Into the Heart of Marlowe: Masculinity and Romance in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely

Cody Griggers



Philip Marlowe, the wisecracking private detective of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel series, is presented to the reader as a seemingly straightforward, everyday "man’s man." But inside Chandler’s characterization of Marlowe lies a complex and uncertain central figure who often uses his biting one-liners to sidestep serious personal questions that might give the reader any insight into his views on women, relationships, or his mysterious past. In fact, Chandler’s constant portrayal of Marlowe as the formula "hardboiled" tough-guy at times seems contrived and overstated, almost as if it were a wall sheltering him from the society from which he appears so alienated. By looking more closely at Chandler’s descriptions of Marlowe and his interactions with other (especially female) characters in The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940), we can begin to piece together a more discernible idea of how his masculinity functions. The two novels pose a central question: is Marlowe a "real man," or is his exaggerated masculinity a compensation for a masked weakness?

To begin to answer this question, we must first obtaining a better understanding of just exactly who Marlowe really is. In both novels he is presented through first person narration. We are with Philip Marlowe every waking minute of the novel’s progress. We walk with him, we talk with him, and certainly we drink and smoke with him. Through this style of narration, the reader develops an instant rapport with this character and sometimes even feels as a sidekick figure, solving the mysteries with him along the way. Because of this intimate contact, we are allowed to see Marlowe at his best moments, like when he beats the police to solving every mystery, and we are also allowed to see him at his most vulnerable, such as while he is being held captive at Dr. Sonderborg's crooked sanitarium. The first-person perspective has a limitation, though: we are only ever allowed to see what Marlowe thinks about himself and other people. Gone is the omniscient narrator who can fill in all the gaps and provide us with information about the protagonist's past. This narrative voice is at once the greatest aid and the worst impediment of our getting to the heart of Marlowe’s character.

In order to better understand Marlowe, it seems best to turn to the first novel in Chandler’s crime series, The Big Sleep, and see how he is introduced by the author. (All quotations from The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely are cited from the Vintage Crime series edition published by Random House in 1992.) In typical Chandler fashion, this novel starts right in the middle of the action with no precursory introduction to the characters. However, Marlowe does provide tidbits of information about himself along the way. When asked about himself by General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, he replies: "There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade" ( 10). Already, it is clear that Marlowe did not enter his trade for lack of any other ability. He has been educated, as his sharp command of language and rhetoric indicate, and while we do not know whether he completed college or what he studied, we can see that he must have some inner desire to live a less-structured, more spontaneous, and more dangerous lifestyle than the ordinary man. He repeatedly indicates that "the pay’s too small" in his chosen field and wisecracks that he is not "a collector of antiques, except unpaid bills" (TBS 71,22). Thus Marlowe’s choice of career and lifestyle was certainly not directed by wealth or glory but fueled instead by a longing to live on the edge as a private detective—truly one of the most masculine lifestyles any man could lead. In fact, Marlowe openly scorns wealth and the need for money in general. "To hell with the rich," he says, "They make me sick" (TBS 64). Thus, to male readers, Marlowe represents a kind of fantasy figure leading a certain life on the edge that breaks with the traditional proprieties of marriage and working a typical nine-to-five wage-earning job. In a sense, Marlowe is what the average man cannot be.

This hardened, tough-guy image is reinforced by his physical appearance as well as his job description. While we never see Marlowe's working on his physical condition, the fact that he is able to engage in so many chase scenes and action-packed brawls leads the reader to assume that he is in good shape. We also know that Marlowe is a man with a fairly large, well-built stature. "Tall aren’t you?" Carmen Sternwood says upon meeting him in The Big Sleep (5), and she reiterates her amazement at his height on many other occasions throughout the novel as well. In another of the few Marlowe self-descriptions, the detective gives the readers a clear picture of his manly appearance:

"Okey, Marlowe," I said between my teeth. "You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it (FML 170).

In The Big Sleep, Chandler touts Marlowe’s size in order to demonstrate the sheer masculinity of his body: "If you can weigh a hundred and ninety pounds and look like a fairy, I was doing my best" (51). In both these scenes, Marlowe exalts his manly attributes in response to an emasculating experience. In the first , Chandler is trying to boost his confidence after he is badly beaten by racketeers when invading their hideout. He has been whipped, but reassures the reader that he is man enough to take it and to overcome his assailants. In the second scene, Marlowe is about to engage in a bit of a charade in which he acts as an effeminate patron of an illegal pornographic bookstore. He does not want the reader to forget, however, that this is going to be a huge stretch for a tough-guy such as himself, and he reminds us that we should not in any way believe this bit of playacting—he is simply doing his job.

