The Maltese Falcon

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Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality 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.
Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality  Theme Icon

Most of the characters in The Maltese Falcon represent a different perspective on what it means to be a man or woman. For example, Samuel Spade represents the epitome of manliness. Multiple women desire him, no man is a challenge for him in a fight, and his tough exterior and unwavering sense of honor exemplify a certain type of masculinity. The novel idealizes his masculinity, essentially without criticism, even appearing to value his emotional detachment from the people around him.

Hammet’s construction of masculinity within the novel contrasts with how he represents gay characters. The various descriptions of Joel Cairo as effeminate imply that feminine characteristics in men are somehow both unnatural and inherently immoral. When Spade wants to insult Cairo and Wilmer Cook, he alludes to their sexual orientation in an attempt to emasculate them. While Spade has a rough and frank manner of speaking, Casper Gutman speaks in a refined way, making him seem more effeminate.

Whereas Spade is a clear and singular representative of manliness, the novel’s three women represent different perspectives on femininity. Brigid O’Shaughnessy appears to be Spade’s feminine counterpart since she is his equal match in cunning and sexual allure, but she differs from Spade in her lack of morals and honor. She is the stereotypical “femme fatale,” a sexist depiction of a woman who seduces men with deceit and causes their downfall. Although men like Gutman and Cairo are also disloyal, they lack Spade's manly traits, making disloyalty seem like only a feminine trait. Like Brigid, Iva Archer appears disloyal by cheating on her husband and lying to Spade about her actions. However, unlike Brigid, she lacks cunning or resourcefulness and makes her decisions based on emotions like love and jealousy rather than honor or greed. Finally, Effie Perine’s physical appearance makes her appear masculine. Since the novel links femininity with deceit, it is unsurprising that a woman portrayed as masculine is the most trustworthy woman in the book. Effie's femininity is complicated by the supportive role she takes on with Spade, whom she nurtures as a mother would. Interacting with her as if she were family, Spade does not see her as a possible romantic partner even though she is the most trustworthy and ethically-minded woman in the novel.

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Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Maltese Falcon related to the theme of Masculinity, Femininity, and Sexuality .
Chapter 1 Quotes

He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde satan.

Related Characters: Sam Spade
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Right away, Hammett introduces us to his antihero, Sam Spade. Spade is the "hero" of the novel, in the sense that he's its main character, and has a definite moral code (the code that leads him to avenge his partner's death at the end of the book). And yet Spade is anything but a conventional pillar of justice. On the contrary, he's an adulterer, and seems to have little compunction about hurting women and, at times, framing people for murder. He is, in short, half hero and half villain--a description that mirrors his appearance ("blonde satan"). Spade's personality was an important influence on the antihero archetype in noir and crime fiction: Spade isn't exactly a good guy, but he's a little better than the bad guys, and he's at least smart, intriguing, and attractive enough that we can't help rooting for him.


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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.)

Chapter 4 Quotes

Diamonds twinkled on the second and fourth fingers of his left hand, a ruby that matched the one in his tie even to the surrounding diamonds on the third finger of his right hand. His hands were soft and well cared for. Though they were not large their flaccid bluntness made them seem clumsy.

Related Characters: Joel “Joe” Cairo
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of the primary villains of the novel, Joe Cairo. Notice the way the passage emphasizes the tiny details of Cairo's appearance, almost as if we're seeing Cairo from Spade's point of view--i.e., the point of view of an experienced detective adept at picking up on tiny details. Cairo is described as being very effeminate, with his soft hands and pretty jewelry. His appearance contrasts markedly with Spade--Cairo is overtly womanish while Spade is aggressively masculine. Also note that the passage describes Cairo as an overtly foreign character--his rings and exotic name suggest Egypt, or the vague East.

It's been suggested that Cairo is supposed to be a queer character (though in Hammett's lifetime, it was more or less impossible to write about overt homosexuality). More generally, one could say that Cairo's effeminacy emphasizes the basic masculinity of Spade's worldview. Spade is a manly man--he drinks, has sex with beautiful women, smokes, etc. Many of the evil characters in the novel are either women or effeminate men--showing Hammett's rather sexist, homophobic (and in the case of Cairo, racist) worldview. He clearly prefers people with Spade's rugged, manly, all-American code of right and wrong.

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.

“And when you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” He released Cairo’s wrist and with a thick open hand struck the side of his face three times, savagely.

Related Characters: Sam Spade (speaker), Joel “Joe” Cairo
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Spade punishes Joe Cairo for slapping Brigid. Joe is angry with Brigid for bringing up a relationship between herself and a man in Constantinople. Spade is so angry that he slaps Joe, suggesting that Joe is a weak fool for hitting a woman. Spade's anger also suggests that he can't stand the knowledge that Brigid has been with another man recently--by this point in the novel, he's romantically interested in her.

The scene could be interpreted as politically incorrect, or even downright homophobic by modern standards. Seen one way, Spade is doling out a just punishment to the villainous Cairo; in a different sense, Spade is just bullying the effeminate Cairo for his own satisfaction (and, we sense, Hammett's). Perhaps Spade's behavior in the passage is meant to illustrate his blunt yet principled version of justice: if somebody hits a woman, he gets hit in return. Hammett acknowledges that Spade is "savage," but also seems to respect Spade for protecting Brigid and asserting his masculinity.

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 11 Quotes

“Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”

Related Characters: Casper Gutman (speaker), Sam Spade
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Spade meets "the fat man" Casper Gutman. Along with Joe Cairo, whom we're already met, Gutman is one of the main villains in the novel--a greedy arch-criminal whose desire for the Maltese Falcon is suggested by his enormous weight. Ironically, Gutman greets Spade by making a toast to plain speaking (and in a typically masculine, friendly way designed to appeal to Spade). In reality, of course, Gutman favors anything but plain speaking--he's trying to deceive Spade and win the Falcon at all costs. Whenever a character in this novel starts to sound honest (Gutman, Cairo, Brigid), look out: it's a sure sign that they're about to tell a lie.

“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 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 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.

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 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.