The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888. After his parents divorced when he was a child, he returned to Britain with his mother. There Chandler worked as a civil servant and later a journalist, also attempting unsuccessfully to establish himself as a poet and reviewer. Chandler returned to the United States in 1912, where he worked blue collar jobs until joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and serving in France in the First World War. Returning to the U.S. again after the war, he married “Sissy” Pascal and worked his way up to a management position in an oil company, a job he subsequently lost due to his alcoholism and the onset of the Great Depression. Unemployed and impoverished, Chandler set about learning the trade of fiction writing, publishing in pulp magazines such as Black Mask. Chandler was noted for taking far longer than most other pulp writers to produce his fiction, but earned great critical acclaim. He was credited with helping to create the hard-boiled crime fiction genre. Protagonist Philip Marlowe appears in all of Chandler’s full-length seven novels, many of which became Hollywood hits. Chandler also turned his hand to screenwriting, contributing to Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, and Strangers on a Train. Sissy died in 1954, and Chandler, distraught, turned to alcohol more than ever before. He died of pneumonia in 1959.
Get the entire The Big Sleep LitChart as a printable PDF.
The big sleep.pdf.medium

Historical Context of The Big Sleep

Chandler wrote The Big Sleep during the Great Depression, which started when the U.S. stock market crashed, sending economic reverberations around the world. Millions of people lost everything, and honest work was hard to come by. This was also a post-Prohibition world, in which the previous total ban on alcohol had been lifted, but the corruption and criminal networks established in the era remained. As such, the cynicism born of both these troubling socioeconomic backdrops permeates The Big Sleep and its characters’ mindsets.

Other Books Related to The Big Sleep

Most of Chandler’s novels became Hollywood movies. Farewell, My Lovely, his second novel, garnered three onscreen adaptations. The book also features private detective Philip Marlowe as protagonist, as do all of Chandler’s full-length novels, and  is set in the corrupt and criminal underworld of 1930s L.A. Critics often compare Chandler’s fiction to that of Dashiell Hammett, a former detective who began writing pulp fiction in the 1920s. Arguably Hammett’s most famous novel is hard-boiled crime fiction The Maltese Falcon, set in San Francisco, which like Chandler’s crime novels inspired multiple famous Hollywood remakes.
Key Facts about The Big Sleep
  • Full Title: The Big Sleep
  • Where Written: California, U.S.
  • When Published: 1939
  • Literary Period: Modernist
  • Genre: Crime fiction, pulp fiction
  • Setting: Los Angeles, U.S.
  • Climax: Private detective Philip Marlowe locates the missing Mona Mars and must win a shootout against her guard, Lash Canino.
  • Antagonist: L.A.’s moral decay
  • Point of View: First-person narration by Philip Marlowe

Extra Credit for The Big Sleep

Alcoholism. Chandler’s protagonist Philip Marlowe often turns to drink to drown his sorrows. This appears to be partially autobiographical, as Chandler himself had issues with alcohol. He lost his high-paying job in an oil company in part due to his alcoholism, and after his wife’s death, Chandler became a less prolific writer as he continued to drink heavily.

Eye for detail. Critics praise Chandler for his eye for details related to character’s outfits, interior decoration, and scenery—but less so for plot. When directing the screen adaptation of The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawks asked Chandler who was responsible for Owen Taylor’s death, and Chandler couldn’t give him an answer.