We continue our study of Noir, delving deeper into the dark city of Chandler’s Los Angeles with a look at some more symbols and motifs found in THE BIG SLEEP.
This is Book Club, but unlike some other clubs, you can talk about it, in fact I hope you do. The only punches thrown here are those on the written page.
The first rule of Book Club is you must love books. If you agree with that, then… join the club. It’s all about books, going beyond the page, delving into the deeper currents within the words, and discovering the sunken treasure beneath the surface.
Some say that to become a proficient writer one needs to read. It is also true that books can be read on many levels. More often than not, when reading a book, one time for the first time, we get the story, the events, the plot elements as they happen. More often than not, there are deeper currents below the surface. Nuances and undiscovered themes we miss on a cursory reading.
For this Blog I am reading the books a minimum of two times. Once I read it to get the story, and a second time to mine the gold. Engaging a book in this way can reap enjoyable and entertaining, emotional and intellectual rewards for the reader. For the writer, books can become a master class in plot, theme, character, and technique.
In Part One we had opportunity to look at some of the symbols Chandler used in THE BIG SLEEP as they related to some of the principle characters and saw that some of the characters were symbols themselves. Eddie Mars for instance. Now, we shall look at some more symbols, but these tell us something of the world in which these characters move and live.
As we move into a study symbols in THE BIG SLEEP, we must understand that the symbols and images we find in this story arise from the time in which it was written. THE BIG SLEEP was written in 1939.
Noir News: The Great Depression
Wikipedia says this about this severe economic downturn:
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century.
Jobs, personal wealth, income all took a hit. As a result a deep cynicism about any kind of future became part of the national conscience.
Into this climate, Chandler writes THE BIG SLEEP. Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand why Chandler’s story world is seedy, dark, tends toward the mean, the criminal, and why the pursuit of money occupies almost all the characters’ time.
Times were tough and everybody was looking out for themselves. As it was in America, so it is with many of the characters in the story. The mental state of many of the characters can be said to mirror the turmoil that most Americans felt in their lives when THE BIG SLEEP was published.
Out of this cynicism and hopelessness, corruption found fertile ground. This is also reflected in Chandler’s book. Police take bribes, everybody lies.
So with these things in mind, we look at symbols and motifs in this story.
Noir News: RAIN
Rain pervades THE BIG SLEEP. In the very beginning, Chandler uses weather to set a tone.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
This is as Marlowe is first going to the Sternwoods. General Sternwood hires him for a bit of work. By the end of chapter three he has his orders and a bit of the lay of the land so to speak. As he leaves the house, Chandler gives us this:
“Thunder was crackling in the foothills now and the sky above them was purple-black. It was going to rain hard.”
The world in which Marlowe lives and moves is dark, ominous, and not altogether pleasant.
After Marlowe meets with his client, one of the daughters summons him, to talk. We will learn that she has agendas and motivations of her own, her own game she is playing and Marlowe could upset that game. She wants to meet with him, feel him out, why is he talking to her father. Chandler mentions rain again.
“It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already. I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.”
Marlowe is not anything if he is not a excellent judge of character. Indeed, many of the conclusions he seem to draw about cases is based on his ability to sum people up, to read them. He gets an immediate read on Mrs. Regan. She’s trouble, trouble because she’s beautiful, but trouble because Marlowe can feel it, like the pressure in the air before a rain.
Our hero finishes up his talk with this femme fatale and leaves. He is now officially on the case and the adventure has begun. Every step he takes now will be deeper into the seedy underbelly of the dark city, bring him into confrontation with the denizens that abide there. Chandler again comments on the rain. The rain is a foretaste of what is to come.
“Thunder was crackling in the foothills now and the sky above them was purple-black. It was going to rain hard. The air had the damp foretaste of rain.”
As Marlowe begins, he learns quickly that this case involves pornography. Whatever the view of such material today, it was viewed as illicit back then, something to be ashamed of. Then, as now, this inconvenience did not deter its proliferation. Two things of note as Marlowe discovers the pornography.
The rain starts, Marlowe is “well sprinkled” by the time he gets back to his car with the material. The material in question was “an indescribable filth” and “elaborate smut.” Marlowe wraps the book and tucks in the seat behind his seat. He sits listening to the rain beat on his car and thinks. Rain douses both him and his car both and it’s as if this “indescribable filth” has splashed on him, doused him.
He watches people go in and out of the book store that is nothing more than a front for this speakeasy of pornographic material. The establishment is doing a brisk trade. Not all the patrons that enter are men, not all craven looking down-and-outers. Society types and women in nice cars come and go, all leave with books wrapped discreetly in the same brown paper, like the one behind Marlowe’s seat.
Marlowe says that business there was good, despite the rain, or maybe because of it. The rain provides cover for seedy, illicit activity, for dirty deeds. The filth and the rain get all over everybody here, regardless of how high up the social ladder they may be. Marlowe’s car begins to leak and soon his feet are resting soaked in a puddle on his floorboard. He says it was too early in the season for rain this hard, furthering the idea that the rain is a symbol, a welcome sign on the road to the dark city of Noir.
With the rain still coming down, Marlowe finds himself in front of the house of a man named Geiger, the owner of the pornographic speak easy, or he was until he fell on some bullets. Death now enters the story and Chandler makes sure to emphasize the affair with setting.
“At a little after six more bright lights bobbed through the driving rain. It was pitch black by then.”
Dark deeds done in the dark, in the driving rain.
Contrast the darkness with the light. Marlowe moves through the dark city, where the evil doers gain cover from the rain and the darkness. The honest man sees safety in the light and danger in the darkness. In the dark city, the feeling is just the opposite. The light brings exposure. Marlowe is the last honest man, but he does his work in the dark too.
“I went on up the street and parked and walked back. In the daylight it seemed an exposed and dangerous thing to do.”
What other symbols do we get early on?
Noir News: The Greenhouse
“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”
This is a symbol of the world in which Marlowe moves, chasing and fending off those he must confront. The corrupt, the liars, the thieves and murderers hover around and close in like the forest of leaves and stalks that make the greenhouse a dank, smelly, nasty place in which to be. The dark city. What light does penetrate is filtered into something unreal and unpleasant. It’s as if even the light itself can’t stay pure in this world.
Noir News: The Orchids
Orchids are beautiful, but here they are described as having nasty meaty leaves, stalks like fingers of dead men. In the dark city, there is a veneer of sensuality, of beauty, temptations, but underneath it all is something nasty and death and dead men close by.
All these symbols, including the knight in the stainded glass, and the chessboard show us something of our hero, and more of the world with which he contends.
Next up, a summary and analysis of the first several chapters.
Read The Book
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Available wherever ebooks are sold