The Maltese Falcon
Illusions of Truth
The Maltese Falcon at its core is a novel about people making up stories. Characters in the novel display a remarkable ability and willingness to lie. As each new character is introduced to the plot, a new host of lies is introduced as well. The novel is also characterized by an objective style. Dashiell Hammett maintains a third-person point of view that provides no insights into characters’ thoughts or motivations. This interplay between a plot centered on lies and an objective style centered on a lack of insight into these lies constructs narrative desire in The Maltese Falcon. Narrative desire is the paradoxical desire of the reader to get to the solution of a story while simultaneously wishing to prolong the suspense of the story for as long as possible. In the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett firmly centers his plot on lies. Hammett introduces the reader to Sam Spade and Ms. Wonderly. Both initially appear as stereotypical characters in a detective novel: Spade as a compassionate private eye who patiently listens to his client’s story and Ms. Wonderly as a tentative, passive woman in duress who needs a man to save her. However, Hammett immediately turns this characterization on its head. Within two chapters, everything the reader thought he or she knew turns out to be a lie. Ms. Wonderly is in fact Brigid O’Shaughnessy, her story a complete fabrication, and Spade a bitter, sardonic man who “never believed her story” (33). As each lie is debunked, the reader naturally assumes that a progression toward the truth is occurring. Hammett thus initially plays into his reader’s desire to get to the solution of the story.What replaces these lies, however, is just that: more lies. Brigid continues her “schoolgirl manner… stammering and blushing and all that” (55). But Spade quickly realizes that she is still deceiving him. “You aren’t exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?” he asks (55). This interplay between Spade and Brigid continues throughout the rest of the novel. Brigid continues to tell lies and act her part while Spade continues to ask questions and retain his skepticism. The progression toward truth that seemed simple in the beginning of the novel reveals itself to be an illusion — the debunking of one lie does not necessarily mean that the truth will take its place. Complicating the web of deception is the fact that the reader cannot know with any certainty when characters are telling the truth and when they are not. Hammett’s use of an objective style makes this impossible. The objective style is characterized by a third-person point of view that provides no insight into characters’ thoughts or motivations. It lacks omniscience. By keeping readers in the dark as to what characters are thinking, Hammett constructs a world where lies carry as much weight in the reader’s eye as facts. This power placed on lies is reflected in the characters; everyone in the novel seems to have an easier time lying than telling the truth. When asked by the police why he would lie if he has nothing to conceal, Spade mutters, “Everyone has something to conceal” (145). Later, when Brigid is finally cornered into telling Spade the truth, she stammers, “I… I can’t look you in the eye when I tell you this,” “this” being the truth (210). The reader’s inability to know when a character is telling a lie combined with the frequency of the characters’ lies furthers the illusion that readers are getting closer to truth. As each lie is disproved, Hammett simultaneously gets at the reader’s desire to move toward a solution while prolonging the suspense by introducing a new batch of lies to be debunked.The objective style also prolongs suspense by delaying action. Beyond keeping readers ignorant of characters’ thoughts and motivations, Hammett’s style slows down the progression of the story through the use of short, declarative sentences. The Maltese Falcon is at times a frustratingly slow novel. After Spade learns his partner is dead, Hammett painstakingly describes Spade’s “thick fingers [making] a cigarette with delicate care” (11). When the Maltese Falcon is finally discovered, Hammett slows down the action again, describing Spade’s process of unwrapping the bird, from “[cutting] apart the rope” to slowly “[pulling] aside the brown paper” (158). The audience can see how slowed the action is when Spade quickly recounts events to other characters. For example, the story Brigid takes pages to tell — her false explanation of why she wants Spade to help her — is summarized by Spade for his partner in a matter of sentences. Spade also quickly recounts to Effie what happened to him in Gutman’s office, taking only a paragraph to describe a chapter’s worth of “action.” By slowing down the forward progression of the story, Hammett paradoxically increases the excitement. Suspense is prolonged as Hammett steadfastly refuses to speed up plot development and quickly get to a solution.Although the novel’s narrative style delays truth, the plot seems to progress toward it. This progression toward truth is the result of