Chandler’s View of Chivalry in a Modern City

This essay was written during the second semester of my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins University for Hard Boiled Fiction and Film Noir with Dr. John Irwin.

Carlos Macasaet
Dr. John Irwin
5 March 2003

Chandler’s View of Chivalry in a Modern City

In The Big Sleep (1939), Raymond Chandler constantly compares the protagonist, Phillip Marlow, with a knight. We see this on the first page when Marlowe observes the stained glass window portraying a knight lackadaisically liberating a nude lady from the ropes that bind her. Marlowe comments that inevitably he will have to help the knight in the window to free the lady because the knight does not seem to be trying hard enough. However, Chandler makes it obvious that Marlowe is striving for an ideal that cannot exist in a modern world of corruption. How does Chandler define chivalry and the ideals of a romantic age in a modern-day Los Angeles that Phillip Marlowe fails to fit into?

When Marlowe introduces himself to General Sternwood in the second chapter, he says, “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.” He implies that his college education was better suited for a more intellectual line of work. However, he chose to be a private detective instead and in so doing became his own boss and began to lead a more spontaneous and dangerous life. In this regard, he is the typical pulp-fiction hero – a hero designed to appeal primarily to the working-class male. In addition, Marlowe emphasises the fact that he does not earn very much money for the work that he does: “I didn’t know whether it was any good, not being a collector of antiques, except unpaid bills.” He is not in the business to make a fortune; rather, he does it because he sees a more noble purpose in his profession. Because of this, he charges only enough to sustain himself.

On the first page of the novel, when Marlowe contemplates the stained glass image, Chandler establishes that Marlowe has a firm professional code comparable to the rules of chivalry. This foreshadows subsequent episodes in which Marlowe faces the General’s daughters when they are either naked in the case of Carmen or just overtly amorous. However, every time one of the Sternwood daughters makes an advance towards him, he resists his lust for them, invoking the ideal of courtly love. When he kisses Vivian Sternwood, he explains that the General had not hired him to sleep with his daughters and so for him, the kiss was just a means to extract information – he was not merely seeking some pleasure as he paused his search for the truth.

The “courtly love clause” in Marlowe’s unwritten professional code also manifests itself in the form of extreme homophobia and disdain for pornography and promiscuity. His homophobia is evidenced by his frequent use of derogatory terms for homosexuals. As for pornography, he says, “people who spend their money for second hand sex jags are as nervous as dowagers who can’t find the restroom.” Finally, he shows more respect for Harry Jones’ love for Agnes than Carmen’s flings. (Marling 84)

Part of Marlowe’s professional code is an unwavering respect for the law. Marlowe subscribes to the belief that there is a clear division between the good guys and the bad guys and that the police, flawed though they may be are always on the side of good. Furthermore, Marlowe does not employ the services of underworld informants. He has friends in the police department, but none on the other side of the law. (Marling 84)

The final piece of Marlowe’s chivalric code is honesty. He turns down bribes and refuses money that he does not feel he as rightly earned. Again, he chooses the truth over personal wealth. At the end of the novel, Marlowe articulates his code after exposing Carmen and in response to Vivian’s offer for a $5,000 bribe. “Uh-huh. I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is for it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals. I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me”.
In spite of Marlowe’s highly noble intentions, he soon finds that he cannot live by his chivalric professional code. In the corrupt city of Los Angeles, the old chivalric rules are of little or no value. Marlowe refers to this when Vivian comments on his Spartan office. He tells her that in his business, there is little money to be found in honesty and that anyone who puts up a nicer front either has money or expects to acquire some.

