In Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, is the greenhouse at General Sternwood's home symbolic?
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In Raymond Chandler's story, The Big Sleep, the main character is Christopher Marlowe. He visits General Sternwood's home because the older gentleman is being blackmailed. Sternwood needs the private detective's help to stop the blackmail attempts.
When Marlowe first arrives, he notices that Sternwoods beautiful home looks as if no one lives there: it is perfect and seemingly unused. I believe that this is symbolic of the public's perceptions of the Sternwood family. From the outside it would seem that they are wealthy people with perfect lives.
Marlow meets Sternwood who is working in his greenhouse, where the General grows orchids. It is like a jungle there. This may be symbolic for the way life really is within the walls of the Sternwood home. The "law" of the jungle (alluding to Rudyard Kipling's work of the same name) usually conveys a sense that only the strong survive. And life for the Sternwood women is like living in a jungle: survival does not come easily.
Carmen is wild—a gambler with excessive debts, who is being sexually exploited. She ends up killing her sister Vivian's husband. Vivian tries to protect her sister's secret, and in the end, has to promise to get Carmen help, or Marlowe will turn Carmen over to the police.
The orchids the General cares for may be symbolic of Sternwood's daughters. Orchids are gorgeous plants, but extremely fragile and prone to sickness. Only attentive care allows them to thrive. Carmen is an especially fragile "flower." These "stunning" orchids are doing their best just to survive in the jungle they inhabit—a life filled with vice, crime and unhappiness.
The symbolic use of the greenhouse might be misleading if we look at it as simply an environment to protect flowers, but the sense of the jungle-like atmosphere provides a much darker association for the reader.
In the private detective mystery novel genre there is an obligatory scene in which a client hires the detective to deal with a problem and explains the details to him. A good example is in Dashiell Hammett's famous novel The Maltese Falcon. Brigid O'Shaughnessy, calling herself Miss Wonderly, comes to the office of Spade and Archer in San Francisco and tells Sam Spade a cock-and-bull story about how she is trying to find her sister in order to get her away from Floyd Thursby and take her back to New York.
Raymond Chandler had a much better education than the typical pulp fiction writer, and he tried to improve on the private-eye genre by giving it more variety, more subtlety, and more sophistication. The writer he most admired was Henry James. In Chandler's introductory scene in The Big Sleep he still had to have his detective meet a client and be told the details of the problem before beginning to work on the assignment. But instead of having the client come to the detective's office, Chandler has the detective go to the client's home. This is understandable because the client, General Guy Sternwood, is an old man in extremely bad health. By having Philip Marlowe meet the General in a greenhouse filled with orchids, Chandler created an original kind of opening scene. It demonstrates the General's wealth, which is the cause of his problems with his younger daughter, and his feebleness due to his old age.The old man tells Marlowe:
"You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple paralyzed in both legs and with only half of his lower belly. There's very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name."
The setting shows the client's wealth and also helps set the exotic tone of a mystery that will be played out in gaudy, glamorous, and kinky Southern California. It also allows Marlowe to meet Norris the butler and both of General Sternwood's daughters, and even to catch a glimpse of Owen Taylor the chauffeur who will shortly be shooting Arthur Gwynn Geiger while the dealer in pornographic books is photographing the nymphomaniac Carmen Sternwood in the nude. In addition to meeting four of the principal characters, Marlowe will notice two of the automobiles that will figure prominently in the story. These are a Packard convertible and a big Buick sedan, both of which are being wiped down by Owen Taylor.
So the opening of The Big Sleep in a greenhouse filled with orchids is colorful and original, while enabling the private eye to learn a great deal more than just the bare-bones details of his assignment. Chandler is following a principle he learned from Henry James, which is to "dramatize, dramatize, dramatize." Show, don't tell! Instead of being told a story by a client sitting on the other side of the desk in his office, Marlowe is able to visit the scene and interact with the most important characters. Not only that, but the opening allows the reader to see Marlowe in action and not just sitting in a swivel chair and listening to somebody talk.
If the greenhouse was intended to be symbolic, it symbolizes how the General is isolated and lonely. That was why Rusty Regan was so important to him and why he would like to know why he disappeared so suddenly and mysteriously without even saying goodbye. The General spends most of his waking hours in the greenhouse, so he has no idea what is going on with his daughters Carmen and Vivian. He orders brandy for Marlowe but doesn't dare to drink any himself. He invites the detective to smoke a cigarette and gets a vicarious pleasure out of smelling the tobacco smoke. He says:
"A nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy."
Marlowe feels sorry for the old man and is motivated throughout the novel by a desire to help him. Marlowe realizes that the General could have handled his domestic problems by himself at one time but now is forced to have them handled by proxy too. General Sternwood is paralyzed in both legs. He has to be wheeled to the greenhouse and back to his room. He explains to Marlowe:
"I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider, and the orchids are an excuse for the heat."
He is a rich man but he gets virtually no pleasure out of life, and his money attracts troubles. The scene in the greenhouse is intended to make Marlowe, as well as the reader, feel compassion. The greenhouse is full of exotic plants, but the General hates orchids. He is a prisoner in this luxurious prison.
At the very end of the novel Marlowe reflects:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could be quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
Marlowe is "part of the nastiness now" because he has become an accessory after the fact. He knows that Carmen Sternwood murdered Rusty Regan and that her sister Vivian Regan got Eddie Mars to have Lash Canino dispose of the body.
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