The Chess Game of 1930’s America in the Big Sleep
The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe represents the shred of chivalry that remains in a world of corruption. Set and written in 1930’s America, the economic devastation of the Great Depression has a significant influence on the book’s plot that revolves around profit-seeking crime and organized corruption. Marlowe’s work as a private detective brings him face to face with seedy criminals of every sort, and each corresponds to a piece on the chessboard that appears repeatedly in the story.
Marlowe’s symbolic identity is the well-meaning knight in a society of pawns and crooked kings, and the chess game is his war against crime in a period of national despair. In the heart of the Great Depression, America as a whole is in serious financial turmoil and people have become pessimistic about the future. Some have resorted to murder and bribery for money. Money is the main incentive for the actions of several characters that Marlowe deals with throughout the story. When he wonders why Harry Jones and Agnes Lozelle want to blackmail him, Jones replies, “[Agnes is] a grifter, shamus.
I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel” (168). People have become money-hungry criminals simply because they have nothing left to lose and nowhere else to turn. These characters reflect the cynicism and economic strain that plagued America during the 1930s. Jones and Lozelle symbolize the common pawns that get casually tossed around on society’s chessboard. Aside from the desperate delinquents, Chandler also depicts a world of darker corruption. Los Angeles is teeming with pornographers, gamblers, schemers, and crooked policemen.
Even the newspapers cannot be trusted: “Their accounts of the affair came as close as newspaper stories usually come—as close as Mars is to Saturn” (118). Under the protection of a corrupt government and deceptive media, seedy crime rings have emerged, headed by thugs like the novel’s thoroughly crooked antagonist Eddie Mars. Mars is “a gambler, […] a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it” (194).
He is the embodiment of the corruption of American society and has at least an indirect hand in almost every murder committed in the story. Because he is rich and dangerously powerful, he represents the evil king in the chess game that is Marlowe’s battle against this corruption. Marlowe, then, assumes the role of the chivalrous knight. From the beginning he is the picture of the modern knight in shining armor; “[He is] neat, clean, shaved and sober, and [he doesn’t] care who [knows] it. He is] everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be,” exuding the image and confidence of a hero as he walks into the Sternwood mansion (3). He notices a stained-glass window depicting a knight trying to rescue a naked woman from a tree, thinking he “would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying” (4). The reader sees in this moment that Marlowe has committed himself to a noble identity that others fail to uphold because he feels a sense of moral duty.
He carries it with him throughout the novel, saving the naked Carmen multiple times and working for only twenty-five dollars a day. After General Sternwood tells him his work is over, Marlowe thinks about the easiest course of action that others would take. He muses, “The smart thing for me to do [is] to take another drink and forget the whole mess,” but he is motivated by his sense of duty to continue with the case until it is solved (129). At the end of the book, when Vivian calls him a “son of a bitch” in the midst of confrontation, he retaliates with a revealing speech about his character. Uh-huh. I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world,” he says sarcastically. “[…. ] I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps […] to protect what little pride of a broken and sick old man has left in his blood, in the thought that his blood is not poison” (228). By self-definition, his moral obligation is to face the most dangerous situations of a corrupt society to defend the goodness that still exists in the world. This asserts his role as the noble knight on the chessboard.
Marlowe’s success in cracking the case reaffirms his identity as the human embodiment of chivalry in the world of cynicism and corruption that was America in the 1930’s. By comparing people and events to the pieces and movements in a game of chess, Chandler reflects on how aspects of society interact and relate to one another in a complicated arrangement. Like on a chessboard, every move effects the movement of others and the entire gameplay. During the corrupt period of the Great Depression, every action has a consequence and requires careful consideration before its execution.