The Maltese Falcon

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Love and Sex Theme Analysis

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.
Love and Sex  Theme Icon

In The Maltese Falcon, love fails to overcome the grim realities of deception and greed. For example, Casper Gutman’s greed makes him betray Wilmer Cook despite Gutman’s supposed paternal love and possible sexual attraction towards him. While it’s unclear what Gutman’s true feelings were for Wilmer, Brigid O’Shaughnessy uses sex and affection as a kind of currency to get men to do what she wants. Although by the end of the novel Brigid may have truly fallen in love with Samuel Spade, he realizes that he cannot trust her love because her emotions are wrapped in lies and deceptions. The novel also provides no model for a good marriage, since Iva Archer cheats on her husband, Miles Archer, and Flitcraft leaves his family with no warning.

For Spade, romantic love appears to be an unattainable ideal since his mistrustfulness prevents him from ever fully believing the inner and unknowable feelings of another person. As a result, Spade is not willing to risk breaking his code of ethics for something as insubstantial as love. Likewise, Spade tells Effie Perine he only knows how to interact with women through sex. Spade’s inability to trust makes sex the only option for expressing affection or desire for a woman. Spade even implies that sex, rather than deep affection or trust, is the only thing that sustains his relationship with Iva. The last scene of the novel, therefore, ends with Spade having to decide if he will continue his loveless relationship with Iva by marrying her as she desires. Yet what Spade does not realize is that he already has a profound emotional attachment with Effie, which reveals that Spade can, at the very least, know a kind of familial and nonsexual love for others.

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Love and Sex ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Love and Sex .
Chapter 3 Quotes

Her thin fingers finished shaping the cigarette. She licked it, smoothed it, twisted its ends, and placed it between Spade’s lips. He said, “Thanks, honey,” put an arm around her slim waist, and rested his cheek wearily against her hip, shutting his eyes.

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Effie Perine
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam enjoys an close relationship with his secretary and assistant, Effie. There's clearly some sexual tension between them--in this scene, for example, Effie licks a cigarette and then places it in Space's mouth--and yet Effie and Spade's relationship seems deeper and more trusting than a mere sexual fling. Spade seems to turn to Effie for comfort and emotional support--here, for example, he rests his body against hers. Spade also trusts Effie's judgment and detective instincts, as we'll come to see. The passage is important, then, because it shows us Spade's strengths and weaknesses with regards to women: he sees women as objects for his sexual gratification, yet he's also capable of respecting women for their intelligence and abilities. (This passage is also a good example of the casual sexism that has become an integral part of the noir genre--Spade naturally feels comfortable calling his employee "honey" and putting his arm around her "slim" waist.)


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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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said tremulously, “so tired of it all, of myself, of lying and thinking up lies, and not knowing what is a lie and what is the truth.”

Related Characters: Brigid O’Shaughnessy (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam Spade is starting to figure out the truth about Brigid. Brigid has been involved in tracking down a mysterious falcon statue that's worth a lot of money, and she's traveled to Constantinople to do so. Spade asks Brigid probing questions. In the middle of the questioning, Brigid feigns weariness and tries to seduce Spade--with great success.

We can't take anything Brigid says in the passage seriously. While it's true that she's been telling lies, she's perfectly in control of what she says (at this point at least). Brigid is only pretending to be tired and confused in order to distract Spade from figuring out the truth--in other words, she uses her sexuality to distract Spade, acting like a classic femme fatale.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“Sam Spade,” she said, “you’re the most contemptible man God ever made when you want to be. Because she did something without confiding in you you’d sit here and do nothing when you know she’s in danger.”

Related Characters: Effie Perine (speaker), Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Effie acting as Sam Spade's conscience (and flirtatious mother/sister figure). Effie knows that Sam Spade has just had a meal with Polhaus and also met with the District Attorney. Spade, back in his office, tells Effie that Brigid may have been on the ship La Poloma when it caught on fire the previous night. Spade is calm and laid-back as he gives Effie this information: Effie is disgusted that Spade can seem so indifferent. Spade shows no signs of wanting to look for Brigid to make sure she's okay.