Spade’s ruthless quest for a solution. Although Spade lies as frequently as any other character in the novel, he uses these lies to work toward the truth. Spade lies about his knowledge of the Maltese Falcon’s whereabouts to Gutman but learns valuable information about the Falcon’s history. He frequently lies to Cairo and Brigid about whose interests he is protecting; we ultimately learn he is not actually looking out for either of them. His greatest lie comes in his “fall guy” speech. Here he lulls Cairo, Gutman, and Brigid into thinking he has no interest in the truth and only wants to pin the murders in The Maltese Falcon on someone convenient. “Let’s get the details fixed,” he says (189). Here we see Spade constructing lies before the reader’s eyes. Briefly, it would seem that Spade has no interest in the truth after all. For a moment, it seems that the solution to The Maltese Falcon is strangely absent of the truth.However, narrative desire is more than just the reader’s desire to prolong suspense while still leading toward a solution; it is the reader’s desire for truth in the solution. After Spade has convinced Cairo, Gutman, and Brigid into believing he does not have any interest in the truth, he demands the truth from them. Spade is finished listening to lies. In the final chapters he calls every character out. “That’s a lie,” he says to Brigid twice (207, 209). Here we see Spade representing the reader’s narrative desire. Although Hammett has prolonged suspense for much of the novel, in the closing chapters we see Spade’s steadfast pursuit of a satisfying solution. After being left in the dark as to Spade’s thoughts for most of the novel, we finally gain insight into his motivation as he questions Brigid. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it,” he tells her (213). Although Spade initially seems to be a seedy detective who follows his own rules, he reveals himself to be a truly moral individual. “Don’t be so sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” he says (215). In gaining the first clear insight into Spade’s motivations, the reader finally gains the truth.In narrating the novel from an objective point of view, Hammett is able to construct a plot of lies that causes the reader to remain in the dark as to what is the truth. In creating this interplay between lies and a lack of insight into the lies, Hammett suggests that actions, appearances, and words can be deceiving. As lies are repeatedly uncovered throughout the novel, the reader begins to learn the value of skepticism. This is reflected in Spade, who becomes vocally more skeptical throughout the novel. By the end of the novel, he is speaking for the reader. He becomes a tireless fighter for truth and actualizes the reader’s desire for it. Although Hammett’s style stretches out the suspense as long as possible, his plot structure of lies crumbles under the constant pressure of Spade’s pursuit of truth. Finally, the truth is revealed to the reader.
Guns and Masculinity in The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon is a work of detective fiction by Dashiell Hammett that follows a private investigator, Sam Spade, as he tries to piece together the truth surrounding an ancient statue of a falcon. Spade embodies 1930’s American masculinity – he’s brawny, dominant, unemotional, and a “straight-shooter”. Guns in the 1930s, similar to today, were seen as a symbol of power, masculinity, and dominance. Spade, the character most emblematic of masculinity, does not carry a gun throughout the novel because he does not need one. He relies on his brute strength and street smarts to get by. The male characters on the “other side” in this novel – Joel Cairo, Casper Gutman, and Wilmer Cook – all use guns and even pull them on Spade at various points in the novel. These characters’ use of guns compensates for the different ways that each of them lack the traditional features of American masculinity and thus places them in opposition to Spade, which emphasizes his own masculinity.
Joel Cairo lacks traditional American masculinity in two ways – he’s homosexual and he’s foreign. Before he enters Spade’s office for the first time, Effie Perine warns Spade that Joel Cairo is “queer” (42). In the 1930s, the word queer was used as an adjective meaning strange or odd, but also colloquially referred to someone who was homosexual (Oxford English Dictionary). In this case, it most likely means the latter. Cairo is described in a similar manner as Brigid. The narrative emphasizes his effeminate tendencies and appearance by highlighting things like his soft and well cared for hands, perfume, and snug fitting trousers (42-43). His hands are also described as “flaccid”, which has phallic connotations and implies a lack of sexual potency (43). All of these traits, especially queerness, do not align with traditional masculinity. Cairo also fails to align with American masculinity because of his foreign background. His name, Cairo, refers to his foreign roots and he is often called “Levantine.” His status as a foreigner turns him into the “Other” in opposition to Spade and his masculinity.
