In The Maltese Falcon, greed is the driving force that motivates most of the characters. In the most obvious example, Brigid O’Shaughnessy kills Miles Archer so she can frame Floyd Thursby and keep the profits from selling the statue for herself. Casper Gutman, meanwhile, represents the embodiment of greed. The other characters refer to him as “Mr. G” in reference to his large “gut” as well as his greed, linking his excess desire for money with gluttony. Even Gutman’s pistol is covered with jewels, suggesting that violence and greed are counterparts of one another. Greed so corrupts Gutman that he is willing to betray Wilmer Cook, who he says is like a son to him, in order to continue his pursuit of the Maltese falcon. While Spade betrays Brigid for justice, Gutman turns on Wilmer for money.
In contrast, Spade struggles to and eventually does control his greed. Throughout the novel, Spade never misses an opportunity to make some quick cash. However, Spade ultimately hands over to the police the bribe he pretended to take from Gutman. The only major character who seems beyond the grasp of greed is Effie Perine who warns Spade that if he takes advantage of Brigid by taking her money without offering help, then she will lose all respect for him.
In addition to being a symbol of the illusory nature of truth, the Maltese falcon also symbolizes greed. The statue drives people to murder and betrayal, but, in the end, the statue is worthless. As a result, the statue also reveals the hollowness of greed itself, how it drives people to actions that lead only to isolation or self-destruction.
Greed 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.”