Every character in The Big Sleep fits into a specific socioeconomic class, which determines their respective roles in the dark underworld of 1930s L.A. During his mission to find out who is blackmailing his client, private detective Philip Marlowe meets a wide range of characters and sees firsthand how wealth and status give clear advantages to the figures running the city’s various rackets. Meanwhile those who start out with nothing struggle immensely to improve their lot. The novel suggests through this lack of social mobility that the American Dream itself is a lie, as those at the bottom rungs of society can never get a foot up while those at the top can never be taken down. In fact, the novel goes so far as to suggest that such unfairness is built into the fabric of American society, whose functioning requires keeping the powerless firmly entrenched in their low social positions.
A shabby private detective, Marlowe belongs to a “soldier” class, available for hire. Such a position grants him access into the upper end of the societal spectrum, yet this is only temporary. Wealthy racketeer Eddie Mars tells Marlowe: “I wish old Sternwood would hire himself a soldier like you on a straight salary.” Mars’s comment classes Marlowe as an underling, whom the superior General Sternwood can “hire” to do his bidding. Money talks in this world, as Mars considers Marlowe someone to be bought, rather than an equal.
Chandler extends this metaphor, as Marlowe equates himself with a knight in a chess game he plays alone in his sparse apartment: “The move with the knight was wrong […] Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.” The chess game reflects the wider, symbolic battle for dominance taking place within the city. Each player is vying for victory, and Marlowe believes the game is too big and complicated for him to win alone; knights—like Marlow—do not win. They ensure their king survives. This, in turn, is symbolic of the way in which the upper class relies on lower-class individuals like Marlowe to maintain their power.
In the hallway of the Sternwood mansion, home to Marlowe’s clients, the detective sees a “knight in the stained-glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree.” Marlowe’s focus on the knight’s stasis and ineffectiveness reveals his own feelings of powerlessness, as he is unable to put right the wrongs he sees in the world. His low social standing and therefore limited influence cannot interfere with the plans of more powerful men.
In contrast, L.A.’s elite are untouchable. Marlowe’s client, the wealthy and aged General Sternwood, does not need to lift a finger to ensure his intentions are fulfilled. At the end of the novel, Marlowe reflects: “He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting.” Sternwood’s “bloodless hands” represent the fact he can pay others to do his dirty work. As he lays calmly in his luxurious “canopied bed,” in contrast to Marlowe’s fold-down wall bed, the old man’s wealth and status protect him; he can hire “soldiers” like Marlowe to defend his reputation and so maintain his social position.
Mars is another figure among many untouchable, wealthy men who, Chandler suggests, will never be knocked down. At the Missing Persons Bureau, Captain Gregory tells Marlowe: “I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys [...] You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen.” Like Sternwood’s symbolically clean hands, Mars has manicured hands, as his hired men get their hands dirty on his behalf.
Meanwhile, those who start out with nothing are unable to drag themselves out of the gutter. The grifter Joe Brody, whom Marlowe considers “smart,” fails to steal Geiger’s pornography racket from under him because he does not have the resources to perceive or control the wider situation. Instead, Brody ends up shot for a murder he didn’t commit. Brody’s failure is a direct contrast to the wealthy elites, who have the resources to remain informed of and distanced from the city’s complex web of criminality. Another self-identified grifter, Harry Jones, is assassinated by Mars’s solider Lash Canino, for getting into a game that’s too big for him. Canino tells Jones his “mistake” was contacting Marlowe, which “Eddie don’t like.” The wealthy elite seek to retain their power and stamp out any upstarts that intrude on their territory.
In The Big Sleep, money means power, which in turn ensures and maintains social status. Wealthy men have the resources to distance themselves from the moral filth of L.A.’s criminal underworld, regardless of their complicity in its doings. Their hired men protect the “well-dressed” figures’ good names and reputations on their behalf. Meanwhile, “slum-bred hard guys” and even “soldiers” are unable to pull themselves out of the “nastiness,” and feel powerless to change this status quo. Chandler argues that this arrangement has become central to life and identity in 1930s America, as even law enforcement cannot imagine the playing field being leveled in the criminal world.
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility ThemeTracker
Wealth, Status, and Social Mobility 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.
A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick.
His eyes went narrow. The veneer had flaked off him, leaving a well-dressed hard boy with a Luger.
I know you, Mr. Mars. The Cypress Club at Las Olindas. Flash gambling for flash people. The local law in your pocket and a wellgreased line into L.A. In other words, protection.
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.
I’ve done all my office permits—and maybe a good deal more—to save the old man from grief. But in the long run it can’t be done. Those girls of his are bound certain to hook up with something that can't be hushed, especially that little blonde brat. They ought not to be running around loose. I blame the old man for that.
“General Sternwood’s a rich man,” I said. “He’s an old friend of the D.A.’s father. If he wants to hire a fulltime boy to run errands for him, that’s no reflection on the police. It’s just a luxury he is able to afford himself.”
Eddie Mars would have been very unlikely to involve himself in a double murder just because another man had gone to town with the blonde he was not even living with … If there had been a lot of money involved, that would be different. But fifteen grand wouldn't be a lot of money to Eddie Mars. He was no two-bit chiseler like Brody.
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.
I have my pipe line into headquarters, or I wouldn’t be here. I get them the way they happen, not the way you read them in the papers.
I wish old Sternwood would hire himself a soldier like you on a straight salary, to keep those girls of his home at least a few nights a week.
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.
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.
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.
Me, I was part of the nastiness now … But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting.