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.