Erich Wachs, Paradox of Power: Guns in Chicago and San Francisco

A Paradox of Power: An Analysis of Guns and Weaponry in Chicago and San Francisco

Richard Wright’s Native Son and Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon both

feature characters intimately involved, whether through social standing or career

hierarchy, in murder and death. In both novels, there is a high emphasis placed on

murder. Though guns are very present in each case of murder and death, they are not the

weapons used by Native Son’s Bigger and Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. Though Bigger

always has a gun in his possession, its use is absent from the two killings he commits,

while Spade doesn’t even carry a gun. Typically a symbol of power, the “absence” of the

gun in each novel establishes a paradox of control. In place of a gun, the protagonists turn

to other weapons and methods to help them fulfill their missions in their respective cities.

The weapons also reflect how Bigger and Sam fit into the niche of their city. Bigger’s

continuous questioning of his purpose in racially divided Chicago fuels his reliance on a

gun for protection, whereas Sam Spade’s lack of gun demonstrates his omniscience and

dominance over San Francisco. Finally, these relationships offer a broader view into the

city-specific way each novel handles death. Whereas in Native Son, the central action

revolves around the psychological tension of death, in The Maltese Falcon, death is the

inciting incident of the plot rather than the core focus. Both novels’ portrayal of death

relates back to the original notion of absent gun use; Bigger’s reliance on a gun’s

perceived protection inhibits his power in the novel, whereas Spade’s defiance of

protection elevates him above the murders, reducing them to a generic detective novel

plot device.

Though they are both different characters with radically different needs for guns,

Bigger and Spade refrain from using guns in two novels heavily focused on death.

Through the course of the novel, Bigger’s gun is always present, even though he kills two

women without firing a shot. Though the first murder is an accident and the novel’s

descriptions demonstrate Bigger in a moment of panic, he also maintains a certain degree

of control as he smothers Mary to death: “His muscles flexed taut as steel and he pressed

the pillow, feeling the bed give slowly, evenly, but silently. Then suddenly… her body

was still,” (86). It is after he murders Mary that Bigger realizes the reality of his situation,

and retrieves his gun: “He felt something heavy sagging in his shirt; it was the gun… He

shoved it under the pillow,” (93). Only after he has murdered Mary does Bigger lose the

control he exhibited while murdering and decapitating Mary, and feel the need for his

gun, the weapon one would typically use to execute a murder. A gun would have lent the

murder a degree of intention that Bigger certainly lacks until his moment of panic.

Though Bigger’s second murder of the novel is no accident, it is still committed

out of fear. Bigger is still in possession of his gun, but he decides not to use it (235).

Instead, he uses a brick to gruesomely murder Bessie. The description of the narrative

makes the murder almost mechanical, and deprives Bigger of emotion:

“He was ready. The brick was in his hand. In his mind his hand traced a quick

invisible arc through the cold air of the room; high above his head his hand

paused in fancy and imaginatively swooped down to where he thought her head

must be… He lifted the brick again and again, until in falling it struck a sodden

mass that gave softly but stoutly to each landing blow… How many times he had

lifted the brick and brought it down he did not know. All he knew was that… the

job was done,” (237).

In this narrative, Bigger exhibits the same conditional control he had while murdering

Mary. With this murder, Bigger thinks he has gained power from manipulating the cops,

Mary’s family, and Bessie.  However, he still feels the need to keep the gun close by for

security. Though he wants to derive a sense of power without relying on the gun, his fear

of retribution forces him to keep the gun for protection. In this way, Bigger limits the

power he could perceivably gain from his murders, demonstrated by his reliance on his

gun as a defense mechanism. Since he is at the mercy of his impending capture, which

happens after he murders Bessie, Bigger is still powerless, therefore, is still in need of his

gun. The fact that Bigger has the gun in both murders demonstrates his attempts to be

powerful. Because he carries the gun for protection rather than intention, he is not

powerful at all.

Spade also has no need for a gun, which paradoxically establishes his strong

power dynamics throughout the novel. Upon receiving the call that Archer, his partner in

crime, is murdered, Spade arrives at the crime scene with nothing except “tobacco, keys,

and money,” (12) in his pockets. After Spade investigates the crime scene, Tom and

Dundy interrogate Spade, as he is a suspect in Archer’s murder. When Dundy asks

Spade, “What kind of gun do you carry?” Spade responds, “None. I don’t like them

much. Of course there are some in the office,” (18). Spade then goes on to frustrate the

policemen, and they leave the interrogation having found out no information from Spade

regarding Archer’s death. Spade’s lack of gun is an extension of his psyche; he is so

confident in his powers of manipulation and secrets that using a gun for protection is

unnecessary in his world.

While Bigger demonstrates conditional control using a brick to murder Bessie,

Spade participates in a mechanical action where he is able to express his utmost control:

rolling cigarettes. After Spade gets the call about his dead partner, most of his routine

between the fifteen minutes that pass before he leaves revolves around him taking

excruciating care rolling a cigarette.

“Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured

quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they

lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the

paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it

over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper’s cylinder’s ends to hold it even

while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while

right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb

twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth,” (11).

Just as the narrative depicting Bigger’s brick murder is apathetic, so too is the narrative

revolving around Spade’s cigarette making. Spade’s cigarette rolling is another forum in

which Spade has utmost agency over a situation, just as he does when he is purposefully

frustrating the cops that come to interrogate him as a suspect in Archer’s murder. While

both characters feel control in these discrete situations, Bigger still needs a gun, even if

he doesn’t fire, to feel secure in his position, whereas Spade never has to doubt the power

he holds over his cigarette, and his city.

The weapons Bigger and Spade use are a commentary on either the social or

professional urban environment they inhabit. In Native Son, Bigger’s relationship to his

weapons is tied to the racially divided city he has grown up in. Bigger has always felt like

an outsider who has never been accepted into the white man’s world of Chicago.

Throughout his life, white people have existed in a different world than he has. Bigger

manifests that difference into anger that even he cannot understand. “That was the way he

lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he

feared,” (42). His binary analysis of his world causes Bigger to be constantly on guard

when Mary and Jan, two affluent white people, start to treat him like he is their equal.

Instead of relishing this short-lived racial freedom, Bigger interprets their

behavior towards him as condescension. “He felt he had no physical existence at all right

then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a

black skin. It was a shadowy region, a No Man’s Land, the ground that separated the

white world from the black that he stood upon. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this

white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up

now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb,

cold, and inarticulate hate,” (67). Even in this encounter, Bigger is incapable of

understanding where he fits into the world. Mary and Jan’s invitation to be their equal is

not malicious, but Bigger only sees himself as a mere joke in their lives. Since he is a

perpetual outsider in both the world Mary and Jan believe in and the city he inhabits,

Bigger is constantly on guard, which is why he carries around his gun. This outward

anger is actually a projection of Bigger’s frustration at his lack of purpose in a white

world. After Bigger is caught, he reflects in his cell that: “… having accepted the moral

guilt and responsibility for that murder… had made him feel free for the first time in his

life…” (274). Ultimately, these murders are the only way in which Bigger feels like he

has a purpose in life, which is reflected by the control he exhibits while murdering.

In contrast, Spade is involved in a profession where his knowledge of San Francisco

and other people’s secrets outweighs his use for a gun, which is a strange approach to

investigating murder. As opposed to unconfident, purposeless Bigger, Spade treats San

Francisco as if he is the king of that particular domain. In lieu of a gun, his preferred

weapon of choice is his knowledge of how other people operate. Spade’s confidence is

seldom explicitly stated; rather it is exemplified in the ways the other characters involved

in the falcon chase present themselves around Spade. Equally suspicious of everyone’s

disguises, Brigid and Cairo feel the constant need to have a gun as a form of protection.

In Spade’s initial encounter with Cairo, Cairo pulls a pistol on Spade while he searches

the room. Spade quickly knocks Cairo unconscious: “Spade emptied the unconscious

man’s pockets one by one, working methodically, moving the lax body when necessary,

making a pile of the pockets’ contents on the desk,” (47). The dexterity and relative calm

Spade exhibits while searching Cairo stands in stark contrast to the way in which Cairo

originally planned to search Spade’s office. Interestingly enough, after Cairo wakes up

and Spade returns his gun, Cairo still feels the need to wield it. In fact, when there is a

gun in the room, Brigid and Cairo usually pursue it. “Cairo gurgled and put a hand inside

his coat, forced it straight out to the side, and twisted it until the clumsy flaccid fingers

opened to let the black pistol fall down on the rug. Brigid O’Shaughnessy quickly picked

up the pistol,” (69). Even after Spade and Brigid spend the night together, Brigid feels the

need to sleep with a gun under her pillow for protection. Spade’s ease in handling his

situation enables him to effectively manipulate the insecurities that both Brigid and Cairo

represent. Spade’s ability to extend this type of manipulation to equally diffident

characters not directly involved in the falcon chase, such as Tom and Dundy, lends him

the power to see their ulterior motives and secrets.

Finally, though each novel involves two crucial murders, the urban and professional

settings that pervade Bigger and Spade’s lives define the way in which death shapes each

novel. In Native Son, the driving action of the plot revolves around Bigger’s internal

struggle of death. In the first two books of the novel, Bigger is more concerned about his

anger towards whites, which blinds him to the implications of death. This initial anger

metastasizes into a need for freedom he thinks is found through murder and manipulation.

However, it is only when he loses a gun in Book III that Bigger finally confronts his,

“fear of death before which he was naked and without defense; he had to go forward and

meet his end like any other living thing upon the earth. And regulating his attitude toward

death was the fact that he was black, unequal, and despised,” (274-275). Forcibly

deprived of the protection of a gun for the first time in the novel, Bigger demonstrates the

same kind of anger and thinking he presents in Books I and II, but now those thoughts are

internally directed instead of externally projected onto the white population.

