book by Raymond Chandler
annotation by Hedwika Cox
In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler provides minimal insight into the third person experience of Philip Marlowe. We are okay with this. Because despite this detail, we still receive an enlightened perspective of the world around him through his language. In fact, Chandler’s extensive use of imagery serves as the primary device that gives us substantial insight of his characters.
The author’s language is exquisite. Throughout this story, we receive no inner monologue of our main character, but if we listen close to the dialogue, it’s there. When Marlowe meets his employer, the General, for the first time, the dialogue exchange gives us our initial perception of the General’s daughters: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” He doesn’t elaborate, but within these few lines, we get the picture.
The women are written complex, which toe the line of gender stereotypes in fiction, especially for that era. With antagonist Vivian Regan, he describes her “… she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain.”
Maybe the crime genre has something to do with it. This was evident to me in the characterization of Marlowe. The story focuses more on moving the story/drama forward, avoiding exposition or introspection from the main character, which in turn makes me lose a piece of him. Do we indeed lose a piece, though? When we watch a Bond movie, isn’t this what we expect or wonder about? Action always moves forward and yet still forward again. No room for backstory.
The fact remains that despite being written in the first person, we have yet to glimpse into Marlowe’s thoughts. Specifically, we can trace this even to the end where he loads the bullets into Carmen’s pistol. We are surprised to learn that he has figured out Regan’s disappearance a while ago, and we are never really in his head after all. We can surmise though that even though this is Marlowe’s point of view, it is really a sort of omniscient one, if that is at all possible.
Despite all of this, I like Marlowe just the way he is. Smart-assed and intelligent, Marlowe is like the gadget-less James Bond. He gives us accurate images and envelops us into the story, but we are still missing something. Him. And the fact that two women throw themselves at him, and he does nothing about it, makes us wonder on what is really going on with this man. Is it fair to the reader to divulge everything to the reader? As writers, we must make a choice. In The Big Sleep, the author makes his own choice to not lay all of Marlowe’s thoughts on the table. By doing this, he makes Marlowe’s own character and motivation a detective story in itself.