The Maltese Falcon

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The Maltese Falcon Symbol Analysis

The Maltese Falcon  Symbol Icon

Although the novel doesn’t contain that many symbols, the jewel-encrusted statue of the Maltese falcon provides rich and complex layers of symbolism. According to Casper Gutman, the 16th century rulers of Malta, an island nation near Italy, gave the statue to King Charles V of Spain as a sign of their loyalty. As such, the statue was initially designed as a symbol of loyalty and generosity.

However, obsessive greed drives Gutman, Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy to pursue the falcon at any cost, including betraying loved ones and committing murder. Ultimately, their obsessive pursuit leads to their demise. Thus, the falcon comes to symbolize the corrupting and destructive power of greed. Since the statue they pursue turns out to be a fake, the novel further suggests that in the end greed is a worthless endeavor. Thus, while the falcon was originally meant as a symbol of loyalty, it transforms into a symbol of a corrupting, futile, and self-destructive greed that makes people betray their loyalties.

In addition to representing greed, the falcon symbolizes Sam Spade’s quest for the truth. For Spade, getting his hands on the falcon gives him the bargaining power to make the villains reveal the true nature of their crimes. However, despite using the falcon to get to the bottom of all the deceptions, Spade is ultimately unable to discover if Brigid truly loves him, which shows how some truths, perhaps even the most important ones, remain beyond Spade’s grasp. In terms of the statue’s symbolism, the fact that this statue, a symbol for truth, is a fake reveals that people cannot ever fully possess or attain the truth.

The Maltese Falcon Quotes in The Maltese Falcon

The The Maltese Falcon quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Maltese Falcon . 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 16 Quotes

He stepped back holding it up in front of him and blew dust off it, regarding it triumphantly. Effie Perine made a horrified face and screamed, pointing at his feet. He looked down at his feet. His last backward step had brought his left heel into contact with the dead man’s hand, pinching a quarter-inch of flesh at a side of the palm between the heel and the floor. Spade jerked his foot away from the hand.

Related Characters: Sam Spade, Effie Perine, Captain Jacobi
Related Symbols: The Maltese Falcon
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade allows himself to be overcome with greed. Captain Jacobi has just stumbled into his office, dying, with a package containing what appears to be the legendary Maltese Falcon. Spade is so elated by the discovery of the Falcon that he holds it above his head, stepping on Jacob's dead body in the process.

The passage is notable for a couple reasons. First, notice that it's Effie who alerts Spade to the fact that he's disrespecting a dead body--as usual, Effie is the voice of right and wrong. Second, notice that Spade has finally given in to greed and desire--he's heard so much about the Falcon that he's willing to compromise his own moral code (disrespecting the dead) to celebrate. Also, notice that Spade holds the Falcon over his head (an act that would be nearly impossible, one would think, if the bird were actually gold, as it's rumored to be). Perhaps Hammett is foreshadowing the novel's final "twist," that the Falcon is a fake.

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Chapter 19 Quotes

“Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

Related Characters: Casper Gutman (speaker), Wilmer Cook
Related Symbols: The Maltese Falcon
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Casper Gutman's deviousness couldn't be clearer. Spade knows that somebody needs to go to jail: he suggests that he and Casper frame Casper's henchman, Wilmer Cook, for the murders of Thursby and Jacobi. Gutman is at first reluctant to give up Wilmer, whom he describes as being "like a son to me." But within just a couple minutes, Gutman gives up his "son," reasoning that the Maltese Falcon is more valuable to him. Gutman thinks that he'll be able to get the Falcon with Spade's help, get off scot-free for the murders, and live happily ever after--sending Wilmer to jail is a small price to pay.

The irony, of course, is that there are, in fact, multiple falcons--indeed, the "Maltese Falcon" in Gutman's possession is actually a fake. Gutman sacrifices his loyalties and his friendships for the sake of material possessions--possessions that turn out to be worthless.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“Would you have done this to me if the falcon had been real and you had been paid your money?”
“What difference does that make now? Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Maltese Falcon
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Brigid angrily asks Spade to tell her the truth: would he have turned her in to the police if the Maltese Falcon had been real? Brigid is implying that Spade wouldn't have been so focused on "doing the right thing" if he'd suddenly been made rich.

