Illusions of Truth

August 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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