The Big Sleep takes place in a big city in America during the 1930s—the period of the Great Depression when America was, as a whole, disillusioned and cynical about its prospects for the future. Chandler mentions money throughout the novel as an ideal, a goal for the seedy crime ring that lives within the novel. Many of the characters kill and bribe for money. The opening page of the novel claims that Marlowe is "dressed up" because he is about to enter a house that is worth millions. Money, in short, is something that is coveted, enjoyed, and respected. This makes perfect sense given that the economy of the 1930s in America was in serious turmoil. Also, many of the characters find themselves in troublesome situations, such as Agnes Lozelle and Harry Jones, therefore mirroring the desperation in which Americans found themselves throughout the period about which Chandler is writing.
Branching out of the cynicism of the Great Depression, Chandler chooses not only to represent a world of money-hungry people, but also chooses to make this world dark and corrupt. No one, not even the law, is exempt from corruption in this novel: newspapers lie and cops can be bought. This corruption is reflected in various ways throughout the novel. First, The Big Sleep is dark in that it is a novel in which rain pervades. It is also a novel in which richness is juxtaposed against the grime of deserted oilfields. The oilfields themselves—including the deserted one with empty pumps and rusted remains in which Carmen attempts to kill Marlowe and in which Rusty Regan is lying dead—are symbolic. These oilfields are what made General Sternwood his millions. It is important that the luxury of the house, which has come out of the oilfields, is beautiful and gaudy; yet the place where the money came from is "dirty." Moreover, these oilfields imply a degradation of morality and a corruption; we sense that Sternwood's business was not always "clean." The oilfields are only one way in which this corruption can be seen throughout the novel, other examples are abundant.
The motif of the knight is present throughout The Big Sleep in that it is a point of comparison with Marlowe that continuously comes into the picture. The book begins with a symbol of the knight in the form of the stained glass (a portrait of a knight rescuing a lady) and continues later on when a chessboard appears (upon which the knight piece is moved). These symbols that contribute to this motif are discussed further in the "Symbols" section below.
The appearances of this motif imply that Marlowe is a knight of sorts. He does not take advantage of Carmen Sternwood, and he seeks out truth even when he is not being paid—as we see in the quest for Rusty Regan, for example. In the end, however, the knight solves the dilemma, but justice is not necessarily served to all. Eddie Mars goes free and the truth is not for all to know; although Marlowe knows the truth, he will not share it with his client. We might fairly ask how knightly Marlowe's behavior is, and whether or not he remains a knight throughout, given that he consistently says that this is not a world in which knights can prevail. In one sense, Marlowe appears to fulfill his duties because he holds the truth from his client for the sole purpose of not wanting to injure him. This, however, has a flip side, as the truth is an ideal, something Marlowe has wanted to reach. The answer to all of these questions lies in the fact that he is a modern day night, perhaps—a knight who, within the realm of reality in 1930s Los Angeles rather than the realm of the stained glass, must bend his morals.
Throughout the novel, weather is always a part of the descriptions of the setting and environment. From the beginning, the sound of thunder rolls forth from the foothills. Significantly, the thunder seems to be coming from where Regan is lying dead. Indeed, the weather mirrors seemingly every chapter and every action. Chandler uses the weather, the rain, and the occasional sun (on a good day, when something is about to unveil itself, for instance, or when the worst seems to be over) as a representative of human emotion.
At the beginning of the novel Marlowe receives his commission from his client, General Sternwood, in a hot greenhouse—a humid, jungle-like greenhouse filled with orchids and their damp, pervasive smell. The greenhouse is a symbol that represents the whole of the novel: it is a small-scale version of the rain- ridden Los Angeles and its many thieves cloying around the General and Marlowe like the vines in a jungle.
The orchids in the greenhouse thrive in the uncomfortably intense heat, and, though they seem beautiful, they release a strange odor and their petals feel like human flesh. This disquieting image opens the novel and remains in our heads throughout, following us through the jungle of Los Angeles and running across its two-faced criminals. The sensual appeal of both the city—its luxury, its casinos, its alcohol, and so on—crumbles into seediness. The sensual appeal of women, too, peals away like the petals of the orchids and gives way to something nastier.
The stained glass that appears at the beginning of the novel places Marlowe in the position of the knight. The piece illustrates a knight reaching for a woman, trying to set her free. Importantly, Marlowe finds himself staring at the glass and feeling the need to help. This is not only a symbol, but also a note of foreshadowing: Marlowe will have to rescue his own lady, in the person of Carmen Sternwood.
Another significant symbol of knighthood appears the second time Carmen needs to be rescued, when she appears in Marlowe's bed, undressed. It is here that Marlowe looks down at the chessboard in his room and, significantly, moves the knight piece. However, within the same scene, he realizes that it was the wrong move, and he retracts it, claiming that knights have no place in such a world: "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." This admission does not necessarily mean Marlowe has lost; it simply means he is misplaced, and does not belong in such a world. He does not sleep with Carmen, he takes her home, remains chaste, and upholds his knighthood—even if the world does not recognize it, and even if it means that he will lose the game as a whole. In the end Marlowe is not any happier—perhaps he has lost in some ways. Nevertheless, he has lost only because he remains a "knight."