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The Simplicity of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler would like us to believe that The Big Sleep is just another example of hard-boiled detective fiction. He would like readers to see Philip Marlowe, Vivian Regan, Carmen Sternwood, Eddie Mars, and the rest of the characters as either "good guys" or "bad guys" with no deeper meaning or symbolism to them. I found the book simple and easy to understand; the problem was that it was too easy, too simple. Then came one part that totally stood out from the rest of the book &emdash; the chessboard. Marlowe toyed with it whenever he got the chance, and it probably helped him think of a next move in a particular case. I found it odd that Chandler made such a brief mention of chess, but I did not realize why until I finished the book and had time to think about what I had read. In a very interesting sense, the entire novel resembles the game of chess. Each character is a piece, and the name of the game is survival. Though the ultimate goal in chess is to take possession of the king, the underlying strategy is to eliminate as many pieces as one possibly can. This serves as insurance in the overall goal. Being that the characters/pieces determine the direction of the goal, let us look at them to begin. I have chosen to examine two characters in-depth and then put them on the board with the rest of the people in the novel.
Philip Marlowe does not correspond to the knight of the chessboard. Chandler assumes that the reader will fall into the easy trap of assigning Marlowe to the role of the knight. After all, he is the main man in the novel, the one who needs to solve the case. His self-description in the opening chapter lures the reader into believing he is a typical white knight hero. "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be" (3). This is a fitting description of a knight only because knights must possess similar qualities in order to be heroes.
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Similarly, his attitude towards everyone else in the novel detracts from his knighthood. For example, look at his treatment of Vivian Regan, who I will talk about a little later. They are talking for the first time and she tells him how cold-blooded a beast he is. "'Or shall I call you Phil?' 'Sure.' 'You can call me Vivian.' 'Thanks, Mrs. Regan.' 'Oh, go to hell Marlowe'" (61). More of the same follows with other characters; in each instance, Marlowe does not exhibit any gentleman-like qualities that a private eye should exhibit. So, if Marlowe is not the knight on the chessboard, what is he? I believe that he is more of a rook or a bishop piece and not a knight. When we think about the knight on a chessboard, it has a good amount of flexibility but limited movement. However, a rook or a bishop can move as far as it wants to move, even if the directions are not many. Movement is important to Marlowe because he thrives on getting his task done. This requires a great deal of movement on his part. This movement includes our next subject, Vivian Regan.
A funny thing happened when I was writing up the previous conversation between Marlowe and Vivian. Instead of typing "Mrs. Regan", I typed "Mrs. Marlowe" instead. I do not attribute that to a simple lapse in thinking, but more to the fact that Vivian is similar in manner to Marlowe; they could easily be mistaken for a married couple. Vivian possesses the same sharp tongue, the same penchant for drinking, and other Marlowe-esque qualities. For example, there is the part where she is gambling in Eddie Mars' casino and makes a bet that the house cannot cover. "'What kind of cheap outfit is this, I'd like to know. Get busy and spin that wheel, highpockets. I want one more play and I'm playing table stakes. You take it away fast enough I've noticed, but when it comes to dishing it out you start to whine'" (138). That sounds like the language Philip Marlowe might use if he ran into a similar situation. Even after he foils a would-be robber in the parking lot, she still shows little signs of thanks. "'Nice work, Marlowe. Are you my bodyguard now?'" (143). Vivian complements Marlowe perfectly, but is she a rook/bishop on the chessboard in the novel? Yes, but provided that Marlowe is not the same piece as she is. In other words, if Marlowe is the rook, then Vivian is the bishop, and vice-versa. I do not see Marlowe and Vivian as cohesive as Chandler might want us to believe; nonetheless, they do possess similar qualities.
After talking about two of the more prominent characters, it is time to devise a chessboard strategy that makes some kind of sense. I mentioned earlier that the point in chess is to capture the king, but another goal includes getting other pieces out of the way first. If I were to assign sides, I would put people like Eddie Mars, Joe Brody, and Carmen Sternwood on a different side than Marlowe, Vivian, and General Sternwood. Why? The first group - while giving Marlowe some kind of help - is more concerned with their own safety, and individuals are not afraid to knock off anyone who messes with them. How come Carmen is included in this group? Many people would say that she is neither here nor there, but when she comes to Brody's apartment and confronts Marlowe at the very end, she shows her true colors. In addition, there is the fact that she murdered Rusty Regan because he would not jump in the sack with her. This is where the chessboard strategy begins to unfold. Chandler's style not only pertains to his simile/metaphor use and his abbreviated sentences, but also to his construction of character movement in the novel. In chess, what one piece does to another or where it moves to directly affects the movement of other pieces on the board. For example, moving my rook three spaces may not mean capturing a piece, but it does give the opponent something to consider in terms of future moves. He does not want to make a move now that would jeopardize him later. Similarly, what happens in Joe Brody's apartment affects a good amount of the characters in the novel, from Carmen to Eddie to Marlowe to Vivian, and so on. In addition, that part affects what goes on in Eddie's casino and Geiger's house. While there may not be direct influence, there is definitely an indirect sort of influence.
What does this say about Chandler as an author? It says that he likes to give his readers something to look for in his novels, and that the something will not always be apparent at first. Digging up the chessboard motif would be no easy task for most readers because of its brevity in the novel. The average reader would not read this book for analysis; he or she would read the novel for pleasure. It is only because we &emdash; as English majors &emdash; are trained to look beneath the surface that I was able to put this together. This also says something about the world that Chandler lived in. His was a world of thinking about the next move and being cautious about what one did, which is evident in the novel. It was hard to trust anybody because everyone had selfish motives on their minds. That factor also corresponds to the chessboard in that a person might move a piece for individual reasons while not even considering the rest of his or her pieces. That might lead to consequences later. Chandler cannot warn us about keeping track of all of the moves in the story because they are unfolding as we move with Marlowe (who obviously cannot warn us, either). It is up to the reader to keep track of everything.
The Big Sleep is not a novel about chess. It is about how people and events interact and relate to one another, similar to the game of chess. As I mentioned before, the characters and their individual actions ultimately had an effect on the overall strategy and goal, which for Marlowe was to find Rusty Regan. He eventually discovered the late Mr. Regan, but it was only after a series of moves on the chessboard of life.