Why is Spade so indifferent to Brigid's dangerous situation? Effie suggests that Spade doesn't like the fact that Brigid went off and did something on her own--in other words, Spade doesn't like it when women keep him out of the loop. Effie is an interesting character--it's possible to interpret her as the only positive female character in the novel, a reminder that Hammett doesn't always conflate evil and effeminacy (although she's also presented as the most masculine female character). Of course, it's also possible to interpret Effie's statements as wrong and distracting: Effie wants Sam to give Brigid "some space," when--we later learn--Brigid is actually the villain, and has been plotting against Spade for some time.

He took his hand from his chin and rubbed her cheek. “You’re a damned good man, sister,” he said and went out.

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Effie Perine
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

Spade leaves his office, just after having found the famous Maltese Falcon. Spade thanks Effie for all her help--he admits that he couldn't do his job if it wasn't for Effie working as his assistant. Oddly, Spade refers to Effie as both a "man" and a "sister."

Spade's behavior suggests that he can't get along with a woman and be sexually attracted to her at the same time. Effie thus isn't really a woman at all, from his perspective--she's more like family, or a close male friend. Hammett associates masculinity, goodness, and competence so strongly that the one positive female character in his novel--Effie--is actually depicted as masculine.

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

He was pale. He said tenderly, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” He slid his hands up to caress her throat… “You’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade discovers the truth: he knows that Brigid was the one who murdered his partner, Miles Archer. The passage is important because it shows Spade in the midst of a genuine moral crisis. One one hand, Spade doesn't want to send Brigid to jail for the murder--he seems to care about her deeply. And yet Spade also acknowledges the truth: she's guilty, and there's a possibility that the jury will sentence her to be hanged.

The passage shows Spade at his most callous. He's capable of feelings for Brigid, but he also recognizes that she's a murderous, devious woman. As a result, he decides to punish her for killing his partner--upholding his own moral code, but also acting especially callous and sexist, caressing Brigid like a beautiful object even as he cynically contemplates her potential death.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it”

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Brigid O’Shaughnessy
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hammett gives us a clear sense of Spade's moral code. Spade knows that Brigid was the one who murdered his partner, Miles Archer. Although Spade didn't particularly like his partner at all, he knows that the "right thing" is to avenge his partner's death. There's a strong code of cooperation and mutual respect in Spade's work, and Spade obeys this code at all times, even if it leads him to work with people like Archer, whom he doesn't like at all (and whose wife is sleeping with him).

The passage is fascinating because it shows that, in the end, Spade is more loyal to a man he hates than a women he cares about. The code of right and wrong that Spade obeys is, at the most basic level, a masculine code: Spade gives men a form of respect and trust that he would never give to women. The passage could be interpreted as the clearest expression of the novel's sexism: real men are rugged and honorable, while women are devious and emotional.

“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.

“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.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know – I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now – not now.” Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

Related Characters: Effie Perine (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

At the finale of the novel, Spade returns to his office, having ratted out Brigid, the woman he loved. Spade tells Effie what he did, and Effie is horrified. She admits that Spade did the "right thing" (avenged his partner's death, turned in a criminal, etc.), but also suggests that Spade acted for the wrong reasons--and that thus he is now repulsive to her. (Note also that the thing that's so shocking is that Effie doesn't allow Spade to touch her--emphasizing how "natural" it was for the hyper-masculine Spade to always feel comfortable touching his female employee.)

The passage is very complicated and can be interpreted in any number of ways. Effie, who's been a voice of reason and morality throughout the novel, seems to be criticizing Spade for his unjust behavior--perhaps Effie senses (as Brigid did) that Spade wouldn't have been so eager for justice had he gotten his hands on the real Maltese Falcon. But perhaps Hammett's point is just the opposite: perhaps Spade is ultimately a noble, if not admirable character because he does the right thing, even when the "right thing" is terrible--sending a woman to hang.

Spade seems to sense that he's done something horribly wrong, and to suddenly doubt his decision--hence his pale face. And yet Spade has already acted decisively, seemingly totally confident in the morality of his actions. As a private investigator--halfway between the cops and the criminals--Spade's burden is to make difficult, morally ambiguous decisions, and live with the guilt and the consequences.