Essay on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
More Than Just Another 'Whodunit'
Ever since its emergence, it has been discussed whether a detective-novel be considered serious literature. It is hard to answer this question, mainly because it raises two other questions: is there anything like "non-serious" literature, and if this is the case, who draws the line between serious and "non-serious" literature? Apparently, answering these questions is not as difficult as it seems, since some critics have already made up their minds. Detective-fiction could not possibly be considered serious literature, since its only goal was to entertain or distract the reader. Even if this was the case, the question could be raised whether it is not the goal of any piece of literature to entertain or distract the reader, and if a book that fails to do so should be considered a huge failure. Still, it is nevertheless popular to consider detective-fiction trash at the worst, low-quality literature most frequently, and light reading at the best. This may be the reason why it is hard to find Raymond Chandler in any Literature Companion. Even though there is a growing crowd of critics who admit to the brilliance of Chandler's work, there are still those who consider his works merely a collection of whodunits. However, if one takes a close look at his novels, it is hard to overlook their brilliance and to ignore the fact that Chandler's work is the very proof for the possibility of producing first-rate literature by means of a popular genre. At closer examination, Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, will prove anybody who thinks otherwise wrong.
At first sight, the novel's most outstanding feature is its ingeniously constructed plot, which carefully spins several plot-lines, ties them together in an almost unsolvable knot, and finally dismantles all the lines in the end to give them back to the reader as one solid streak. However, there is more to the novel than its brilliant and complicated story line.
One example is Chandler's description of the Los Angeles Upper Class. The extremely wealthy Sternwood family, who hires the novel's narrator, private investigator Phillip Marlowe, is a major symbol of decadence. It consists of General Guy Sternwood, the family's patriarch, and his two daughters, Vivian and Carmen. The General spends his life ailing in a hothouse, which provides the only climate his lungs will tolerate. Carmen is a young woman, who is intellectually underdeveloped and has a pathological need for sex. Her older sister Vivian passes her time losing her father's money in an illegal casino. If these three characters are examined thoroughly, it soon becomes obvious that they are not merely stock characters or a simple background for a detective story.
The General is the portrayal and symbol of the decay of the Big Money in general. The only source of warmth the old man can find in his house is artificial, the hothouse. He is surrounded by tropical plants that can survive in their own as little as he can. Even though for all of his life, the General has increased the enormous wealth he inherited from his ancestors, which is based on oil that has the same dirty and rotten connotation that Chandler attaches to the Sternwood family, he now literally cannot hold on to this wealth any longer.
Carmen represents the psychological decline of the Upper Class, a common motif in literature. The money seems to have virtually made her sick, because the family's greed and striving for money left her emotional needs behind and turned her into what she has become. She shoots her brother-in-law, who has priorly refused her sexual advances, because he would not obey the one principle that she has learned from her family: anything can be bought and anybody will obey the power of money. Vivian finally depicts the dull and boring ignorance towards money that Chandler associates with the Upper Class of his time. Chandler, by the way, never fails to stress the discrepancy between the amount of the Sternwood's wealth and enjoyment of life.
All this adds up to a harsh criticism on the Big Money class and their way of living. But the novel has far more to say than the simple fortune-cookie truth that money alone does not guarantee happiness. It is the source of wealth that Chandler wants to expose. Big Money cannot be made with a white slate. Getting rich is just as dirty as the oil field that the Sterwoods own. Consequently, the Sternwoods' life, which is based on materialism, will only bear sick and disabled creatures, unable to feel joy and happiness.
However, it is not only the Upper Class Chandler aims his criticism at. The way he describes the 1930s Los Angeles deeply contradicts the picture contemporary Americans had in their minds. At the time the novel was published, i.e. 1939, Los Angeles was indeed the City of Angels. The Great Depression was over, the economy was booming, Los Angeles offered not only jobs, but also eventually wealth for everybody, even for African Americans who moved to the city in droves. America was a safe-haven against the turmoil that was going on in Europe, nothing seemed to endanger the peaceful growth the city was about to continue. Chandler draws a different picture.
Almost all of the novel's characters strive for their own good only, without looking over their shoulders just once. Only three characters do not follow this rule: The driver of the Sterwood family, who has fallen in love with Carmen and wants to protect her from a blackmail attempt but fails to do so, either kills himself or is killed by the man he wants to protect Carmen from (not even Chandler was absolute certain about this). The homosexual lover of one of the blackmailers murders the alleged killer of his lover and thus more or less sentences himself to the gas chamber. Finally, Vivian's husband Rusty, who personally never appears, has, before the novel even begins, refused to cheat on his wife, whom he actually was in love with, and would not bend to money or sexual pressure, is shot by Carmen, which triggers all the events that follow. The novel establishes this rule: whoever does not exclusively take care of herself must, perish. Whoever loves, will go down. That is the Los Angeles Chandler writes about.
And in Chandler's Los Angeles, there is no happy ending either. The crime is solved, but this is the only positive aspect of the novel's ending. The overall corruption of the system remains. The gangster boss Eddie Mars, who had ordered the death of at least two men, remains unharmed and free. Vivian will be the subject of blackmail for the rest of her life, once her father has died, and Marlowe is likely to suffer retaliation for interfering with Mars' business. Nothing will change, just merely because the reader would like things to change. Justice is not served, since it is unlikely to be served in general.
A lot of more could be said about the novel, and many other proofs could be used to illustrate that Chandler's work is more than only pulp fiction. He regards the actual mystery as "the olive in the martini" only. Obviously, the frame of the crime story is merely used to send some other, more subtle messages. And if the definition of literature was really to depend on whether the piece of writing does more than simply entertain the reader, no one can deny Chandler's work this status. All of his critics should definitely reconsider their opinion on Chandler. They do have all reason to regard him as one of the great American writers. And then it is about time that they pay him and his work the attention both deserve. Maybe it is time that those critics wake up from their own, personal Big Sleep.