What symbols and motifs are in Red Harvest and what do they symbolize?  And why is the main character nameless?  I know that the way they pronounce personville is one, but I am just not sure...

What symbols and motifs are in Red Harvest and what do they symbolize?  And why is the main character nameless?

 

I know that the way they pronounce personville is one, but I am just not sure what it symbolizes.

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sfwriter | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Hammett's style does not lend itself to a large number of either symbols or motifs.  It is a particularly plain style, with a paucity of metaphors and other literary devices.  What symbols there are are buried deeply, and serve purposes other than the metaphorical.

Personville is twisted, in a singularly un-Midwestern (though this takes place in an unspecified Rocky Mountain state) into "Poisonville".  The change is evocative of many things.  First, the words person and poison are close enough in sound to cause a near-homonym, which leads to a not-very-clever pun.  If Personville is "poison", then it cannot be a very good place.  But it is deeper and subtler than that.  The accent twist of "person" to "poison" sounds more like the accent of a person from the outer boroughs of New York (or possibly Boston).  These places, in Hammett's time and, even, today, have been associated with organized crime.  That brings the readers' minds towards the film villains (usually two-dimensional and crudely drawn) who populated the movies in those days.  This would add even more to the seedy, corrupt, and unsavory character of this dingy little town.

In addition, the deeper meaning of person equalling "poison" in the name "Personville" points directly to the cause of all this corruption, crime, and mayhem.  Hammett is saying that it is the people of this town, and not necessarily the social institutions, the environment, or the government which is "poisoning" everything.  The internal vices of mankind, Hammett may be positing, when unchecked, are the cause of a large amount of the evil in the world.  With the almost the entire population of Personville being corrupt, venal, selfish, and greedy to the core, within Hammett's world of this novel the idea may be true.

Not unlike the dusty Long Island town where The Great Gatsbytakes place, Personville has nothing attractive about it.  It is a dirty coal-mining town, with no natural beauty (though there may have been, since it was situated in or near the mountains -- Hammett's lack of description of scenery is, indeed, a symbolic choice) ever described, and no light or happiness allowed to enter the pages of Red Harvest.  A great majority of the scenes take place at night, and often under an alcoholic haze (such as when Dinah and the Continental Op drink an entire bottle of hard liquor, with only some lemons to cut it).  Nothing is lovely, or disinterested, or moral, or sweet in this book.  The choices Hammett made in these descriptions underscore his belief in the lawlessness and, essentially, the evilness of these towns, which were ruled by a big business owner (Elihu Wilsson), and subject to mob rule or crushing economic injustice.  These literary choices, sometimes absorbed unconsciously by the reader, make the reader unable to sympathize with anyone except the protagonist (the somewhat unattractive Op), and, therefore, accept his twisted view of reality and morality.

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