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The Big Sleep

Term Definition
The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, by Chandler, is notable for crossing over from the area of merely genre fiction and becoming recognized as a serious work of literature in its own right. For example, it has made Top 100 lists in the publications Time and Le Monde. The title of the work actually refers to death; this implication can be drawn from the way in which the phrase is used by characters within the novel itself.  

Introduction To The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is a 1939 detective novel by American author and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). As one of the chief examples of hardboiled fiction, the novel is noted for its convoluted plot twists, double-crossing between characters, and unfolding of numerous secrets. The book's title stems from a passage towards the end, "sleeping the big sleep": a metaphor for death.

The Big Sleep marks the official debut of Chandler Universe mainstay Philip Marlowe, a wisecracking private eye with an emphasis on "wise." In this story, the P.I. is hired by General Sternwood—an aged millionaire—to investigate several men in the lives of the elder's two daughters: the young, rambunctious Carmen and the older, married Vivian. The former is being blackmailed while the latter has been two-timed, but none of the parties involved are totally innocent. Murder, surprise, and temptation ensue, but Marlowe keeps a level head throughout the shenanigans.

The Big Sleep Plot

Written in the throes of the Great Depression, attitudes of cynicism and despair pervade in The Big Sleep. Most of the characters betray an obsession with money, which is not surprising given the financial turmoil that marked the era. Throughout the novel, a string of bribery and murder unfolds, mostly with the end-goal of securing cash. Chandler goes into this knowing; at the start of the book, he expresses his intent of being suitably dressed to the nines for a meeting at a wealthy household. In essence, money is a thing to be worshiped in the world that these characters inhabit.

Amidst all the money-grubbing and cynicism is a backdrop of darkness and corruption. Most of the scenes in The Big Sleep occur in rainy night-time settings, which are symbolic of the bleakness that consumes these character's lives. The corruption in this story is perhaps most symbolized by the oilfield where Carmen tries to shoot Chandler and where Rusty Regan—Vivian's estranged husband—loses his life. This is the very oilfield that made Sternwood his fortune, but its dirty, unsanitary state hints at the strenuous toil that others endured so that he could live in luxury.

Other Facts On Raymond Chandler

As with many of his novels, Chandler drew from his earlier short stories when collecting ideas for The Big Sleep. For the concept of the father/daughter dynamic, two stories in particular—"Killer In the Rain" (1935) and "The Curtain" (1936)—served as inspiration. By merging characteristics of the strong fathers and erratic daughters of both stories, Chandler came up with the characters of Sternwood and Carmen. 

There is one loose thread to The Big Sleep that has never been answered: who killed the chauffeur? As Howard Hawks and his writing crew were preparing the first big-screen adaptation of the story, the filmmaker contacted the author for an answer to this mystery. Chandler replied that not even he had any idea. This basically summarizes the author's uniqueness in the realm of crime fiction, which usually attempts to tie up every loose plot thread. For Chandler, it was more important to flesh out interesting stories with multi-faceted characters who engage in plausible scenarios.

The Big Sleep has twice been given the motion picture treatment: the first in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart as Detective Marlowe, and the second in 1978 with Robert Mitchum as the P.I. Today, the book is consistently ranked as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

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