As he confronts his own vulnerability, Bigger struggles with his own thoughts on

accepting responsibility for the murders, not from a standpoint of freedom or belonging,

but from a standpoint of his own mortality. At the very end of the novel, Bigger no longer

fears the world in the same way he did when he was unable to fully take responsibility for

his actions. Before he is taken to the chair, Bigger reflects on his impending execution:

“In self-defense he shut out the night and day from his mind, for if he had thought of the

sun’s rising and setting, of the moon or the stars, of clouds or rain, he would have died a

thousand deaths before they took him to the chair. To accustom his mind to death as

much as possible, he made all the world beyond his cell a vast grey land where neither

night nor day was, peopled by strange men and women whom he could not understand,

but with those lives he longed to mingle once before he went,” (418). Bigger’s evolving

understanding of character allows him to see his actions as something within himself as

opposed to something external. This acceptance of life makes it all the more unfortunate

when Bigger is ultimately executed. However, he dies without feeling the need for

protection, and finally understanding a purpose, which gives him a new type of power.

In Maltese Falcon, death drives the plot of the novel rather than the internal conflict.

The crux of the book is not to find out who murdered Archer; rather, it is simply the

starting point for the mystery revolving around the falcon to start, reducing this murder,

and the subsequent murder of the tall man, into useful plot devices. As previously

mentioned, Spade responds to Archer’s death with a lack of emotion. At the crime scene,

he continues his calculated indifference. “‘It’s tough, him getting it like that. Miles had

his faults same as the rest of us, but I guess he must’ve had some good points too.’ ‘I

guess so,’ Spade agreed in a tone that was utterly meaningless, and went out of the alley,”

(16). This death spurs on the rest of the action; after Archer’s death, Brigid’s initial

disguise is revealed, and Spade becomes enmeshed in the chase for the titular Maltese

Falcon.

Just as the first murder of the novel spurs the beginning of the mystery, the second

murder occurs when it’s needed for the latter-half of the novel’s events. Even though this

second murder is described in bloodier detail than the original murder, Spade treats it

with the same manner in which he handled Archer’s murder. “The tall man stood in the

doorway… He said, ‘You know—’ and then the liquid bubbling came up in his throat and

submerged whatever else he said… The sight of his bloody hand brought not the least nor

briefest of changes to Spade’s face,” (157). Though Spade has probably witnessed

countless murders in his profession, his lack of proper emotional response is highlighted

by Effie’s reasonable reaction to the events she just saw transpire: “Effie Perine, wan and

trembling and holding herself upright by means of a hand on the corridor-door’s knob

and her back against its glass, whispered: ‘Is—is he—?’ ‘Yes. Shot through the chest,

maybe half a dozen times.’ Spade began to wash his hands… ‘If he— Why in the hell

couldn’t he had stood up long enough to say something?’ He frowned at the girl, rinsed

his hands again, and picked up a towel. ‘Pull yourself together. For Christ’s sake don’t

get sick on me now!” (158). It is through Effie that the reader gleams the true gruesome

nature with which the tall man died, as Spade’s reaction seems to indicate that this man’s

death was nothing out of the ordinary. Spade demonstrates the apathy that is reflected in

the novel’s structure: death is not given proper respect because Spade does not give it

proper respect, reducing the deaths to plot devices and making them typical tropes of

detective fiction.

Tying the theme of death back to the original notion of absent or unused guns, the

deficient gun use in Native Son reflects Bigger’s need to feel like he is in control,

however his gun is a necessary protection. In the first two books, Bigger kills with two

weapons that are not his gun because. To Bigger, exercising control and having a purpose

in life is powerful. His gun is his protection, as he has spent his entire life feeling the

need to be protected from a city in which he feels like an outsider. This perception of

alienation is why Native Son’s death drama revolves around Bigger’s psychological

tension surrounding death. The gun and the additional murder weapons are simply

extensions of his two conflicting drives: the drive to protect himself from death, and the

drive to feel like he has control and purpose for once in his life. Bigger’s thoughts on

death ultimately progress towards an acceptance of his actions without harboring anger.

Devoid of any weapons, and need for protection or purpose, he is finally able to accept

his death. In The Maltese Falcon, the absence of the gun demonstrates the absence of the

relative importance of murder. Both murders of the book are described with calculated

coldness. While they are important to the plot, the murders do not need to be powerful,

just as Spade does not need to carry a gun to be powerful. With this power, he is able to

demonstrate his control over all those involved in the mystery surrounding the falcon by

disarming the parties involved physically and mentally. By reducing the murders to plot

devices, the structure of the novel highlights the power Spade truly has. While everyone

else fears getting killed, Spade is able to utilize these vulnerabilities in order to get what

he wants: secrets. It is his lack of need for guns, such as Bigger’s acceptance at the end of

Native Son that gives both protagonists a paradoxically derived sense of power.

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