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.
Greed Theme Icon

In The Maltese Falcon, greed is the driving force that motivates most of the characters. In the most obvious example, Brigid O’Shaughnessy kills Miles Archer so she can frame Floyd Thursby and keep the profits from selling the statue for herself. Casper Gutman, meanwhile, represents the embodiment of greed. The other characters refer to him as “Mr. G” in reference to his large “gut” as well as his greed, linking his excess desire for money with gluttony. Even Gutman’s pistol is covered with jewels, suggesting that violence and greed are counterparts of one another. Greed so corrupts Gutman that he is willing to betray Wilmer Cook, who he says is like a son to him, in order to continue his pursuit of the Maltese falcon. While Spade betrays Brigid for justice, Gutman turns on Wilmer for money.

In contrast, Spade struggles to and eventually does control his greed. Throughout the novel, Spade never misses an opportunity to make some quick cash. However, Spade ultimately hands over to the police the bribe he pretended to take from Gutman. The only major character who seems beyond the grasp of greed is Effie Perine who warns Spade that if he takes advantage of Brigid by taking her money without offering help, then she will lose all respect for him.

In addition to being a symbol of the illusory nature of truth, the Maltese falcon also symbolizes greed. The statue drives people to murder and betrayal, but, in the end, the statue is worthless. As a result, the statue also reveals the hollowness of greed itself, how it drives people to actions that lead only to isolation or self-destruction.

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Greed ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Greed.
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.