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Femme Fatale in Hard-boiled Fiction Essay


Both Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are reputable representatives of hard-boiled crime novels. Their works are famous for overstrained plots in which their characters undergo a variety of challenges and reveal the depth of human souls in the particular historical and cultural period. The hard-boiled detective has developed from the classical detective story. Thus, there is a crime and the detective who investigates that crime and finds a villain. However, the hard-boiled detective story differs from the classical detective in several ways. First, personal emotions and passions are significant in hard-boiled detectives. Unlike classical detectives where the investigation and the explanation of crime are central, the personal confrontation between protagonist and antagonist is significant in hard-boiled stories. Also, the hard-boiled novels depict detectives as “cool guys” who are often trapped in dangerous situations.

When speaking about texts under considerations, it should be noted that they belong to the so-called “noir fiction”. According to Horsley, “noir thrillers are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time” (par. 1). Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is considered to be one of the best novels of the author. It was published in 1939. This story is famous for its complicated plot and the controversy of the situation depicted. Besides, Phillip Marlowe, Chandler’s protagonist and detective, appears in this story for the first time. The story is about Marlowe’s investigation of the case of blackmailing of General Sternwood’s daughter — Carmen Sternwood. Marlowe investigates the complicated case and finally finds out that Carmen, together with his sister Vivien, are involved in murders and criminal activities. The Big Sleep was published during the peak of the Great Depression. It depicts the peculiarities of that period taking Los Angeles as an example. Chandler criticizes American way of life at those times. He reveals the corruptness and falsity of human emotions in American society in the 1930s.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is a 1943 noir detective that depicts the story of the average insurance agent Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger. Phyllis is a wife of some Mr. Nirdlinger, who has an auto insurance policy. Phyllis seduces Walter in the attempt to involve him in the crime — to cause her husband’s death in the train accident to receive insurance coverage of forty-five thousand dollars. They both manage to conduct a crime. However, their intentions are revealed, and they decide to commit suicide to omit punishment. The story is told in a gloomy tone that is used for the depiction of the human greed. The novel, the same as The Big Sleep, describes the American society during the Great Depression in a cynical manner. The author also emphasizes the role and the potential danger of the “small man’s greed”.

The convention of the femme fatale is of great significance for the noir fiction as far as it can reveal the historical and cultural background of Los Angeles in the 1930s. Both Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain employ femme fatale to disclose the most important concerns of their contemporary society: greed, false ideas, and immorality of life.

Femme fatale is one of crucial conventions of noir fiction. Femme fatale represents an archetype of the extremely attractive woman whose beauty makes men being involved in dangerous and risky situations. The image of femme fatale has been known since the beginning of humankind. Many mythologies share the story of attractive women who seduce men and kill them or use for their purposes. Succubus, the women demon, can serve as a vivid example.

Lafayette writes, Essentially, a femme fatale is a woman who uses men and women to accomplish her agenda; all means and tactics are allowed; Men fall for her, because she is divinely attractive, mesmerizing and challenging. Some men know up front she is up to no good, she is treacherous and canning, mais domage, her charm is irresistible (13).

Usually, Femme fatale works with the anti-hero and leads them in the work. They have a close relationship in the novel in order to achieve their goals. Jaber states that femme fatale has become an integral image of the mid-twentieth century noir films and crime fiction in the United States of America (1). The femme fatale is always involved in the investigation or commitment of crime, violence, betrayal, or corruption that are described on the background of the large urban city. In the novel Double Indemnity, Phyllis can be defined as the femme fatale and Greed is the primary reason, which forces her to murder her husband and gain her own power and money. She is depicted as a beautiful and attractive woman at the beginning of the novel, “She was maybe thirty-one or –two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair” (Cain 2). Phyllis uses her outstanding appear to seduce Walter to help her murder her husband and get the money from the insurance company. She wants to escape from the loveless and sexless home.

As a femme fatale, she brings death to not only to her husband, but also Walter and herself. Phyllis compares herself to Death at the beginning of the novel when their plan to kill her husband is made up: “I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In scarlet shroud, floating through the night” (Cain 20) In my opinion, Phyllis’s greed for money and independence make her a femme fatale. She doesn’t have enough power to get the things she wants. Therefore, she needs a man to help her. She uses Walter as a tool for approaching her desires. The genre element of femme fatale is used to provide a critical overview of the social life in America in the 1930s. The period of Great Depression is characterized by substantial losses to everyone. When people feel scarcity of something, they tend to become even more greedy and corrupt. The image of Phyllis is connected to the problem of human greed. The author depicts the weak-minded Walter as one who is ready to kill the person to receive some money. Phyllis is a strong woman though her intentions are evil. Cain criticized the American society for sharing false ideals and vain beliefs.

In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler employs the convention of femme fatale as central. Two female characters are Vivian Sternwood and her sister — Carmen. Both of them are femme fatales though they are very different as personalities.

The novel presents two models of women: Carmen is a medicalized woman, an epileptic and infantile murderess who is taken away by the end of the novel, while Vivian is a powerful woman who covers for her sister’s crimes and ultimately walks away with her family’s money and power (Jaber 62).

In the book, the author provides the description of these characters via the words of their father — General Sternwood, who says, “Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat” (Chandler 12). Vivian tries to seduce Marlowe to distract him from the investigation. These lines describe Marlowe’s thoughts about Vivian — “She was worth a stare. She was trouble” (Chandler 16). I believe that Vivian’s readiness to hide murders using any possible means (such as her beauty) makes her femme fatale. Via this image, the author shows that American people share false ideas.

Carmen is depicted as a woman who shares features of an innocent child and murderer at the same time. Marlowe thinks “There was something behind her eyes, blank as they were, that I had never seen in a woman’s eyes” (Chandler 140). Her role is purely that of femme fatale. Carmen uses sex as a method of achieving her goals. Men that had some connection with her, Regan, Geiger, and Brody, are already dead. Carmen is a femme fatale that demonstrates that life in American society is sunk in selfishness, corruption, pornography, and murders.

The noir fiction can be relevant in current historical and cultural context. The aim of the noir fiction is to show the dark side of humanity. In my opinion, nothing changes about humanity. People still are greedy, selfish, and immoral. Only the settings change. No longer there are heavy days of the Great Depression. We live in a society where almost everyone can earn enough money for living. Still, people continue to desire more, kill others for money, and share vain beliefs. Noir fiction can be used to investigate the nature of evil in humankind. Current historical and cultural context proves that history changes but people’s minds and souls continue being dark and ready for everything to follow their selfish goals.

Works Cited

Cain, James. Double Indemnity. London, United Kingdom: Hachette, 2010. Print.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York City, New York: Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard, 1988. Print.

Horsley, Lee. American Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction. n.d. Web.

Jaber, Maysaa. Criminal Femme Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction.

Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Lafayette, Maximillien. Hollywood Femme Fatales and Ladies of Film Noir. Raleigh, North California: Lulu, 2011. Print.

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1. IvyPanda. "Femme Fatale in Hard-boiled Fiction." May 10, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/femme-fatale-in-hard-boiled-fiction/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. "Femme Fatale in Hard-boiled Fiction." May 10, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/femme-fatale-in-hard-boiled-fiction/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Femme Fatale in Hard-boiled Fiction'. 10 May.

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