February 14th, 2016
Comparative Analysis of San Francisco between McTeague and The Maltese Falcon
McTeague and The Maltese Falcon are distinct texts in terms of both literary style and narrative form; however, the shared setting of San Francisco allows the novels to serve as both foils to one another and case studies for the evolving city. How has the twenty years that separates the texts changed The City by the Bay? Is it fundamentally a changed space? How has its evolution impacted the people who call it home?
The San Francisco presented in McTeague is still a young city. It’s presented as a distinctively urban setting that hasn’t yet found a signature culture or feel. It’s bright and lively, with colorful characters and bustling street corners. Opportunity seems abundant, and yet still luck serves as the only real means to achieve real “success” in life.
- A “Western City”
- Greed – Gold – The Legacy of the Gold Rush
- Up and coming, innovation
The Maltese Falcon:
The San Francisco we’re introduced to in McTeague has changed quite a bit. If anything, with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, it seems like the more undesirable elements – predominantly greed and corruption – have become excessively pervasive. Prohibition and job loss have escalated organized crime, providing the perfect atmosphere for a gritty detective novel. Characters spend very little time outdoors. Much of the narrative takes place in the late evening hours. It reminds me of Nighthawks by Hopper.
- Fog and moral/motive ambiguity
- Greed – The black statue
- Gay Representation (Cairo)
- Danger and Violence – Urban Jungle (especially salient given M’s animal allegories)
- Corruption – The rise of private detectives
- Alcohol, Cigarettes, and the “Masculine Virtues”
- Day vs. Night
- Naturalism vs. Realism
- A distinct San Francisco vs. Any urban setting
- Civilization as a corrupting factor
- Luck vs. “Sliminess”
- “A Story of San Francisco” vs. A Story in San Francisco
- Women on an equal playing field
- “The street never failed to interest him. It was one of those cross streets peculiar to Western cities, situated in the heart of the residence quarter, but occupied by small tradespeople who lived in the rooms above their ships…” (4)
- “From noon to evening the population of the street was a mixed character…” (5)
- “No church bell rang sweeter or clearer…” (37) Fetishism of gold
- “Across the railroad tracks, to seaward, one saw the long stretch of black-mud bank left bare by the tide, which was far out, nearly half a mile. Clouds of seagulls were forever rising and settling…” (64)
- “At the corner of Polk Street, between the flat and the conductor’s coffee joint, was Frenna’s. It was a corner grocery; advertisements for cheap butter and eggs, painted in green…” (109)
- Gilded Tooth Description (116)
- Polk Street again (143)
- “Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning” (11) Eerie reminder that true monsters are just a few miles out in the bay.
- “San Francisco’s night fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street. A few yards from where Spade had dismissed the taxicab a small group of men stood looking up an alley. Two women stood with a man on the other side of Bush Street, looking at the alley. There were faces at windows” (12) Immersed in a world lacking clarity. San Francisco clouded both by fog and moral ambiguity.
- “Within half a dozen blocks of the Coronet Spade left the car and went into the vestibule of a tall brown apartment-building. He pressed all three…” (54)
- “Most things is San Francisco can be bought or taken” (55)
- More Quotes to come with the 2nd half of the novel
The outline is a bit too scattered as it stands, but the contrast between daytime San Francisco and nighttime San Francisco is a great way to think about the difference between McTeague and The Maltese Falcon. In that context, you might want to contrast McTeague’s run-in with the city’s bureaucracy, happening during the day, in the form of a letter from City Hall, and Sam Spade’s run-in with law enforcement, with nocturnal visits by Lieutenant Dundy and Detective Tom Polhaus. It might be an interesting way to talk about some of the issues you have raised: San Francisco as a young city in Norris, and as a city with a history in Hammett. Let me know what you think of this as an entry point to the novel.
I like that your outline reflects our conversation on Tuesday, stemming from your presentation on The Maltese Falcon. Hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate some of the ideas we discussed in class. I also enjoy the comparison to “Nighthawks.” Like Professor Dimock, I worry about the focus of this outline: there are definitely a lot of good ideas here, but I think you should pick one coherent theme for your paper. It could be light vs. dark, as suggested above. It could also be young vs. old cities.
To what extent is greed in the form of organized crime and corruption in The Maltese Falcon a new phenomenon, and to what extent is it derivative of the old gold-driven greed? You could also compare the settings in a literal sense, through the characterizations of city streets and edifices from both authors. Another idea you could consider is the inclusion of San Francisco herself as a character: her influences on the protagonists, etc. When I read the novels, as well, I was struck by the similarity of the ending: greed of McTeague and Spade and co. is unsatiated, and their efforts were ultimately wasted.