Although the novel doesn’t contain that many symbols, the jewel-encrusted statue of the Maltese falcon provides rich and complex layers of symbolism. According to Casper Gutman, the 16th century rulers of Malta, an island nation near Italy, gave the statue to King Charles V of Spain as a sign of their loyalty. As such, the statue was initially designed as a symbol of loyalty and generosity.
However, obsessive greed drives Gutman, Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy to pursue the falcon at any cost, including betraying loved ones and committing murder. Ultimately, their obsessive pursuit leads to their demise. Thus, the falcon comes to symbolize the corrupting and destructive power of greed. Since the statue they pursue turns out to be a fake, the novel further suggests that in the end greed is a worthless endeavor. Thus, while the falcon was originally meant as a symbol of loyalty, it transforms into a symbol of a corrupting, futile, and self-destructive greed that makes people betray their loyalties.
In addition to representing greed, the falcon symbolizes Sam Spade’s quest for the truth. For Spade, getting his hands on the falcon gives him the bargaining power to make the villains reveal the true nature of their crimes. However, despite using the falcon to get to the bottom of all the deceptions, Spade is ultimately unable to discover if Brigid truly loves him, which shows how some truths, perhaps even the most important ones, remain beyond Spade’s grasp. In terms of the statue’s symbolism, the fact that this statue, a symbol for truth, is a fake reveals that people cannot ever fully possess or attain the truth.
The Maltese Falcon Quotes in The Maltese Falcon
He stepped back holding it up in front of him and blew dust off it, regarding it triumphantly. Effie Perine made a horrified face and screamed, pointing at his feet. He looked down at his feet. His last backward step had brought his left heel into contact with the dead man’s hand, pinching a quarter-inch of flesh at a side of the palm between the heel and the floor. Spade jerked his foot away from the hand.
“Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”
“Would you have done this to me if the falcon had been real and you had been paid your money?”
“What difference does that make now? Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”