Cairo attempts to use a gun against Spade to overpower him and force Spade to hand over the falcon. While Spade is distracted by Effie, Cairo pulls out “short compact flat black pistol” and instructs Spade to “clasp [his] hands together at the back of [his] neck” (44). Cairo is far too weak to overpower Spade physically and must use a gun to compensate for his natural lack of power. Even though Cairo technically has command over Spade in this moment, it is clearly unnatural for him. Cairo “cough[s] a little apologetic cough”. “smile[s] nervously”, and his “eyes [are] humid and bashful” (45). Despite the fact that Cairo holds the gun in this situation, he still does not hold the power. Spade waits for Cairo to begin to search him and then uses his physical strength to outsmart Cairo and strip him of his gun. “Cairo let the gun go the instant Spade’s finger touched it” showing how easy it is for Spade to regain control of the situation (46). Rather than using the gun against Cairo, he punches him in the face to knock him out. This scene directly contrasts Cairo’s lack of masculinity with Spade’s masculinity. Cairo uses the gun to compensate for his lack of physical power compared to Spade, but Spade is still able to control the situation and emasculate Cairo by stripping him of his gun. When Spade strips him of the gun, Cairo cries. This show of emotion is typically associated with queerness or femininity and emphasizes that by stripping Cairo of his gun, Spade has also stripped him of his masculinity and power. The gun also has a phallic connotation and seems “small in Spade’s hand” emphasizing Cairo’s lack of sexual potency and masculinity in comparison to Spade (46). Cairo’s use of a gun represents an attempt to compensate for his lack of traditional masculinity but fails because Spade is the embodiment of this masculinity and thus holds the power in this situation.
Casper Gutman lacks traditional masculinity because of his lack of physical power and extravagant tendencies. As his last name implies, Gutman is overweight. He is constantly referred to as “the fat man” and his initial physical description characterizes him as “flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks”, “a great soft egg of a belly”, and “pendant cones for arms and legs” (104). Much of Spade’s masculinity is relate to his physical power and appearance. Spade’s physical descriptors include adjectives like “thick”, “big”, and “strong” and the narrative at one point compares his body to that of a bear (12). Traditional masculinity emphasizes physical strength and power like Spade’s, therefore Gutman lacks masculinity because of his physical appearance. Gutman also lacks masculinity because of his extravagance and opulence. Traditional masculinity is simple. Men who embody masculinity are not flashy or opulent because those traits traditionally are associated with femininity. Gutman is wealthy, gluttonous and greedy and dresses himself up with things like pearls (106). His opulence is especially emphasized by the type of gun he attempts to use on Spade. Gutman, similar to Cairo, is also described by the word “flaccid” which associates him with a lack of sexual potency and therefore masculinity (106).
After the characters realize the falcon was fake, Gutman asks Spade for the bribe money back and Spade refuses. Gutman then pulls out “a small pistol, an ornately engraved and inlaid affair of silver and gold and mother of pearl” (203). Spade, not threatened by the gun, takes out a one-thousand-dollar bill before handing the envelope with the rest of the money back to Gutman. Gutman shrugs and because he is unwilling to argue with Spade leaves without the remainder of his money. Gutman must use a gun against Spade because he lacks physical power in comparison to him. His gun compensates for this lack of power and masculinity. Similar to Cairo, Gutman’s gun is small and represents a phallus, emphasizing his lack of sexual potency. The gun’s ornateness is effeminate and emblematic of Gutman’s opulent character. Spade does not view Gutman or his gun as a threat and by dismissing the gun, he strips away its power. Spade blatantly ignores Gutman’s request for the money which emasculates him and illustrates how even without a weapon, Spade holds the power in this situation. Gutman’s gun cannot compensate for his lack of physical power and therefore illustrates his effeminacy and lack of masculinity.
