In The Big Sleep, author Raymond Chandler represents life in the dark, criminal world of 1930s L.A. as total war. In doing so, he critiques a self-serving and mistrustful American society in which people turn to violence and dishonesty to achieve personal gain. As Philip Marlowe works a blackmail case for his rich client General Sternwood, he uncovers illegal and immoral activities that “make him sick.” One of Marlowe’s respectable client’s own daughters, for instance, hides the body of her murdered husband to protect her family’s reputation. Many of the novel’s men also make a living from violence directly, hired as “soldiers” for higher-up racketeers, or by attempting to carve out their own racket. While Marlowe attempts to rise above such “nastiness,” he finds himself drawn into this dark world all the same. He finds that cynicism—that is, assuming the worst of everyone he meets—is the only way to survive in this murky underworld.
The novel’s frequent physical violence is a result of the characters’ struggle to survive in a society characterized by a kill or be killed mentality. After Marlowe finally discovers missing Mona Mars’s hiding place, for instance, he is forced to fight for his life against her guard Lash Canino. Both men are simply hired guns for different employers in a larger battle (Canino works for Eddie Mars), yet Marlowe knows the only way to survive his encounter with Canino is to kill his opponent first; as such he shoots him four times. Killing Canino demonstrates how the dark underworld that Marlowe must investigate inevitably draws him into its “nastiness,” as he describes it. This world necessitates violent self-defense, and in this way Marlowe’s cynicism—his deeply ingrained mistrust of everyone else—is the only thing that protects him from harm.
At other points, Marlowe threatens racketeer Eddie Mars’s hired goon with a gun when the latter is waiting for him in the detective’s lobby, and physically overpowers Carol Lundgren just after the latter murders the grifter Joe Brody. Each incident further demonstrates Marlowe’s innate distrust of others, as he assumes he has to attack first or lose the upper hand. In these encounters Marlowe feels he must physically overcome others for his own survival.
A pervasive cynicism typifies nonviolent personal exchanges throughout the novel as well. The author creates an atmosphere of mistrust in which everyone suspects that those around them have bad intentions. As such, the characters manipulate each other and withhold information for their own personal gain or self-defense. When Marlowe first meets his client’s daughter, Mrs. Regan, she is under the false impression that her father, General Sternwood, has hired the detective to find her missing husband Rusty. Marlowe purposefully withholds his true mission (identifying the General’s blackmailers) from Mrs. Regan to see what information she might unwittingly divulge in the process. Marlowe’s cynicism works in the detective’s favor, as he discerns she has something to hide, most likely related to Rusty. In comparison, Mrs. Regan appears naïve and outplayed in failing to mine the wily detective for information.
Later in the novel, when Marlowe finds himself out of leads in his case, a grifter called Harry Jones offers the detective information in exchange for cash. Their dialogue is a rapid-fire negotiation that resembles a sword fight, with jabs and parries following in quick succession as they figure out how to maximize their benefit from the interaction while limiting any vulnerability. The exchange shows these characters naturally expect the other to take advantage of them. In this way, Chandler depicts a suspicious social climate in which everyone considers everyone else an aggressor.
Even though Marlowe acts as cynically as the other characters, expecting the worst and therefore manipulating others and engaging in ruthless violence, he is still the novel’s moral conscience as he is the only character not motivated by personal gain. For example, when Marlowe confronts Mrs. Regan with his discovery that she hid her husband’s corpse, for instance, she offers him money to keep quiet. He tries “not to sneer at her,” makes a sarcastic comment about wanting money, and then reveals his selfless motivation: “to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood.”
Since Marlowe does not share the other characters’ selfish motives, he can provide a more objective critique of his society. Marlowe’s scornful response to Mrs. Regan suggests a broader criticism of 1930s America. He condemns the fact that modern society places personal gain, as symbolized here by money, above all other considerations, including others’ lives. Marlowe’s own cynicism is thus presented as a natural—perhaps even moral—response to such pervasive and immoral selfishness.
For the characters in The Big Sleep, cynicism is commonplace in the scramble to survive. Indeed, the author represents his protagonist’s deep mistrust of others as wise and strategically advantageous. Marlowe comes out on top of his exchanges, whether physical or verbal, specifically because he accurately assumes the worst of everyone. In this way, Chandler’s novel suggests that the only wise response to America’s increasing emphasis on self-gain is deep cynicism.
Cynicism and Survival ThemeTracker
Cynicism and Survival Quotes in The Big Sleep
He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.
Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same things themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull.
Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.