Skip to main content

Full text of "Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese falcon : teacher's guide"

See other formats

National Endowment for the Arts 




•!. MuseurriandLibrary 



The Maltese 

■ » I 




«fc< I 


I ■ 



I I 


■ fT %nt I 











The Maltese 



A great nation 
deserves great art. 

'••••* .,.' NSTITUTEo ' 

•.:•.. Museum.ndLibrary 

'•*.•• SERVICES 



The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support 
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create 
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute 
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to 
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support 
professional development. 

Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts 
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based 
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state 
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South 
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United 
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years. 

Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg 

Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. 1930. New York: Vintage Crime, 1992. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Molly Thomas-Hicks with Sarah Bainter Cunningham for the National Endowment 
for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover from the collection of 
Richard Layman; San Francisco, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Page 1: 
Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: Courtesy of Josephine Hammett. 

July 2008 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: San Francisco in the Roaring Twenties 16 

Handout Two: Hard-Boiled Fiction and 

Hammett's Writing Style 17 

Handout Three: The Falcon as a Symbol 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 


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." 

— from The Maltese Falcon 



Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become lifelong readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Dashiell Hammett's classic novel, The Maltese Falcon. Each lesson has 
four sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, The Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Hammett's novel remains so compelling more 
than seven decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most 
celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to 
make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

"^Jiuu Mjg&h^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Discuss why Hammett chose to 
limit the readers access to the characters by 
using the objective point of view. Rewrite the 
featured scene from first-person point 
of view. 

Homework: Read Chapters 7-9 (pp. 61-89). 

1 3 

Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Write 
a two-page second chapter to begin to 
develop one of the characters. 

Homework: Read Chapters 1-3 (pp. 3-31). * 


Day Two A 

FOCUS: Culture and History Hav Fnnr 

Activities: Read Handout One and Handout 

t rv ~u * a • u a FOCUS: Characters 

Two. Discuss the trends in culture and 

history of the era. Activities: Have students discuss the key 

Homework: Read Chapters 4-6 (pp. 32-60). a " ributes of an assi S ned character Write an 

essay on a secondary character who serves 

as an antagonist to Sam Spade. 

Homework: Read Chapters 10-11 
(pp. 90-111). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss the meaning of the Flitcraft 
parable. Write a two-page parable. 

Homework: Read Chapters 12-14 
(pp. 112-139). 

• Page numbers refer to the 1992 Vintage Crime edition of The Makese Falcon. 


National Endowment for the Arts 



Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Read Handout Three. Discuss what 
abstract ideas each of the characters might 
personify if the novel is read as an allegory. 

Homework: Read Chapters 15-17 
(pp. 140-171). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Discuss with your students the 
roles of "flat" and "round" characters. 
Write about the character who is most 

Homework: Chapters 18-20 (pp. 172-217). 

Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Discuss themes of greed, trust, and 
human adaptability. 

Homework: Part Three. Begin working 
on essays. 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 

Homework: Finish essays. 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Map a timeline depicting the 
development of the story. Write a different 
ending to the novel. 

Homework: Outline the three major themes 
of the novel. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson One 



Examining an author's lire can inform and expand the reader's 
understanding or a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literan" work through the lens or an authors experience. In this lesson, 
explore the authors lite to understand the novel more fully. 

Born in St. Marys County, Maryland, in 1894, Dashiell Hammett left 
school at aee fourteen because of his family's shaky finances. He held a 
series or odd jobs until 1915, when he joined the Baltimore office ol the 
famous Pinkertons National Detective Service. Plagued bv ill health, he 
left the detective agency for good in 1921. His first work was published in 
1922. A year later, his fiction appeared in the popular pulp magazine 
Black Mask 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD. Students should take notes as they listen. Ask them 
to present the three most important points they learned from the CD. 

Photocopy the Reader's Guide essays, "Dashiell Hammett 1894-1961" (pp. 5-7) 
and "Hammett and His Other Works*' (pp. 10-11). Divide the class into groups. 
Assign one essay to each group. After reading and discussing the essays, each 
group will present what it learned. 

Wa Writing Exercise 

Have students read Chapter I (pp. 3-10) focusing on Hammett's use of dialogue. 
Ask students to write a two-page second chapter to begin to develop one of the 
characters. Ask them to use dialogue and action. 

n Homework 

Continue to read Chapters 1-3 (pp. 3-31). Prepare your students to read two 
or three chapters per night in order to finish reading the book in seven lessons. 
Hammett begins the novel in the middle of a typical workday at Spade and 
Archer's detective agency. What clues indicate that some things are out of the 
ordinary? How might these clues foreshadow the rest of the story? 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the 

The Maltese Falcon was written in the late 1920s, the close of a decade 
known as the "Roaring Twenties," a period of prosperity halted by the stock 
market crash in October 1929. During this decade, writers such as Ernest 
Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the disillusionment of the Lost 
Generation. In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the main character struggles 
between riches and happiness. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms captures the 
life of an American soldier, fighting for another country, adrift in Europe. 

At the same time, American pulp magazines were at the height of their 
popularity. The publications were an inexpensive way for readers to enjoy 
new stories each month. Hammett's style, developed while writing for pulps 
like Black Mask, dealt indirectly with such serious themes as alienation and 
the allure of the American dream. Foremost, Hammett wrote captivating 
mysteries to entertain the reader, and any grand aesthetic goals or existential 
dilemmas shadowed along behind. With the coming of the Depression, this 
entertaining fiction was just what the nation would need. 

