The Maltese Falcon

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Guns Symbol Icon

In a lot of symbolism, the size of a man’s gun is proportional with his masculinity. The bigger the gun, the more masculine the man. However, this novel uses guns as a symbol for a lack of masculinity. For example, Wilmer Cook, who is described as young, fair-skinned, and possibly gay, carries two large pistols. In the novel, Wilmer’s guns represent his attempt to compensate for his physical slightness, youth, and sexual orientation. It is important to note that this novel describes homosexuality as an unnatural and effeminate perversion, rightly leading many critics to criticize the novel for homophobic and discriminatory depictions of gay men. In contrast to Wilmer, Sam Spade does not carry a gun, suggesting that his masculinity is so apparent that he requires no outward symbol to confirm, display, or defend it.

In an extension of this theme, Casper Gutman’s gold and jewel-encrusted pistol is s symbol of his effeminacy as well as the fusion of greed and violence. In the novel, jewelry is linked with effeminacy and homosexuality. For example, Joel Cairo’s ruby-studded tie and diamond rings are meant to display his effeminacy and his identity as a gay man. Therefore, Gutman’s jeweled gun is a symbol of his effeminacy and possible sexual orientation. Since Gutman’s gun, an instrument of violence, is a marker of excessive wealth, the novel suggests that greed and violence are counterparts to one another, each leading to the other.

Guns Quotes in The Maltese Falcon

The The Maltese Falcon quotes below all refer to the symbol of Guns. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Maltese Falcon published in 1992.
Chapter 11 Quotes

“Keep that grunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him. I don’t like him. He makes me nervous. I’ll kill him the first time he gets in my way. I won’t give him an even break. I won’t give him a chance. I’ll kill him.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Casper Gutman , Wilmer Cook
Related Symbols: Guns
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sam Spade, who's been talking to Casper Gutman, notices Gutman's henchmen, a young man named Wilmer. Spade calls Wilmer a "gunsel," a slang term that means both "homosexual" and "gunman."

First, notice that Spade threatens to kill Wilmer. It's possible that Spade is threatening to kill the man in order to intimidate Gutman into being honest--Spade doesn't want Gutman to double-cross him, and the best way to avoid a double-cross is to let everyone know that he (Spade) is dangerous.

Second, the passage reinforces the homophobia and aggressive masculinity of Spade's universe. Spade is, indeed, "uncomfortable" around Wilmer, for much the same reasons that he was uncomfortable around Joe Cairo (another villainous character whom the novel portrays as effeminate). Spade's status as the antihero of the novel--dangerous, but also the protector of right and wrong--is closely linked to his status as the most masculine character in the novel.


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Guns Symbol Timeline in The Maltese Falcon

The timeline below shows where the symbol Guns appears in The Maltese Falcon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: Death in the Fog
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...did. Spade offers them a drink, but only Polhaus accepts. When they ask about Spade’s gun, he tells them he doesn’t carry one. Dundy expresses doubt and Spade, getting angry at... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Black Bird
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...locks the office door behind her on her way out, Cairo produces a small black gun and tells Spade to clasp his hands behind his neck. (full context)
Chapter 5: The Levantine
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...Spade for a weapon, Spade elbows Cairo in the cheek, tripping him and taking his gun. When Cairo is on the floor, Spade strikes him again in the face, knocking him... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...upfront, Spade agrees to look for the bird. Spade returns Cairo’s possessions along with his gun. Immediately, Cairo points the gun at Spade and, to Spade’s surprise, politely carries out his... (full context)
Chapter 8: Horse Feathers
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Cairo, a gash over his eye, stands with a gun over Brigid as she huddles, terrified, in the chair. Brigid claims he struck her first,... (full context)
Chapter 12: Merry-go-Round
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...for him outside his office door. Spade notices that the young man is pointing a gun at him from within his coat pocket. The young man says Gutman wants to see... (full context)
Chapter 13: The Emperor’s Gift
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
In the room, Spade gives the guns to Gutman who seems more impressed with Spade’s abilities than annoyed with the young man’s... (full context)
Chapter 17: Saturday Night
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
...apartment, the light suddenly turns on and Gutman along with Wilmer and Cairo, each holding guns, are waiting for them. (full context)
Chapter 18: The Fall-Guy
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Spade tells Gutman that he hopes Wilmer’s gun is not preventing him from betraying Wilmer since Spade could easily take his gun away,... (full context)
Chapter 19: The Russian’s Hand
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
...they’ll have to turn him in alongside his “boyfriend” Wilmer. Wilmer awakes, but without any guns and aware that everyone has betrayed him, he silently sulks in the corner. After Cairo... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...for the envelope with the cash. Spade refuses, at which point Gutman reveals a golden gun. Spade returns the envelope, but first takes one of the bills as a bribe for... (full context)