Dashiell Hammett, father of the American hard-boiled genre, is widely known for producing a suffocating world of realism in his works (“Hard-boiled fiction”). According to Paul Abraham’s “On re-reading The Maltese Falcon,” the realistic atmosphere of Hammett’s third novel is reactionary to the post-war turmoil in which the work was born (97). This provides the ideal foundation for subtle philosophical concepts of existentialism such as, quests for truth, self identification, and the significance of existence to build throughout the novel.
Richard Layman, in his critical review of Hammett’s novel (also titled The Maltese Falcon), proposes that the philosophies of Hammett’s generation can be found within the text of his novel (71). Hammett conveys an existential theme in his work The Maltese Falcon through his use of themes of inquiry and self absorbed characters as well as his Flitcraft parable. Existentialism, in a simple form, is a philosophy concerning existence and its significance.
Layman asserts that “[existentialism] had its roots in the mid-nineteenth century and flourished in the United States from the 1930s until the 1960s” (71). According to the web-article “World War I” from the New World Encyclopedia, subsequent to the Great War, “the optimism for world peace of the 1900s was entirely gone. ” Therefore, without the blinders of social optimism, American society could question ideas such as, the occurrence of mass destruction in a “just” world and the significance of existence in such a world.
Hammett’s firsthand experience with the existential crisis—caused by what the historical context from the website “The Maltese Falcon” presents as global wars, the Great Depression, and other struggles of the 1930s—leads Hammett to employ different techniques throughout his work, providing subtle allusions to existentialism. One method through which Hammett conveys existentialistic thought is through his themes of inquiry in The Maltese Falcon. The plot is centered on the continuous quest for an idolized icon—the Maltese falcon, a precious bejeweled bird.
Hammett incorporates an ecclesiastical theme through this pursuit of an icon. The quest for their icon ultimately leads to the demise of the characters involved in its search. It steals the identity and climatically the life of the mob-boss Gutman. Brigid, the femme fatale, also loses in this pursuit, for she is left to the mercy of the law in the final pages. Whether death or imprisonment plagues the characters involved, the quest for an icon consumes their lives. Hammett illuminates the detrimental consequences of such quests through the aforementioned loss of identity, life, and freedom.
This message is countered by the existentialistic denouncement of all icons. Existentialism provides a simple solution for such futile quests: lives are not wasted in the search of an icon. In pursuit of a precious icon, all characters lose themselves—a root of the existentialist crisis: loss of self, questioning of existence (“Existentialism”). Another theme of inquiry in Hammett’s novel deals with the constant search for the truth. Spade, the protagonist, is tormented by the ambiguity of truth throughout the novel.
Spade is forced to discern lies from the truth within the first pages of the novel, where he meets Brigid, or rather “Miss Wonderly” as she is dubbed upon primary introduction. Brigid, notorious for her deceitful ways, confesses to Spade, once an invested relationship is established between the two: “I am a liar. I have always been a liar” (353). Layman observes that “the challenge for Spade in the book is to make up the rules as he goes along; to decide for himself, without outside guidance, what he believes and what he believes in” (71). These decisions shape Spade’s actions and help to define his character.
Spade, concerning himself “with the quest for relevance and authenticity,” as David Pickus writes in his expose on existentialism, is not the only character involved in the search for truth (17). Brigid, Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are forced to come to terms with the quest for truth and authenticity when it is discovered their falcon is a mere fabrication of the true Maltese falcon. After shaving the black enamel from the base of the falcon Gutman exclaims “it’s a fake. ” Gutman reacts with his “breath [hissing] between his teeth” and “his face [becoming] turgid with hot blood” (430).
This is representative of the anger Gutman possesses upon the realization of this on-going search for authenticity. Another method in which Hammett unveils existentialistic undertones is through his self-absorbed characters. Layman writes about Spade: “He is defining who he is. That is the simplest statement of the philosophy of existentialism…” (71). Spade relies solely on himself and often stretches the hands of the law. He undermines the police in order to prevent interference within his investigations, denouncing their authority.
For example, when Dundy, a police officer tells Spade, “You’ve gotten away with this and you’ve gotten away with that, but you can’t keep it up forever. ” Spade nonchalantly replies: “Stop me when you can” (341). The article from the Philosophy website, titled “Existentialism” states that “an existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. ” Spade epitomizes this idea with his actions throughout the novel. Brigid is another character who does not function within the realm of laws and rules; however, she is a less responsible character than Spade.
Brigid’s efforts are invested into self-preservation. She continuously fights to stay one step ahead of everyone through creating a web of lies, which ultimately becomes a defining element of her character. Her deceitfulness and obsession with obtaining her desires without concern for consequence or reputation demonstrates her loss of self in pursuit of something worthless; she becomes nothing more than a wanton woman with no true identity. In addition to his characterization, Hammett also utilizes the Flitcraft parable as a means of conveying existentialistic thought.
Martin Harris writes: “The Flitcraft parable has been examined closely by those who see the story providing an important key to Hammett’s feelings about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence” (241). The Flitcraft parable tells the story of a man who completely changed his life in consequence of one random event. Flitcraft, a satisfied family man, encountered a near death experience via a construction beam plummeting into his path. This event made him contemplate the randomness of life—there are no certainties. Spade tells Brigid: “[Flitcraft] felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works” (335).
Flitcraft understood the uncertainty of life after this experience. With this epiphany Flitcraft began a new life; he took the randomness of life and incorporated it into his existence. Aware of mortality and the significance of one’s identity, Flitcraft exposed himself to an alternate life. While Flitcraft ultimately ended up settling back into his prior lifestyle, the afterglow of his near death experience permitted him to revel in existentialism, for according to the web-article “Existentialism” the search of self-being is a fundamental element of the existential philosophy.
Whether it is through various themes, characters, or a well placed anecdote, the undertones of existentialism exist within the pages of Hammett’s novel. Hammett effectively incorporated themes from his era into his literature. In a time where the “spirit of optimism in society was destroyed,” Hammett acknowledged realism within the text of his art (“Existentialism”). While existentialism no longer has an intoxicating hold on modern society, it lives in the pages of influential authors. The Maltese Falcon’s subtle cues to such great philosophical ideas assist in the significance that Hammett’s works hold to this day.
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