THE UNDERWORLD JOURNEY IN
RAYMOND CHANDLER’S THE BIG SLEEP
Ralph E. Doty, University of Oklahoma
Raymond Chandler was raised in England and attended Dulwich College in the 1890's, a time when classical studies formed the backbone of a liberal education. His classical background is evident in his first novel, The Big Sleep, in which his protagonist Philip Marlowe descends – both literally and metaphorically – into the Underworld of Los Angeles. This descent parallels two similar accounts in Latin literature, that of Aeneas and that of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Chandler leaves us several clues to his classical sources.
Aeneas’ underworld journey results from a summons by his deceased father, the elderly, crippled Anchises, who appears to him in a dream. Marlowe is hired by the dying General Sternwood, who is confined to a wheelchair, to investigate a blackmail attempt. Before he can make his journey, Aeneas must consult the sibyl and find the body of his comrade Misenus; Marlowe’s sibyl runs a bookstore, and her information also leads to a body – that of the murdered blackmailer Geiger, whose missing body Marlowe must find before he can complete his commission.
The anteroom to Marlowe’s underworld is the aptly-named Cypress Club of racketeer Eddie Mars, a mysterious gray man who seems to represent Pluto himself. Marlowe now becomes Orpheus to rescue a woman – Mars’ wife, a key witness – from the gangster’s hideout. Like Orpheus, he almost succeeds: just as he reaches the District Attorney’s office with his witness, Mars, who has friends in city government, intercepts him and reclaims his wife. Returning to the theme of Aeneid VI, the journey culminates in an interview with Anchises/General Sternwood, in which Marlowe’s duty and destiny become clear.
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