Study Guide

The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon Themes

Themes

Ross Macdonald, himself one of the masters of the hard-boiled detective novel and a great admirer of Hammett's, calls The Maltese Falcon "a fable of modern man in quest of love and money." Indeed, the falcon — the symbol of the illusory nature of happiness through wealth — has such dominant power over the characters in the novel, including Sam Spade, that they will do anything to possess it.

Love turns out to be equally deceiving; just as the falcon is revealed as a fake, Brigid's love for Sam Spade is shown as false. True love, based on honesty and altruism no longer exists in the modern city; it has been replaced by mere carnal lust as a motivating agent. Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby lust after Brigid; Spade has an affair with Archer's wife and then sleeps with Brigid; Captain Jacobi, one may assume, either hopes for Brigid's favors or delivers the bird in compensation for favors already received. Human relations are shown as less than normal throughout the novel.

While the Continental Op combats the violence in his world with equal or greater amounts of violence, Sam Spade's world is characterized more by deception, and so his main strategy must be deception. The violence Spade generates is mainly due to frustration over his inability to separate illusion from reality. When he has finally solved the puzzle of the falcon, he can abandon his strategy of pretending to be a crook himself and turn an incredulous Brigid over to the police. His existentialist credo is a contrast of Effie's romantic world view; for Spade, reason and professional ethics conquer the temptations...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

The Maltese Falcon Themes

Code of Honor
Throughout most of this novel, the protagonist, Sam Spade, seems to be too cynical to hold any deeply held convictions. His love life is defined early on by his affair with Iva Archer, the wife of his business partner, whom he openly detests. Financially, he seems perfectly willing to sell his services to whoever offers him the most money, at one point taking on both Joel Cairo and Brigid O’Shaughnessy as clients, even though their interests clearly conflict. His encounters with the police and the district attorney imply that Spade is more interested in making sure that his business is not disturbed by the events surrounding Miles Archer’s death than he is in seeing justice prevail.

And so it is a surprise when, at the end of the novel, Spade’s behavior turns out to be directed by a code of honor that he understands clearly and respects. He seems frustrated and a little embarrassed when trying to explain to Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he cannot take the corrupt and easy solution, which would entail accepting the money that he has been given by the criminals and going on to live his life with the woman he loves. Most of his reasons for turning away from the easy solution are based in logic—the police would find out about his involvement in the affair anyway, and he would never be able to fully trust Brigid, no matter how much he might or might not love her. In the end, Spade’s decision to turn Brigid in to the police comes down to one basic rule that he cannot bring himself to break: “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” Spade’s shift in diction, into the “you” perspective, indicates that he believes this to be an absolute law that applies to all cases at all times, regardless of individual circumstances.

Single-Mindedness
Most of the characters in this novel are motivated by the dual interests of greed and...

(The entire section is 841 words.)