The Big Sleaze: the Infantilization of Carmen Sternwood

an excerpt from a literary analysis

         Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is one of the most well-known, hard-boiled crime novels accredited with employing the archetype of the femme fatale in the creation of his character Carmen Sternwood. This archetype in itself is objectifying and intrinsically misogynistic, but there is a deeper level of subliminal sexism at work in Chandler’s prose. Criticism on hard-boiled detective fiction focuses on the masculinity of the genre and the misogyny that results from it, however the infantilizing ways in which the women characters are written to reinstate a subliminal anti-feminist message are often times overlooked. Within the critical framework of theory that has been applied to the genre of hard-boiled crime, there is an absence of constitutive analyses in regards to the stylistic choices that make up the susceptibility of the femme fatale archetype. She is often written through the male gaze, a term coined by the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. In her work “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema”, she defines this gaze as a projection of male fantasy that results from the gendered dichotomy of the pleasure of looking. In this heteronormative gaze, women stand “in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order which man can out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 58). Women in films are often restricted by the male gaze and are displayed as objects “with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact”, made to be a spectacle for the pleasure of men (Mulvey 62). The definition of the gaze compliments the definitive purpose of the femme fatale archetype, who is sexualized as an object that the protagonist must overcome. Mulvey’s research has since stretched beyond the realm of film and has been applied in criticism that reevaluates various works of art and literature through a feminist lens. From the exhaustive descriptions of women’s figures in The Big Sleep, this gaze becomes apparent in the protagonist’s perceptions, mirroring the author’s own inherent bias. However, in the case of Carmen Sternwood, there is a distinct overlap between her existence under the male gaze as well as infantilization. In Chandler’s The Big Sleep, it can be argued that the infantilizing manner in which Carmen Sternwood was written was his own subconscious way of dominating over the “feminine”. By writing her through a lens of infantilization, Carmen is not only subdued by male character’s rejection of her advances but is also forced into a unique physical and mental role of submission by the author’s use of the male gaze and the historical momentum that surrounds the archetype of the femme fatale.

(to read the full paper click here)

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