The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

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 True love, based on honesty and altruism no longer exists in the modern city; it has been replaced by mere carnal lust as a motivating agent.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 of the flesh and the romantic inclinations of the heart.

The thematic centerpiece of The Maltese Falcon is the so-called Flitcraft episode. Spade tells Brigid the story of Flitcraft, a real estate agent, who is almost killed by a falling construction beam on the way home from the office. This random episode makes Flitcraft realize the chance-based nature of the universe, which is in stark contrast to the order human beings try to impose on their lives. In order to adjust his life to this new insight, he never goes home and wanders aimlessly for several years. Finally, however, no more beams fall near him and he ends up marrying another woman much like his first wife and settling down to a life very similar to the one he had led before he was jolted by the falling beam.

What Spade is trying to explain to an uncomprehending Brigid and to the reader is that one must base one's life and one's behavioral code on rational principles, even though one may now and then become aware of the basic truth — that the world is governed by chance and random events. Finally, although he is exposed to falling beams more often than most people, Spade cannot and must not abandon the professional and personal code on which he has based his existence. He must bring the murderer of his partner to justice, even though his carnal instincts and his awareness of the lack of a rational, moral focus in the universe try to persuade him otherwise. While reason does not rule the world, it creates small oases of order in people who attempt to order their lives according to "reasonable" principles. Thus, a detective must try to detect just as a physician must try to heal, not because of a universal moral imperative, but because they both have chosen to do so. In addition, not finding the killer of one's partner is bad for business, another reasonable motivation....

(This entire section contains 658 words.)

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Brigid has chosen the opposite path: Since there are no metaphysical forces which compel moral behavior, it is reasonable for her to be amoral. Thus she cannot see the symbolism of the Flitcraft episode, nor can she see any reason for Spade's turning her over to the police. Ultimately, this is her tragedy and the existential message ofThe Maltese Falcon.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

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 selfpreservation. Joel Cairo, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and even Sam Spade himself are intrigued with the untold wealth that is promised to come with the retrieval of the Maltese falcon, so long as the wealth will not come with the price of death or imprisonment. For Casper Gutman, though, the search for the falcon is so personal that it has become his identity. Having devoted the past seventeen years of his life traveling the globe and spending untold money on his quest, Gutman can imagine no other existence. For a moment, on finding that the falcon brought to San Francisco is just a leaden replica, Gutman allows despair to take over his usually cheerful optimism, but almost immediately he gathers his wits about himself and is ready to start off in search of the bird once again.

Although the novel gives little background about Gutman, Hammett makes it clear that his obsession with the falcon is the most important thing in his life by showing how callously he treats his family and surrogate family. He only seems aware of the existence of his daughter, Rhea, when he is able to use her to distract Spade from getting the falcon before him; he is willing to put Rhea in legal and even physical jeopardy without a second thought. As Gutman explains to Wilmer, after offering to make him the “fall-guy” for the police: “I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but—well, by Gad!—if you lose a son it’s possible to get another— and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

HomosexualityThe Maltese Falcon presents an acknowledgement of homosexuality that is rare in 1920s fiction, especially in mainstream popular fiction. There is no question that Joel Cairo is gay, a fact that is implied frequently throughout the novel, as when Brigid O’Shaughnessy laughingly suggests that the boy outside shadowing them might be “the one you had in Constantinople” or, even more pointedly, when Sam Spade asks Wilmer where Cairo is, referring to him as “the fairy.”

Most of the references to Cairo’s sexuality are derogatory stereotypes. Hammett describes him as an overly preened dandy, with “slightly plump hips,” wearing fawn spats, chamois gloves, and “the fragrance of chypre.” He gives Cairo dialogue such as “Oh, you big coward” and has him call for help with a “high and thin and shrill” voice. Still, Hammett offsets this offensive caricature by giving Cairo some degree of individual dignity as a criminal: He stands up to an all-night interrogation from the police without cracking, and he decides in the end that his attraction to Wilmer, who must be turned over to the police, is less important than the profit he stands to make from the falcon. Cairo’s homosexuality is mocked throughout the novel, but as a man he is taken seriously.