Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

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In traditional hard-boiled American detective fiction there are many themes that seem to transcend all novels. One of those themes is the concept of power and the role in which it plays in the interaction and development of characters. More specifically, the role of women within the novels can be scrutinized to better understand the power they hold over the other characters, their own lives and the direction of the story. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon exemplifies the varying ways in which female characters attempt to obtain and utilize power in hopes of influencing, manipulating and succeeding.

The most prominent female character in the novel, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, employs her sexuality, secrecy and mysterious nature when trying to gain more power and control throughout the novel. This can be seen easily in her description at the beginning of the novel. “She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow…The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red” (Hammett, 4). Her physical description gives her an air of sexuality and intrigue that can immediately be assumed will be beneficial to her throughout the story. However, it is not until later when her use of her sexuality can be interpreted as a desperate attempt to take power back from the leading male character. “‘I’ve thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I’m utterly lost. What else is there?’ She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: ‘Can I buy you with my body?’” (Hammett, 57). The desperation, which is a common characteristic that can be seen among hard-boiled female characters, pushed her ...

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...r is much more difficult and requires extensive analysis. Female characters in American detective novels, stereotypically, exude the same blatant sexuality, helplessness and naivete and are therefore forced to exploit the only strengths they have in order to not be overwhelmed by the more forceful male characters. As can be seen in The Maltese Falcon the three female characters strive to maintain their power by any means necessary. Ironically, the character that exhibits the most masculine qualities and is the least sexual is the most successful. This proves that masculinity is equivalent to power and therefore women are powerless on many levels. The role of women is fairly constant in hard-boiled novels, and the struggle for power and control is an ever present theme.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, 1929.
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