The Chess Game of 1930’s America in the Big Sleep

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The Chess Game of 1930’s America in The Big Sleep
In Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe represents the shred of chivalry that remains in a world of corruption. Set and written in 1930’s America, the economic devastation of the Great Depression has a significant influence on the book’s plot that revolves around profit-seeking crime and organized corruption. Marlowe’s work as a private detective brings him face to face with seedy criminals of every sort, and each corresponds to a piece on the chessboard that appears repeatedly in the story. Marlowe’s symbolic identity is the well-meaning knight in a society of pawns and crooked kings, and the chess game is his war against crime in a period of national despair.

In the heart of the Great Depression, America as a whole is in serious financial turmoil and people have become pessimistic about the future. Some have resorted to murder and bribery for money. Money is the main incentive for the actions of several characters that Marlowe deals with throughout the story. When he wonders why Harry Jones and Agnes Lozelle want to blackmail him, Jones replies, “[Agnes is] a grifter, shamus. I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel” (168). People have become money-hungry criminals simply because they have nothing left to lose and nowhere else to turn. These characters reflect the cynicism and economic strain that plagued America during the 1930s. Jones and Lozelle symbolize the common pawns that get casually tossed around on society’s chessboard.

Aside from the desperate delinquents, Chandler also depicts a world of darker corruption. Los Angeles is teeming with pornographers, gamblers, schemers, and crooked policemen. Even the newspapers cannot be trusted: “Their accounts of the affair came as close as newspaper stories usually come—as close as Mars is to Saturn” (118). Under the protection of a corrupt government and deceptive media, seedy crime rings...
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