But why does Marlowe feel the need to constantly remind the reader of his masculinity? In fact, for someone who is supposedly so manly, Marlowe seems to have a pronounced fear of failing as a man. This fear is particularly evident in his relations with women characters in the two novels. In Farewell, My Lovely, when Marlowe meets Anne Riordan in his office the night after their initial encounter at Purissima Canyon, her attractiveness seems to take him aback. Riordan is not described as an especially beautiful woman, but her smart style and pretty face seem to arouse a new interest in Marlowe and he becomes discernibly edgy and unsure of himself around her: "She leaned back and took one of my cigarettes. I burned my finger with a paper match lighting it for her" (FML 88). Even Riordan notices this abrupt change in composure in the detective: "All the same, I don’t think you’re very pleased to see me," she says, noticing that all of a sudden, Marlowe’s usually cunning dialogue has degenerated into terse phrases and one-word responses. Marlowe himself also acknowledges that his self-confidence is slipping and tries to overcompensate with a masculinity boost: "I filled a pipe and reached for the packet of paper matches. I lit the pipe carefully. She watched that with approval. Pipe smokers were solid men. She was going to be disappointed in me" (88). It is worth noting that we never see Marlowe smoking a pipe in any other scene in the novel. Is he putting on a show here in order to impress Riordan, or is he trying to reaffirm his masculinity since their first encounter (when Marlowe is "sapped" by thugs) placed him in a weakened position? Everything he does in this scene seems dictated by that very idea. Even when he goes to his desk to fix himself a drink, he notices that "Miss Riordan watched me with disapproval. I was no longer a solid man" (89).

A similar situation occurs in The Big Sleep when Marlowe first meets the beautiful Mrs. Reagan, whom he also seems to find beautiful, describing her as "worth a stare" (TBS 17). Once again, Marlowe’s responses sink to the one word or "Uh-huh" conversation level. Mrs. Reagan even takes notice of this, saying "You’re not much of a gusher, are you, Mr. Marlowe?" (18). To Marlowe, she is a sultry vixen whom he must approach with some degree of caution—someone who seems to be testing his attractiveness and virility as a man. Around her, Marlowe feels the need to put on a very stoic, hardened presence.

Marlowe’s discomfort when faced with female characters seems to result from his feeling that they are all intently judging his masculinity, and it leads affects his relationships with them. He can appreciate the sexiness of femme fatale characters like the young and wealthy Carmen Sternwood and the stylish Mrs. Grayle with her "full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve on" (FML 123). He can even begin to realize, like the reader, that there is a strong "soulmate" kind of connection between he and Anne Riordan. Yet Marlowe never once acts on any of these attractions. Instead, he simply refuses to let himself have any feeling whatsoever about any of these women. Perhaps he was burned in the past by a beautiful temptress and always felt that he was not "man enough" to keep her. Or, perhaps his lifestyle is so centered around his own individual needs and desires to accommodate anyone else. Marlowe never specifically mentions that he has had a serious romantic interest in his past, though some of his statements and colorful analogies provide reason enough to wonder: "She put her head back and went off into a peal of laughter. I have only known four women in my life who could do that and still look beautiful. She was one of them" (FML 129). Who were the other three women to whom Marlowe is referring? Certainly, the reader must wonder what his feelings were for them and how, if anything happened at all, a relationship worked out. At some points, Marlowe even expresses a general disdain for romance—take, for instance, the scene on the Bay City water taxi when Marlowe notices the young couples and keeps making snide remarks about them "chewing on each other’s faces" and "taking their teeth out of each other’s necks" (243). In fact, whenever any female character attempts to engage Marlowe in intimate activity, Chandler makes it sound as if Marlowe his detective be forcibly seduced, as in this scene with Mrs. Grayle:

I squeezed her hand back. "Did he borrow from you?"

You’re a little old-fashioned aren’t you?" She looked down at the hand I was holding.

"I’m still working. And your Scotch is so good it keeps me half-sober. Not that I’d have to be drunk—"

"Yes." She drew her hand out of mine and rubbed it… "Kiss me…" (134).

Here, Marlowe’s announcing that he is still on the job and his implication that he is half-drunk makes him sound weak and challenged. He makes feeble excuses, drops his masculine guard, and eventually succumbs to Mrs. Grayle’s demands: the two share a brief intimate kiss. During the scene, Marlowe sounds much like a nervous young girl on a first date, wheedled into intimacy by an aggressive boy.

On other occasions, Marlowe alludes to soured romance and love interests that could only come through personal experience:

The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love (255).

I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin (196).

All men are the same. So are all women—after the first nine (225).

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts (TBS 42).

Has does Marlowe know about the coldness of the ashes of love? Has he ever felt the weight of a broken heart? If he has, Marlowe’s tempered masculinity serves as a protective wall sheltering his heart from the judgment—or sympathy—of the reader. Perhaps, to Marlowe, romance and marriage themselves are emasculating—they detract from the duties of being a man. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe makes the comment that "I am unmarried because I don’t like policeman’s wives" (10). What this comment has to do with Marlowe specifically (who is not really a policeman) is unclear, but it can be inferred that Marlowe sees married policeman as men who are sacrificing their manhood to live with women and giving up full control over their lives. Furthermore, Marlowe’s cynical view of the couples on the water taxi in Farewell, My Lovely implies that he considers love a waste of time—he has more important things to do with his life.

