Double Indemnity Summary
by James M. Cain

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Double Indemnity Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Double Indemnity was written by Cain in approximately two months; it appeared initially in Liberty magazine as an eight-part serial. It was, as Cain himself admitted, practically a rewriting of The Postman Always Rings Twice. In both novels, a man, obsessed with desire for a married woman and tempted by the prospect of easy money, contrives under the woman’s encouragement a scheme to murder the husband and profit from the murder. In each novel the effect of the successful criminal enterprise is the self-destruction of the principals in tandem with their ultimate realization of their true love for each other.

Although neither title was Cain’s inceptive selection—the original title of The Postman Always Rings Twice was Bar-B-Que, and Double Indemnity was suggested to Cain by James Geller—both include an ironic play on types of dualism. Fatal accidents happen twice, one staged and one actual, in the first novel. In the later novel, there are two double compensations for an accidental death that is actually a murder: The first is the double-indemnity insurance award, and the second is the self-execution decided upon by the two murderers who collected the insurance.

Despite the similarities, the novels remain distinct; each has its special characteristics, and each is a masterwork. The murderers in Double Indemnity are Phyllis Nirdlinger, a very attractive, unhappily married woman, and Walter Huff, an insurance agent who falls in love with Phyllis and whom she uses as the instrument of gaining her ends. Phyllis is more cunning and venomous than Cora Papadakis, and Walter is superior to Frank Chambers in both industry and intelligence. The intricacies of the legal profession inform the plot of the earlier novel, and the complexities of the insurance business inform the plot of Double Indemnity.

The love story in The Postman Always Rings Twice is fashioned against images of purgative swimming (off the seashore) and fertility (Cora is pregnant when the accident takes her life). In Double Indemnity , the love story is cast against images of sterility (hearth fire, the moon, Phyllis’s thinking of herself “as Death”) and culminates in the suicide pact of leaping from a ship...

(The entire section is 538 words.)