The Maltese Falcon

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Themes and Colors
Lies and Deceptions  Theme Icon
Authority, Justice, and a Code of Ethics Theme Icon
Greed Theme Icon
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon
Fate and Death Theme Icon
Love and Sex  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Maltese Falcon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate and Death Theme Icon

While most characters don’t respond with much emotion to the deaths that occur around them, Samuel Spade’s story about Flitcraft reveals the importance of how people cope with mortality. Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy about a former case of his in which a man named Flitcraft realizes how death can strike at any moment. After having this realization, Flitcraft leaves his family and wanders aimlessly around the United States before settling down with a new wife who resembles the one he left. Spade says that Flitcraft abandoned his realization about the random inevitability of death so that he could go back to living a life like his old one. For Spade, this story reveals how most people try to forget about death in order to go on living their ordinary lives.

Spade, however, copes with mortality by trying to stay in control of every facet of his life rather than by simply ignoring the reality of death. Yet, death is something that no one can ultimately predict, avoid, or control. Thus, his desire to stay in control can be understood as a way of coping with his lack of control over death. Likewise, Spade’s last name refers to both the instrument used to dig graves as well as a suit of cards, which connects the theme of death with that of the randomness suggested by the cards.

Although Flitcraft had a brief moment of realization about death, the fact that his new life resembles his old in all the significant ways illustrates how a person cannot escape their natural inclinations or “fate.” Spade tells Brigid this story in order to indirectly explain that he knows she will not be able to change her deceitful ways, because deception is in her nature. Spade also comes to a similar realization about himself when he tells Brigid it would be against his nature to let her go free once he’s finally obtained the evidence that proves her guilt.

Fate and Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate and Death appears in each chapter of The Maltese Falcon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate and Death Quotes in The Maltese Falcon

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Fate and Death.
Chapter 7 Quotes

“His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes…I don’t think he even knew he settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Flitcraft
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Spade tells Brigid, soon to be his lover, a story about a case he investigated a few years ago. Spade tracked down a man named Flitcraft who, after a brush with death, suddenly left his wife and family and moved far away, hoping to change his life and savor it more. Spade discovered, however, that Flitcraft had soon taken up a new job, wife, and family--and moreover, his new wife looked a little like his first. The irony of the story is that Flitcraft ran away from his old life, only to start up another life that was almost exactly the same.

Spade's story emphasizes the idea of fate or a person's inherent "nature." Flitcraft forcefully tried to change himself, but he soon returned to his old ways. Similarly, Spade will later suggest that Brigid will always be deceitful, no matter how hard she tries to be honest, and no matter how much she may love Spade. The story of Flitcraft also shows how most people deal with their own mortality--they try to ignore it. Flitcraft decided to savor life after nearly being struck by a steel beam. But after only a few months, Flitcraft stopped thinking about death and "settled down" once again.


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“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Flitcraft
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Spade continues telling Brigid the story of Flitcraft, the strange man whom he tracked down a few years ago. Flitcraft chose to run away from his wife for one simple reason: he nearly died. While walking by a construction site, Flitcraft was nearly killed by a falling steel beam: the experience scarred him, reminding him that his life was short and fragile.

The story tells us a lot about Spade's code of right and wrong--a code that, we sense, is rooted in an acknowledgment of death. Spade is surrounded by death and danger at all times--yet, like Flitcraft, he finds a way to "adjust" himself to the danger and survive. Spade accepts the presence of death in his life, and proceeds normally. Flitcraft couldn't handle this acceptance for long, however, and so he soon slipped back into his old complacency, assuming that death was far away and unreal.

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.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Spade continues to give his reasons for turning Brigid in to the police. Spade's explanation is curious because it makes him look weak and powerless--just a pawn in a vast "natural order of things." Spade explains that it's the natural order for a detective to turn someone in to the police: when there's a crime, somebody has to go to jail. Spade's reliance on such an order leads him to send Brigid to prison--in spite of his feelings for Brigid, somebody has to be punished for murder.

Spade exemplifies an independent, macho way of looking at the world: he "is what he is," and refuses to change for anyone or anything. Spade could conceivably let Brigid go free and start a new life somewhere with her, but he's too loyal to his own sense of law and order.