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“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2020


This paper analyzes the novel, Big Sleep, as an authentic depiction of the moral corruption that characterized Los Angeles (L.A) in the 1930s. It investigates different aspects of modern society and highlights corruption as the main theme. Through the same analogy, this paper shows that the text represents modern-day problems, such as distrust, lust, deception, and betrayal, which characterize modern society. Based on this discussion, this paper argues that moral corruption is at the center of these societal problems. However, to understand this argument, it is pertinent to know the distinctive features of the social world that the author describes events in the Big Sleep.

Distinctive Features of this Social World

The events depicted in the Big Sleep happened in America during the great depression. Although many creative writers and film producers depict L.A as full of glitz and glamour, Chandler (117) depicts the town like a dark, depraved, and dirty society. Based on this representation, the Big Sleep thrives in an “urban jungle” characterized by mystery, evil, and deception. In the same setting, the author shows that L.A has many wealthy people, as depicted through Sternwood’s mansion and harbors illegal activities, as seen through Geiger’s pornography store, which acts as a book library. Mar’s gambling activities also show how L.A’s underground society operates.

The sparsely decorated office of Marlowe also shows that the town has a neutral (normal) feel. However, the above-mentioned extremes characterize the novel’s setting as a mixture of many backgrounds, which all blend in one intriguing story of mystery, deception, greed, and lust. Since Marlowe has gained access to all these backgrounds of the L.A life, he easily passes judgment about each setting and explains to the readers how they connect with one another. For example, when Marlow visited the Sternwood mansion, he showed his contempt for the rich. From this understanding, the readers could understand why his office does not have lavish furniture or fittings. This is a sign of his contempt for pretense. Nonetheless, the novel’s setting is dynamic, but representative of the social ills that breed a corrupt society.

The View of Modern Society that the Text Represents

The Big Sleep represents modern society as a dark and corrupt system that does not consider the interests of its people. Hollywood film directors of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s commonly highlighted this theme through their “Black Film” works. To expound on the dark and corrupt imagery of modern society as highlighted through Chandler’s work, the Big Sleep uses negative environmental connotations, such as “dark,” “Dank,” “fog’ and “moist” to explain different scenes in the novel. These attributes paint a negative picture of Marlowe’s world, further emphasizing the themes of deception and betrayal in the novel.

Although the author portrays the L.A scene as a lonely place, the constant reference to the rain could easily make the readers believe that the rain symbolically cleanses the town (as other authors have traditionally used it in other literacy works); however, this is false because the rain fails to purify the “sins” of the characters. Based on this background alone, Marlowe’s cynicism emerges from his hopelessness that emerges through his inability to rid the town of its deep-rooted corruption and mistrust. The hopelessness and cynicism further depict L.A as a depressed town. In the same breadth of analysis, the author highlights a period when honest jobs were scarce, the streets were dirty, and crime was rampant in the streets. The grittiness of L.A emerges when Marlowe expresses his troubles as he tries to fit in the modern world. This expression manifested when he left Mar’s club in downtown L.A. Relative to this context, Chandler said,

“We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand, close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness” (Chandler, 117).

This text shows that L.A was a sad and depressing place.

Is the Text Escapist, or Does it allow us to reflect on Modern Society?

An escapist work of art often diverts our attention from reality and replaces the real world for a fictitious one. Such works often fail to portray the real, social, political, or economic contexts of our reality and hypocritically makes us believe that our challenges/problems are “not bad.” The Big Sleep does not use this analogy in its narrative. Instead, it exposes some of the greatest undoings of modern society – corruption, deception, deceit, and betrayal.

Corruption is at the center of this analogy because through a corrupt society, and it is difficult to find sincerity, hope, or truthfulness. While many works of art tend to divert our attention from the misery and hopelessness, which characterize modern society, the Big Sleep does the opposite by diverting our attention to these issues. This narrative demonstrates that the novel allows its readers to reflect on modern society and human shortcomings. These attributes also manifest through the main protagonist in the novel, Marlowe, because he exposes his weaknesses and vulnerabilities through some poor decisions that cost him time and put his life in danger.

These shortcomings contrast with the moral corruption that the novel portrays because of Marlowe’s shortcomings, and the social shortcomings highlighted in the novel show our human weaknesses and social problems. The honesty, which Marlowe uses to explore his experiences, as a detective, shows that the novel is not escapist. Furthermore, the novel’s dark and pessimistic tones emphasize the moral corruption that this paper highlights in this paper. For example, Marlowe says,

“Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places. I struggled into a trench coat, made a dash for the nearest drugstore, and bought myself a pint of whiskey. Back in the car, I used enough of it to keep warm and interested. My parking was long overdue, but the cops were too busy carrying girls and blowing whistles to bother about that” (Chandler 129).

Based on the tone of the above statement, Marlowe does not thrive in an honest or fun society. His experiences are contemptuous and dull. Rain, Booze, and sketchy cops are only some issues that symbolize the gloomy environment and the moral corruption that characterized the L.A society. Since most of these representations are factual, the Big Sleep is an authentic depiction of modern society.


This paper has shown that moral corruption is the main theme in the Big Sleep. Most of the experiences shared by Marlowe represent this fact because the tone of his narration shows gloom and dullness. He is unhappy about his reality as he tries to unravel the lives of deceptive, distrustful, and dishonest people. Furthermore, he shows his contempt for the rich through his interactions with Sternwood and his daughters. His representation of modern society is real and not escapist, as opposed to other literary works. This way, the Big Sleep represents the moral corruption that is the modern world.

Works Cited

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep, London, UK: Penguin, 2014. Print.

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