Adding to this confusing take on Marlowe’s masculinity is the way in which Chandler writes Marlowe’s relationships with certain male characters in the novel. Certainly Marlowe feels more confident around men than women. Even the imposing Moose Malloy, who had "a hand I could have sat in" was no match for Marlowe’s biting sarcasm (FML 5):

"All right," I yelled. "I’ll go up with you. Just lay off carrying me. Let me walk. I’m fine. I’m all grown up. I go to the bathroom and everything. Just don’t carry me" (7).

On the inside, Marlowe is quite alarmed by his close meeting with Malloy, but he shields his fears with his tough-guy demeanor. By now, this kind of behavior should seem familiar to a seasoned reader of Chandler. When Marlowe feels threatened or insecure, he throws up a wall of reinforced masculinity. However, Chandler does not leave it at that. The reader must always be on guard to look out for characters like Farewell, My Lovely’s Red Norgaard, who challenges the preconceptions that readers may have established about Marlowe's masculinity. Red soon becomes one of the most complicated and complicating characters in the novel. In the first place, Marlowe does not describe Red to us as he does any other male character in the novel. Instead, he finds himself stopping to think about Red, and consequently, we get to see a side of Marlowe that we have not seen before:

"He smiled a slow tired smile. His voice was soft, dreamy, so delicate for a big man that it was startling. It made me think of another soft-voiced big man I had strangely liked" (245).

To whom is Marlowe referring with that last comment? Moose Malloy is described as having a "deep soft voice," but Marlowe never indicated having any real affection for him (5). Perhaps again, Marlowe is referring to someone from his past. Whatever the case, a "strange" liking for a male figure seems definitely out of character for the hardened Marlowe. In fact, Marlowe seems captivated by Red’s appearance, making him sound oddly mythical and even feminine at many points:

He had the eyes you never see, that you only read about. Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl. His skin was soft as silk. Lightly reddened, but it would never tan. It was too delicate…His hair was that shade of red that glints with gold (247)…

Is Marlowe attracted to Red? He definitely finds him a fascinating figure upon which to look. Moreover, why all the feminine description? Red is a dockworker, and one would hardly think that he could ever be as effeminate in appearance as Marlowe makes him out to be. Marlowe seems genuinely moved by Red, something which is indicated by the way in which Red is able to open him up to him, exposing us to a softer side which Marlowe has kept hidden so well:

"I’m scared," I said suddenly. "I’m scared stiff…I’m afraid of death and despair," I said. "Of dark water and drowned men’s faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette…"

I told him a great deal more than I intended to. It must have been his eyes (251).

No female character in the novel--not even Anne Riordan--could make Marlowe bare his soul to the reader so directly as Red is able to do. Marlowe simply seems to relate better to men. They are closer to his own understanding—he knows how they think. Only men are able to drink and smoke like Marlowe or be as independent and solitary and toughened as he is able to be. Yet Marlowe throws out all of his independence and fear of intimacy, at times sharing many intimate and even homoerotic moments with Red:

Red leaned close to me and his breath tickled my ear (255)…

Red put his lips against my ear (256).

He took hold of my hand. His was strong, hard, warm and slightly sticky (257).

Where Red is concerned, even the simplest act of speaking turns into an almost romantic activity. Tthis confusion of gender and romance is never cleared up by either the author or the character, and it leaves the reader not really ever "knowing" Marlowe.

So why is it that Chandler places this masculine wall around his main character, and then has the most unsuspecting characters tear it down? Is Marlowe really a tough-guy, or is he overcompensating for a softened heart that will not lend itself well to his lifestyle? More simply, why can we never know Marlowe? Chandler answers these questions best in his essay, The Simple Art of Murder. In this writing, the author gives us his formula for creating the perfect detective story, the most important part of which is the characterization of the detective. Just like Marlowe, Chandler’s "formula" detective is

…a complete man and a common man and an unusual man…I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things (59).

Therefore, while the reader may be concerned with the intimate details of Marlowe’s private life, wondering about his past romances and relationships, Chandler is telling us simply to take Marlowe for what he is—a man of honor. What is inside his heart does not matter. If he is honorable, we just know that it is there. Instead, Chandler has to focus on making Marlowe into the ideal man.

The story is this man’s adventure in search for a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

Truly, as Marlowe himself says, "It’s not that I like it the hard way. It’s that I get it that way," and because of this, he must be man enough to step up to the job (FML 195). Chandler is not redefining gender in his characterization of Marlowe. He simply presents us a different view of masculinity. He presents us with a character for whom masculinity is required and not just present. This gives Marlowe a tempered, unemotional machismo that shields us from seeing what is inside him. As the main character of a detective novel, Marlowe cannot fall in love or break down and cry—he can never let down his masculine guard in front of the reader. Therefore, masculinity can be seen as a driving force behind Chandler’s novels. They are works into which men can escape and be the hardboiled tough-guys they only dream about, and that give women an icy yet attractive man they want to get to know better.