Wilmer Cook lacks masculinity because of his youthful nature and physical appearance. Cook is first described as an “undersized youth of twenty or twenty-one” (59). He is referred to throughout the novel as “the boy” and his stature and various features are described as “small” (93). When standing in front Spade he’s described as “looking like a schoolboy” (95). He’s young, inexperienced, and physically weak. However, he is Gutman’s “gunsel” and personal security guard.
Cook shadows Spade for the majority of the novel and at one point, instructs Spade to come with him to see Gutman. Although Cook does not directly pull out his guns at this point, he makes it very clear that they are in his pockets which sends the message that he will use them if Spade does not comply. Spade complies and follows the boy to Gutman’s suite but as they are walking down the hallway, steps behind him and overpowers him as the boy is “impotent in the big man’s grip” (120). The use of the word “impotent” highlights the youthfulness of the boy and implies a lack of sexual potency. Spade strips the boy of two heavy automatic pistols before grinning at him and joking that the situation will put Cook “in a solid” with his boss (121). The two heavy pistols are symbolic of Cooks desire for power and compensation for his lack of physical strength. Spade takes advantage of his naiveté and is able to effectively strip him of his guns before Cook even realizes what is going on. After Spade takes the guns, Cook stops passing snarky remarks and doesn’t bother trying to fight for his guns back because he recognizes that Spade holds the power in this situation. By taking his guns, Spade emasculates Cook because he strips him of the power and symbolic manliness that he held. Without the guns, Cook is just a scrawny kid pretending to be a man.
Men in this novel use guns as a way to compensate for the various ways that they lack masculinity and power. Cairo lacks masculinity because he’s homosexual and foreign, Gutman lacks masculinity because he’s overweight and opulent, and Cook lacks masculinity because he’s young and weak. Guns provide these men with a false sense of masculinity that Spade easily strips away with physical power. Their lack of masculinity emphasizes traits that distinguish Spade as masculine and the antihero of this novel.
The Women of The Maltese Falcon
The three women characters in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, portray three different types of femininity. While to Samuel Spade, consistently calling them “darling”(Hammett, pg. 25) and “sweetheart”(Hammett, pg.1), seems to group them all together as one gender rather individual people, these three women play large roles in Spade’s life. They each impact him in a different way and are seen no better or worse than the men in the novel, not taking a back seat to these men either. They are manipulative; acting as someone they are not to get what they want and going behind the men’s backs to fulfill their own needs.
Bridget O’Shaughnessy plays the role of a woman in need to win over Spade and his assistance while Iva strikes up an affair with Spade, betraying her husband who also happens to be Spade’s partner. They are desired; whether it be for their money, for the thrill that comes with being deceitful, and for their work. The initial reason Spade takes O’Shaughnessy in is simply because she proves she is worth his time money wise. Iva and Spade’s relationship is strictly under wraps and turns out to be even riskier than a usual affair is once Spade’s partner is found dead. Effie, Spade’s secretary, is depended on by Spade heavily throughout the piece for her work ethic and opinion that Spade relies on and turns to a number of times. They also show fear just as the men displayed in the piece; whether their fear sprouts from the possibility of being left behind or thrown under the bus. They have their flaws and each effect Spade’s life at the time they are involved with him. Bridget O’Shaughnessy’s impact is more negative than positive, but she has her moments where she isn’t just a detriment to Spade’s existence. Effie and Iva have two very different effects of Samuel Spade. Effie is there for him no matter what, helping him out personally and professionally. Iva never seems to be a positive woman in Spade’s life. Spade is the man she cheated on her husband with, who ironically was Spade’s partner Miles.
In terms of her apparent role, Bridget O’Shaughnessy, or Ms. Wonderly, initially comes off as Samuel Spade’s damsel in distress. She puts up an act, pretending to be a desperate woman in need of a strong man’s help, but in reality, she’s only using Spade to her benefit seeing she is the brains of the entire operation. She comes in acting small, timid, and in great need of Spade’s work. Although Spade does not believe it, her money talks and he takes her under his protection. Out of all three women, Bridget O’Shaughnessy uses Spade the most. She comes into his office knowing if she can get him to fall in love with her, she may just be able to get away with anything. She gets him to do her dirty work, going great lengths such as taking beatings and druggings to get to the bottom of this mystery. Towards the end of the book the tables are turned and Spade exploits O’Shaughnessy, letting her know he knew what she was all about this entire time. Spade is no fool and although he let O’Shaughnessy believe otherwise, he knew all along she was no damsel in distress and her plan from the very beginning was too sketchy to be true. Spade and O’Shaughnessy’s relationship ends with him turning her into the police and sending her to jail, and ending Ms. Wonderly never accounted for in her initial plan.
