Sample Question

Cherchez la Femme Fatale. To what extent are the women in "The Big Sleep" the architects of their own and other people's downfalls? Compare the two Sternwood sisters as archetypes of the Femme Fatale.

The term 'femme fatale' was first coined in the early twentieth century and examples appear in all manner of fiction. It has become one of the great iconic character types of literary and cinematic noir. A typical femme fatale is seen as a seductive women, often with an aura of mystery, who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations.

The first part of the question rests largely on plot analysis. It is Carmen's murder of Regan that lies at the heart of the trouble that the Sternwood family, and subsequently Marlowe find themselves in. Furthermore, Taylor's infatuation with her complicates matters, and her own weakness for exploitation does little to help. After Geiger's murder, Marlowe comments that "Carmen would have to find some other shady character to drink exotic blends of hooch with. I didn't suppose she would have any trouble. All she would have to do would be to stand on the corner for five minutes and look coy. I hoped that the next grifter who dropped the hook on her would play her a little more smoothly, a little more for the long haul rather than the quick touch." Marlowe is also of the opinion that "She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope." Is he right? Is she just another of the "stray blondes"?

Given this, does Carmen fit at all into the mould of the typical femme fatale? Whilst definitely sexually alluring, she is decidedly 'un-cool' and more a victim of her own psychosis than someone who deliberately exploits her sexuality to obtain anything other than sex itself. Vivian observes that she's "just like a child. She's not normal" and "would even brag about" Regan's murder given the chance. "You ought to wean her. She looks old enough," says Marlowe to Norris after his first encounter with her. What does the fact that Marlowe is able to resist her tell us about her brand of allure? When it comes to compromising and dangerous situations, is Carmen more often the lurer or the lured?

How does Carmen compare with her sister? Vivian - the older sister - is definitely more mature. She has been married three times, and knows about the subtleties of seduction. Whilst Carmen turns up naked in Marlowe's bed and is rejected, Vivian attracts his attention more effectively and with subtler means: "She was worth a stare. She was trouble... I stared at her legs... They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony and sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem." Marlowe can see that she is trouble. Why does he nonetheless allow himself to get a little involved with her? Is it just sexual attraction? To what extent does his involvement with her spur him to continue the search for Regan? How are the other men in the novel affected by Vivian? How do her weaknesses - gambling, men - contribute to the problems that encircle the Sternwoods?

Examine the roles of the secondary female characters - Mona and Agnes. What does Mona's naivety towards her husband's character tell us about her and her role in the whole business? Is she just an innocent caught up in the middle of other people's problems? Why does Chandler leave us with Marlowe thinking of her?

After Marlowe blows Brody's blackmail scam, Agnes says, "A half-smart guy... That's all I ever draw. Never once a guy that's smart all the way around the course. Never once." Brody is shot, and then Jones is poisoned (although Marlowe doesn't let her know that). Another innocent caught up in other people's problems? To what extent does Chandler portray the women in The Big Sleep as victims? Why might he be doing this?

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