The Sleep of Death

The sleep of the title is of course the big sleep of death: "You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep... You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died of where you fell." Chandler is, of course, far from the first to equate sleep with death, though this is out of his literary knowledge rather than some accident of unoriginality. Perhaps the most famous is Shakespeare's "To die: to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come...", but Chandler's big sleep is a dreamless sleep, a blackness, like Marlowe's unconscious when he is knocked out by Canino at the garage: "He hit me again. There was no sensation in my head. The bright glare got brighter. There was nothing but hard aching white light. Then there was darkness in which something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope. Then there was nothing bright or wriggling, just darkness and emptiness and a rushing wind and a falling as of great trees." Again we see his use of light and dark. The sleep of death is about finality: "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell." But when Marlowe sleeps normally, we glimpse his dream: "I went to bed full of whisky and frustration and dreamed about a man in a bloody Chinese coat who chased a naked girl with long jade earrings while I ran after them and tried to take a photograph with an empty camera."

The incidence and imagery of death are scattered throughout the novel. Including Regan, six men are killed - Geiger, Taylor, Brody, Jones and Canino. The General is not far off, and even in life he seems to be like a dead man: "He had his eyes shut again before I opened the door. His hands lay limp on the sheet. He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men look." Also, there is no guarantee that Lundgren won't be executed for the murder of Brody. Marlowe even taunts him with the prospect of the gas chamber: "Just lie quiet and hold your breath. Hold it until you can't hold it any longer and then tell yourself that you have to breath, that you're black in the face, that your eyeballs are popping out, and that you're going to breathe right now, but that you're sitting strapped in the chair in the clean little gas chamber in San Quentin, and when you take that breath you're fighting with all your soul not to take it, it won't be air you'll get, it will be cyanide fumes. And that's what they call humane execution in our state now." And when death does come, Chandler shows it with a certain bleak poetry. Of Geiger, Marlowe observes, "His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most lifelike thing about him... He was very dead," and most poignantly of Harry Jones, who Marlowe had something of a soft spot for, " ' drank your cyanide like a little gentleman. You died like a poisoned rat, Harry, but you're no rat to me.' ... The little dead man sat silent in his chair, beyond fear, beyond change."

And even before we know anyone has died, death hangs in the air. Not only is the General an "obviously dying man... with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago," but he sees Marlowe in a greenhouse where, "The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men." And, observes Marlowe of the General, "A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock." The General remarks of his orchids, "They are nasty things. Their flesh is too like the flesh of men." Incidentally he adds that "their perfume has the rotten stench of a prostitute" - no coincidence perhaps in a novel where women seem to bring death. (see Sample Question)

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