In Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, how does Sam Spade seem selfish?
In Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, the main character, Sam Spade, seems selfish in various ways. Perhaps the most obvious example of Sam’s selfishness is his affair with Iva Archer, the wife of his partner Miles Archer, who is shot and killed early in the novel. At one point in Chapter 3, Effie Perine, Sam’s loyal and talented secretary, asks Sam what he intends to do now that Miles is dead:
“Are you going to marry Iva?” she asked, looking down at his pale brown hair.
“Don’t be silly,” he muttered. The unlighted cigarette bobbed up and down with the movement of his lips.
“She doesn’t think it’s silly. Why should she – the way you’ve played around with her?”
Sam, then, has been selfish in his treatment of at least two people: Miles and Iva Archer. He later justifies his conduct by saying that he “never liked Miles,” but of course Miles seems to have been given no indication of that attitude, and certainly Miles does not seem to have suspected Sam’s affair with Miles’s wife. Sam’s betrayal of his partner makes Sam seem less a pure hero than he might otherwise have appeared. Hammett presents Sam realistically rather than making him seem a plaster saint. The fact that Sam was able to betray his partner adds suspense to the book, since we can now never quite be sure about Sam’s motives and possible conduct.
Sam’s betrayal of Iva Archer is perhaps less troubling, since Iva herself betrayed her husband Miles through her affair with Sam. From one point of view, she deserves betrayal, having been a betrayer herself. Effie seems to have little admiration for Iva; she later calls her a “louse,” but then she comments, “I’d be a louse too if it would give me a body like hers.”
In this comment, as in so much else, the novel helps create an atmosphere of moral ambiguity, and one of the morally ambiguous characters is Sam Spade himself.
In Chapter 11 when Sam Spade is talking to Caspar Gutman in the suite at the Alexandria Hotel, Gutman asks him whether he is there as a representative of Joel Cairo or Brigid O'Shaughnessy.
Gutman says: "It will be one or the other?"
"I didn't say that."
The fat man's eyes glistened. His voice sank to a throaty whisper asking: "Who else is there?"
Spade pointed his cigar at his own chest. "There's me," he said.
When Brigid (as Miss Wonderly) first comes to Spade's office she gives him two hundred dollars retainer. In Chapter 4 he takes another five hundred dollars from her with the promise to protect her from being connected with the killings of Miles Archer and Floyd Thursby. There is never any indication that he actually spent any of that money buying her protection or how he could have done it if he had wanted to.
In Chapter 5 he takes a $200 retainer fee from Joel Cairo without any apparent intention of doing anything to help him get hold of the Maltese falcon. In any case, he never does help him.
In the end Spade sends Brigid to San Quentin partly, at least, to save himself from being hanged. His method is always to play one person against another for his own personal benefit.