Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

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The Big Knife addresses themes of the individual’s struggle to maintain personal integrity. Charlie Castle is, on the surface, a success. He is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, so successful that a studio is willing to negotiate an exclusive, long-term, and very lucrative contract with him. At the peak of his popularity, he lives in luxury and can hire people to pamper and promote him. However, despite all these trappings of success, internally he is suffering from moral decay. His wife is threatening to leave him. His obsessive drinking has caused the death of an innocent bystander and nearly led to his own imprisonment. He has betrayed one of his friends by allowing him to plead guilty to the crime Charlie committed; moreover, he has committed adultery with that same friend’s wife.

Charlie hates being trapped in the role he has been forced to play again and again, that of a tough, illiterate hood. At one time, he was known as a well-educated and accomplished stage actor. However, now his superficial, crass film character is beginning to reflect his own true moral character. Charlie despises what he has become, but he feels completely trapped.

In order to become a financial and popular success, Charlie has had to disavow his past, his true, idealistic self. He has permitted others to manipulate his character in exchange for riches and notoriety. He has permitted the Hollywood system to change his name (from Cass to Castle) and dictate to him the character he must play in all of his films as well as what sort of image to project offscreen—that of a happily married, generous, outgoing family man. In other words Charlie’s character, both private and public, is a lie.

Everyone surrounding Charlie depends on him to maintain his artificial image—his publicist, his agent, the studio heads, the public. Even Marion depends on his false character for her livelihood. However, she also realizes that she depends more on the real Charlie, the Charlie Cass she married long ago. If she cannot be married to a man who strives to express his own true feelings and desires, who is in touch with his real self, then she will abandon him, no matter how much she may still love him.

Charlie is two separate characters. Hank points this out to him in act 2 when he says,Stop torturing yourself, Charlie—don’t resist! Your wild, native idealism is a fatal flaw in the context of your life out here. . . . Forget what you used to be! That’s the only way you’ll find a reasonable happiness and pass it on to your wife! No half man ever made a woman happy!

Marcus Hoff is a symbol of one who has sacrificed all dignity to serve an inhuman system. He has completely lost the ability to express heartfelt emotions. He is a master pontificator, long-winded, overly theatrical; he has even learned how to cry on command. He is motivated purely by greed and delights in manipulating everyone around him in pursuit of his corrupt goals.

Hoff represents luxury, fame, and moral decay. He battles for Charlie’s full attention with Marion, who represents hard times, uncertainty, and dignity. The two of them pull Charlie in opposite directions, each appealing to one of his two selves. Hank Teagle represents the possibility of a man resolving the opposite forces of greed and integrity. A successful Hollywood screenwriter who is also physically handicapped and a recovering alcoholic, Hank has survived the moral battle within himself. He has made the decision to leave Hollywood for New York, where he plans to write a book of his own concept and desires. Charlie, who truly believes that he has no options for moral redemption, sees in Hank someone who does. He applauds Hank’s choices, urging him to write his book and saying, “Someone has to complete the work he was born to do.”

In the end, Charlie makes the decision to destroy his corrupted character. He has satisfied his longings to express his idealistic self, but he still believes that he has no future. He leaves the way for a better future for Marion, then, by killing himself, knowing that Hank will be there to care for her.