The Big Sleep

Cyanide Symbol Analysis

Cyanide Symbol Icon

In The Big Sleep, cyanide poison reflects the fact that grim and shameful deaths are largely reserved for the lower criminal classes in 1930s L.A., while certain “elite” criminals remain untouchable. Cyanide thus highlights the hypocrisy and divide within the criminal world, wherein certain forms of “successful” immorality committed by high-powered individuals are accepted. Mona Mars notably hides out near a cyanide factory that produces the poison for bug “fumigation,” implying cyanide is a death for lesser creatures. Marlowe also notes how grifter Harry Jones dies “like a poisoned rat” when Eddie Mars’s hired assassin Lash Canino laces Jones’s whiskey with cyanide. Mars and Canino are powerful yet deeply immoral men in the criminal world, whereas Jones—despite being a grifter—is ultimately presented as a man with integrity. Jones dies only after lying to Canino to protect a friend, meaning he is not a “rat” at all and in fact possesses clear strength of character. The fact that this does not protect him from a gruesome death—while Mars and Canino emerge from this specific encounter unscathed—highlights the unfairness of “justice” meted out in this world and how, ironically, only extreme criminality is protected. Indeed, the novel does not link death by cyanide with any members of the elite criminal world, as successful racketeers like Mars are protected by their social status and financial resources.

The state authorities also notably use cyanide gas as a form of execution. As Marlowe tells murderer Carol Lundgren, “that’s what they call humane execution in our state now,” referring to cyanide gas. This suggests the authorities also see such lowly criminals as an inconvenience to be exterminated—even as they turn a blind eye to or even work with bigger fish like Eddie Mars. The social immobility of 1930s L.A. means cyanide-related deaths are for the lowly grifters of the city alone.

Cyanide Quotes in The Big Sleep

The The Big Sleep quotes below all refer to the symbol of Cyanide. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Corruption of Society Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Big Sleep published in 1939.
Chapter 21 Quotes

Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary, was out of circulation for a long, long time, even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid. They wouldn’t, because he would take a plea and save the county money. They all do when they don't have the price of a big lawyer.

Related Characters: Philip Marlowe (speaker), Joe Brody, Carol Lundgren
Related Symbols: Cyanide, Money
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:
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Cyanide Symbol Timeline in The Big Sleep

The timeline below shows where the symbol Cyanide appears in The Big Sleep. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 17
Masculinity Theme Icon
...he’ll be trying not to breathe when he’s in the government “gas chamber,” executed by “cyanide fumes.” (full context)
Chapter 21
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility Theme Icon
...of the picture, likely to be sent to jail for life if not executed by cyanide. (full context)
Chapter 26
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility Theme Icon
Cynicism and Survival Theme Icon
...to find Jones dead in his chair. The detective sniffs the whiskey bottle and smells cyanide. Marlowe picks up the phone and finds the number for the address Jones gave Canino.... (full context)
Chapter 27
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility Theme Icon
Cynicism and Survival Theme Icon
...they tailed the car to the hideout location, near a garage which is near a cyanide plant in the hills. When it was dark, Joe went up to see the house... (full context)