty to General Sternwood. It
occcured to that Marlowe identifies himself with knights and ancient
codes of chivalry and honor. However, Marlowe is also unlike those
ancient knights in that he is so "innocent" about the world. There is a
scene in Chapter Twenty-Four, where this is shown. Marlowe says, or
thinks rather, "The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back were
I had moved it from. Knights have no meaning in this game. It wasn't a
game for knights." On the surface, this passage refers to the chess
game Marlowe has been playing, but I see it as a symbol of the world
Chandler has created. Marlowe began working for General Sternwood in
the role of a knight. His job is to discover who is blackmailing the
General and put a stop to it-- thereby saving the honor of the Sternwood
family. This is very much like what a knight did, defending the honor
of King, Queen, country, and any fair maid who needed defending. The
further involved Marlowe gotm however, he realized that the people he
had to deal with were so corrupt that he could no longer continue to be
a simple knight. He would not play the game they were playing if he was
a knight.

At the end of the novel, howver, marlowe tries to step back into the
role of knight when he decides not to tell the General abut Carmen's
role in the disappearance of Rusty Regan, whom the General liked. His
wish is to protect the dying man from the evils of the world around him.
This is a very chilalrous action. Would it be possible to saym then,
that Marlowe is a "modern day" knight? Or is it possible that Chandler
is being ironic, and that he is saying that Marlowe is not at all a
knight, but just another part of the "nastiness" of LA?

Debbie Chilson

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