In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler glorifies private detective Philip Marlowe as an iconic American masculine hero. However, Marlowe’s sexist and homophobic prejudices reveal that his gender identity comes at the expense of women and nontraditionally masculine men, as well as Marlowe’s own well-being. Marlowe’s prejudices cause him great suffering, as the weight of upholding his own strict standards separates him even from potential allies; for instance, Marlowe scorns “little man” Harry Jones on account of his short stature, which does not conform to Marlowe’s ideals of manhood. The intensely power-focused masculinity Chandler represents in his protagonist is ultimately unappealing. Though such critique likely was not Chandler’s authorial intention, the novel nevertheless betrays the limits and dangers of rigid adherence to stereotypical masculinity.
“Tall,” strong and “handsome,” Marlowe drinks, fights, and stands for honor and justice. On several occasions, Marlowe buys “a pint of whiskey” either to drink in his car as he stakes out a suspect’s premises, or simply to drink away the trials of the day. Chandler depicts Marlowe’s ability to hold his drink as indicative of admirable self-control and suggests alcohol as a comfort suitable for manly men. Toward the end of the novel, Marlowe, with his hands cuffed behind his back, manages to shoot his adversary Lash Canino four times, killing him. Chandler uses Marlowe’s physicality and fearlessness in this encounter to portray him as a strong and brave man’s man. To complete the picture, Marlowe has an honorable moral compass. He claims his motivation in taking General Sternwood’s blackmail case has been “to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood.” Thus, Chandler characterizes Marlowe’s masculinity as fitting the traditional upstanding American stereotype, and as a great personal asset.
Yet Marlowe’s masculinity is also inflexible, marring his interactions with women and homosexual men with prejudice. When meeting his client’s daughter Mrs. Regan for the first time, Marlowe notes, “She was worth a stare. She was trouble.” Mrs. Regan’s attractiveness makes Marlowe uneasy. As a result, he feels uncertain of the power dynamics in their encounter, as he implies keeping her under control would be “trouble.” This suggests Marlowe sees gender politics as based on power, and in particular that he considers true masculinity as hinging on men’s authority. After both Mrs. Regan and her younger sister, Carmen, make separate, unaccepted sexual advances toward Marlowe, the macho hero of The Big Sleep is shaken: “You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.” To Marlowe, confident female sexuality is a threat to be withstood. His inability to stomach the women’s forward advances indicates his inability to accept overt female sexuality within his power-centered concept of masculinity.
The fact pornographic bookshop-owner Arthur Geiger and his male companion Carol Lundgren are lovers further offends Marlowe’s idea of respectable manliness. He scorns and mocks them, seeing their homosexuality as a failure to achieve appropriate American masculinity. Marlowe also views Geiger’s Chinese aesthetic as inappropriately feminine and not part of upstanding American culture: “The Chinese junk on the walls, the rug, the fussy lamps […] had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.” The strength of Marlowe’s reaction and wording reveals his discomfort with alternative male lifestyles, as Geiger’s foreign tastes identify his otherness. The word “stealthy” here implies a form of hostility toward proper—in Marlowe’s mind, synonymous with masculine—values.
Marlowe’s rigid sense of his own masculinity also scorns heterosexual men who do not meet his strict standards. Grifter Harry Jones becomes involved with Agnes Lozelle, a fact Marlowe finds highly amusing as he thinks Jones is too short for her. Marlowe mockingly warns Jones “the blonde” will “roll on” him and “smother” him in bed. Marlowe’s contempt for Jones emphasizes how he equates masculinity with power and control, requiring an accompanying commanding stature. Yet Jones later lies to his interrogator and then murderer Lash Canino to protect Agnes. This selfless act of courage shocks Marlowe, who realizes he misjudged Jones. Jones’s strength of character still cannot win Marlowe’s true respect, however, and the detective continues to refer to him as “little dead man” even after his brave self-sacrifice.
Marlowe’s disdain for Jones offers an insight into the reason for private detective’s solitary lifestyle. Even though Jones is a potential ally, Marlowe ridicules him about his height, a fact that seems irrelevant given the essential information the “little man” can provide, not to mention the courage he demonstrates. As such, Marlowe’s notions of gender norms distance him from would-be allies and causes him internal suffering.
Marlowe’s adverse reaction to Mrs. Regan and Carmen’s sexual advances further constitutes a physical manifestation of an internal struggle. Chandler represents Marlowe’s distaste for forward female sexuality as moral strength in withstanding their wiles. Yet, Marlowe’s frustrated relationship with these women reveals a form of masculinity that cannot tolerate female sexual autonomy. His masculinity only seeks to dominate, or at least withstand threats to its authority. Again, this approach leaves him isolated.
Chandler represents Marlowe as the ideal manly man—strong, fearless, honorable, and able to hold his drink. Yet Marlowe enjoys these personal assets in isolation. His disdain and prejudice toward women and those he considers lesser men leaves Marlowe with no allies, friends, or confidantes. His scorn for femininity and otherness reveals Marlowe’s concept of masculinity hinges on ideas male authority and propriety. He is unable to accept lifestyles that do not fit into this rigid world view, exhibiting physical stress when his values are challenged. Thus, while Chandler’s personal masculinity might seem iconic, such a lifestyle is inherently limiting and deeply harmful.
Masculinity Quotes in The Big Sleep
“What?” the blonde yelped. “You sit there and try to tell us Mr. Geiger ran that kind of business right down on the main drag? You’re nuts!” I leered at her politely. “Sure I do. Everybody knows the racket exists. Hollywood's made to order for it. If a thing like that has to exist, then right out on the street is where all practical coppers want it to exist. For the same reason they favor red light districts. They know where to flush the game when they want to.”
You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.
He puffed evenly and stared at me level-eyed, a funny little hard guy I could have thrown from home plate to second base. A small man in a big man's world. There was something I liked about him.