In the city of the novel, pornographers and gamblers operate without fear of the police, seductive women seek to damage men and money can be used to buy immunity and for blackmail. (Moss) Marlowe attributes the corruption of the city to its sudden growth. “Some very tough people have checked in here lately. The penalty of growth.” Even the District Attorney’s code of conduct becomes corrupted because of the growth. Taggart Wilde, originally from Los Angeles, has his “old fashioned” house moved to another location. Like his home, his values have been rearranged as well. He is aware that the Hollywood police department regularly accepts bribes from Geiger, but he does nothing about it. Later, Captain Gregory of the Missing Persons Bureau tells Marlowe that equal treatment of rich criminals and “slum-bred hard guys” has a slim chance at best. “We don’t run our country that way.” (Fontana 161)

Chandler uses images of inclement weather and disease to serve as metaphoric substitutions for the immorality pervasive in the corrupt city. Such images include Carmen’s epilepsy and use of drugs, General Sternwood’s paralysis and Cobb’s alcoholism as well as the humidity and rain present in many scenes and the tropical climate of the greenhouse. These represent the ubiquity and intractability of the detective’s adversaries. The knight is unable to change the weather and so must learn to adapt. (Fontana 160, 162)

Another problem that Marlowe faces in this novel is that unlike quests in the traditional sense, there is no single external antagonist. While Eddie Mars is in charge of many illegal activities and is connected to the murders that happened in the story, he was not responsible for the death of Reagan – Marlowe’s primary concern during the second half of the novel. Instead, Carmen, the damsel in distress, is held captive by a daemon, which manifests itself in the form of her mental condition and her epilepsy. In invoking the chivalric ideal of courtly love, Marlowe endangers his life by angering the succubus. By himself, Marlowe is powerless to save her. So he compromises his chivalric code in order that she be treated and to spare the General of unnecessarily shocking news. (Fontana 161) In doing this, he becomes part of the sordid network of lies and blackmail that he had been seeking to destroy.

Marlowe was only able to offer a solution to the problem of Carmen. He is unable to impose justice on Eddie Mars or expose the murderer. Doing so would undermine his previous efforts to keep the General content and rescue Carmen. Heroism alone is insufficient to save the damsel. Marlowe has to sacrifice part of who he is. When Marlowe makes this decision, he breaks the relationship of knight to lord that he intended to establish at the beginning. As a dying old man, the General is already defeated. Instead of finding a new master, Marlowe becomes like the ronin who continues to live by the tenets of bushido outside of the service of a lord.

It is important to notice that the relationship between Marlowe and Sternwood parallels that between Lundgren and Geiger. When Geiger is killed, Lundgren seeks to avenge his death. However, with the death of Geiger, Lundgren is truly lost. He feels only rage. Aside from honouring his old master, he is capable only of acts of aggression and the utterance of obscenities. It is as if Lundgren was performing a parody of Marlowe’s longing for a knight-to-lord relationship between himself and the General. (Fontana 163-4) The difference between Marlowe and Lundgren is in the way they handle losing their masters. Marlowe simply seeks to be his own master and to live as closely to his idealistic code as possible. However, Lundgren is unable to continue without his master. Although he is caught, he does not try to prove his innocence to afford leniency of any sort. Even if he had not been caught, he would have had nothing left to live for.

Another similar relationship exists between Canino and Mars. As Mars’ tough guy, Canino is the closest Marlowe has to a real adversary. In the end, Marlowe is forced to shoot him without the benefit of a fair gentlemanly duel. (Fontana 164) Canino did not give him that benefit, and if Marlowe had done so, he would have ended up dead.

Thus, Chandler has created a world in which the modern day knight simply cannot solve problems according to the old rules. The modern knight cannot effectively serve a master because there are no masters left whose codes of conduct agree with the rules of chivalry. In a corrupt world, the chivalric codes do not apply. Marlowe was able to apply them as guidelines for his own life, but once he became a part of the corruption, it became necessary to bend the rules. Finally, the corruption cannot be avoided, ignored or dealt with. It was ingrained in society and the detective had to learn to adapt to it. Some would argue that this signals a failure of chivalry in the modern world. I feel that by being forced to bend the chivalric rules, Marlowe gains a greater respect for them. Chivalry may no longer apply, but for Marlowe, it becomes the goal he constantly strives for even if he can never reach it.

Works Cited

Fontana, Ernest. “Chivalry and Modernity in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.” The Critical Response to Raymond Chandler. Ed. J.K. Van Dover. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995. 159-166.

Marling, William. The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain and Chandler. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Moss, Robert F. “An Introduction to The Big Sleep.” The Raymond Chandler Website. 5 March 2003. <>.


Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage, 1992.

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