It's hard to deny that Brigid has a point. We've already seen that Spade is willing to sacrifice his values when he gets his hands on something valuable--remember the scene in which he stands on Jacobi's dead body because he thinks he has the falcon (a great metaphor for the way money corrupts).

And yet Spade insists that he is a just man: he just pretends to be devious and corrupt in order to attract the right clients and make friends with the right people (as he sarcastically and rather cruelly says here). In his mind, Spade is a good man: he just pretends to be corrupt because it's useful to his business, but in reality he's always thinking about doing the moral thing. Again, Hammett doesn't tell us whether we're supposed to believe Spade or not. Spade claims he knows how to keep good and evil separate--but perhaps in the course of his work, he's begun to confuse the two.

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The Maltese Falcon Symbol Timeline in The Maltese Falcon

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Maltese Falcon appears in The Maltese Falcon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4: The Black Bird
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...willing to pay Spade $5,000 if he locates and retrieves a statue of a black bird. Effie briefly interrupts their conversation to tell Spade she is leaving for the night. After... (full context)
Chapter 5: The Levantine
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...is still willing to pay the $5,000. Cairo refuses to tell Spade to whom the bird belongs or why Cairo’s employer thought Spade had it. After Cairo agrees to pay Spade... (full context)
Chapter 7: G in the Air
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
...Cairo talk, Spade quietly observes their interaction. Brigid offers Cairo the statue of the black bird for the $5,000. She tells him she can get the statue in a week when... (full context)
Chapter 9: Brigid
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...tells Spade that Cairo offered to pay her once she stole the statue of the bird from a Russian man named Kemidov living in Constantinople, but Thursby offered to pay her... (full context)
Chapter 10: The Belvedere Divan
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
...pocket. Later, as they eat breakfast, he asks her about the true story of the bird. She refuses on the basis that they shouldn’t talk about such things after sharing an... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
...he only slapped him so that Brigid would trust him and help him find the bird. Implying he doesn’t fully trust Spade, Cairo tells him that he always has a smooth... (full context)
Chapter 11: The Fat Man
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...are looking out for their own best interests. Gutman then asks Spade to find the bird but then refuses Spade’s request for information about the item. Shouting in anger, Spade says... (full context)
Chapter 13: The Emperor’s Gift
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...and then quickly launches into the history of the statue now identified as the Maltese falcon. Gutman claims that in the 1500s the rulers of Malta gave a gold and bejeweled... (full context)
Greed Theme Icon
...have yet to give him the statue. Gutman tells Spade that if he retrieves the bird, then he will give Spade a choice. He’ll pay him either $50,000 dollars or 25%... (full context)
Chapter 14: La Paloma
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
...puts a cold compress against this head, he reports what Gutman told him about the falcon so that Effie can ask her cousin, a history professor, if the story has any... (full context)
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
...enters his office with the news that her cousin has verified the information about the falcon. When Spade notices some black soot on her face, she mentions that she passed the... (full context)
Chapter 16: The Third Murder
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Fate and Death Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
...been shot a half a dozen times. Spade then unwraps the package to find the falcon. With absolute elation, he lifts the bird over his head, not realizing that he is... (full context)
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
...police and let them know about the body, but to conceal any information about the falcon and the relationship between this man, who he believes is Captain Jacobi, and Brigid. Before... (full context)
Chapter 17: Saturday Night
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
Spade hides the falcon in a locker at the bus depot then takes the locker key and mails it... (full context)
Chapter 18: The Fall-Guy
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...Brigid while they tried to find Captain Jacobi. In response, Spade offers to give the falcon to Gutman for the agreed upon $50,000 dollars, but Gutman instead produces an envelop with... (full context)
Chapter 19: The Russian’s Hand
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
...Thursby so that Brigid would fear that she was next and would give Gutman the falcon. During their meeting on the ship La Paloma, Brigid and Jacobi agreed to give Gutman... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
After sunrise, Spade calls Effie, gives her the info about the bird’s location, and asks her to bring it to his apartment. An hour later, she appears... (full context)
Chapter 20: If They Hang You
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
...the police interrogation. She tells him that Gutman employed her and Cairo to steal the falcon, but that she and Cairo double-crossed Gutman and stole it for themselves. But when she... (full context)
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
Brigid asks if the falcon had been real and he got his money, would he still have turned her in.... (full context)