Effie is Spade’s right-hand woman. As his secretary she keeps his professional life in order, though she isn’t just his book keeper. Spade seems to rely on Effie for her opinion, truly seeming to care how what she thinks and how she interprets the people who walk through this door, such as O’Shaughnessy when he blatantly asks Effie, “What do you think of Wonderly?” (Hammett, pg. 42). In the time of this book, her archetype would be the “helpmate” (Saporito, 2015). Without her help, Spade would not be as successful as he is in his field. Effie is Spade’s sidekick and is a crucial character in the book and to Spade’s success. Effie never takes advantage of Spade, but Spade although seeming to care for her being, has his moments where he lacks this brother/sister affection, displayed in chapter twelve after he twists her arm as a result of discovering O’Shaughnessy is missing, “You ought to know better than to pay any attention to me when I talk like that” (Hammett, pg. 117). He immediately feels remorse for his actions because he truly cares for Effie. At times Spade slips into his natural way of treating the other two women, calling Effie “darling” (Hammett, pg.1) and “sweetheart” (Hammett, pg.1) and always just assuming she will be there at his beckon call. But, although taking the pet-names, Effie makes it clear she will not always deal with Spade’s attitude and puts him in his place. “Sam Spade,” she said, “you’re the most contemptible man God ever made when you want to be. Because she did something without confiding in you you’d sit here and do nothing when you know she’s in danger, when you know she might be –” (Hammett, pg. 153). Their relationship strives on the fact that no matter what, Effie is always there for Spade and in the end she is the only women on the three looking out for his best interest.
Iva Archer has the least impact on Samuel Spade’s life, but still plays a fairly important role. Starting off as just Spade’s partner’s wife, it is not until Miles Archer is found dead, that the affair between Spade and Iva becomes slightly more dangerous. Iva never exploits Spade because she would in turn be exploiting herself, but associating with Iva puts Spade in danger of being pinned for Miles’ murder. Iva desires to be with Spade much more than she ever desired to be with Miles. “Towards the end of the decade, some feminists would argue that women’s great achievement in the 20s was learning to value their individuality” (Mackrell, 2018). Iva attempted to put herself first, at times even threatening Spade with the accusation of killing off Miles himself, to get what she wanted, but Spade being a smart man never fell for her words. He tried to distance himself from her, but Iva did make his life difficult in that aspect. Iva wanted to life her life, with Spade, but Spade knew the troubles that would come with someone as dependent on him as Iva was and did everything in his power to make her feel like she was desired, but truly was not.
In varying ways, the three women in Spade’s life challenge him. Some put him in danger; mainly Bridget O’Shaughnessy and also at times Iva Archer, while others such as Effie did her best to keep him in line and safe. They challenged him both physically and mentally and show Spade what it is like living with people who are not going to just back down to their male counterparts. The three women bring depth to the novel and although represent struggle of women in the 1920’s also represent what it is like to be strong women in the time period as well.
Saporito, Jeff. “ScreenPrism.” Why Is “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” Considered the Definitive German Expressionist Film, 29 Oct. 2015, screenprism.com/insights/article/how-do-the-three-women-in-the-maltese-falcon-reflect-unique-female-archetyp.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus. Cassell, 1953.
“Gender Roles in The Maltese Falcon.” Engaging Cinema at Tech, Engaging Cinema at Tech, 16 June 2011, lcc2500summer2011.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/gender-roles-in-the-maltese-falcon/.
Mackrell, Judith. “The 1920s: ‘Young Women Took the Struggle for Freedom into Their Personal Lives’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/05/the-1920s-young-women-took-the-struggle-for-freedom-into-their-personal-lives.