Discussion Activities 

Read and discuss Handout One, Handout Two, and the Reader's Guide essay 
"Hammett and Detective Fiction" (pp. 8-9). Discuss the trends covered on the 
audio CD and in these essays. What major facts from these resources might 
inform your reading of the novel? 

n Homework 

Have students read Chapters 4-6 (pp. 32-60). Ask them to consider the voice of 
the narrator. Who is telling the story? Is the narrator objective or biased? How 
does this contribute to the tone of the novel? 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson Three 


and Point 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed bv his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
or view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the storv 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and the}"). The distanced narrator mav 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters thoughts and feelings. Ultimately the 
type or narrator determines the point of view from which the storv is told. 

The Maltese Falcon emplovs a third-person objective point or view. The 
narrator is not a character and does not participate in the events of the 
novel. Instead, the narrator simply tells what happens without stating more 
than can be inferred from the storvs action and dialogue. Using; this device, 
the narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel 
and remains a detached observer. 

Discussion Activities 

While the objective point of view relies heavily on action and dialogue, Hammert 
gives us clues to the characters' thoughts and feelings by describing their body 
language and facial expressions. Examine the scene in Chapter 6 where Sam tells 
Brigid that Joel Cairo offered him money for the falcon. 

"He offered me five thousand dollars for the black bird." 

She started, her teeth tore at the end of her cigarette, and her eyes, after a swift 
alarmed glance at Spade, turned away from him. 

"You're not going to go around poking at the fire and straightening up the room 
again, are you?" he asked lazily. 

She laughed a clear merry laugh, dropped the mangled cigarette into a tray, and 
looked at him with clear merry eyes (p. 56). 

How does Hammert s description of Spade and Brigid s reactions to one another 
help the reader infer the characters' feelings? Why might Hammert have chosen 
to limit the reader's access to the characters' private thoughts and emotions? How 
does the emotional distance it creates contribute to the overall tone of the novel? 

Wj Writing Exercise 

First-person point of view allows the reader to observe the private thoughts and 
emotions of the narrator. Ask students to rewrite the scene above in first-person 
point of view from Sam Spade's or Brigid O'Shaughnessy's perspective. How does 
the use of first person change the tone of the scene? 

6 * -= READ 


Have students read Chapters 7-9 (pp. 61-89). Make a list of all the new characters 
in this chapter. Can we discern the inner motivations of these characters? 

National Endowment for the Artt 



The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist. 
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great 
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist 
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or 
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The 
protagonists journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold 
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast 
with the protagonists and highlight important features of the main 
characters personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes 
the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 

Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective in The Maltese Falcon, becomes 
embroiled in the quest for the elusive black bird after his partner, Miles 
Archer, is murdered. Throughout most of the novel, Spade's motivations 
remain private, but most critics agree that he is driven by a personal moral 
code — an internal sense of right and wrong — rather than a conventional 
desire to uphold civil law. In various ways the secondary characters serve 
as foils and antagonists to Spade's character, complicating his search for 
Archer's killer and the falcon. 

Discussion Activities 

Divide the class into groups. Photocopy the Reader's Guide essay "Major 
Characters in the Novel" (p. 4). Assign each group a character: Effie Perine, 
Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Miles Archer, Joel Cairo, Casper Gutman, or Wilmer. 
Some of these characters lie about who they are and what they know. Ask 
students to review the chapters they have read, selecting passages that reveal 
information about the true nature of their character. Have them present the key 
attributes of that character, giving specific evidence from the text to support 
their answers. 

Writing Exercise 

Choose a secondary character who serves as an antagonist to Sam Spade. How 
is this person important to the story? What motivates him or her? Does the 
antagonist make Spade appear stronger or more flawed? How might this be 
important as the novel progresses? 

EJ Homework 

Have students read Chapters 10-1 1 (pp. 90-1 II). Ask your students to consider 
what Spade's reaction to Casper Gutman reveals about Spade's character. 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding the 
likeness in seemingly unrelated things. 

A metaphor is a statement that one thing is something else that, in a literal 
sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is something else, a metaphor 
creates a close association that underscores an important similarity between 
these two things. Allegories and parables are forms of extended metaphors. 
An allegory uses characters, objects, and events to symbolize concepts 
of moral or social significance. Characters in allegorical stories are often 
personifications of abstract ideas such as envy, greed, or gluttony. Parables 
are metaphorical stories that use realistic characters and circumstances to 
make a point. They often carry a strong message that has meaning beyond 
its literal reading. 

One of the most famous and important passages of The Maltese Falcon is 
a section in Chapter 7 known as "the Flitcraft parable." Spade tells Brigid 
about a case he once worked on involving a man named Flitcraft who 
disappeared without warning. Hired by the wife to locate him, Spade finds 
him living — under an assumed name — a life very similar to the one he 
left behind. The man tells Spade that he was walking down the street after 
lunch one day when a beam fell "eight or ten stories down and smacked 
the sidewalk alongside him." Shortly afterward, the man left his family in 
an attempt to adjust his life to reflect his newfound understanding of the 
random nature of the universe. Spade tells Brigid, "He adjusted himself to 
beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to 
them not falling" (p. 64). 

Discussion Activities 

Discuss what the parable means. What concept is Spade trying to relate to 
Brigid? Why would Spade choose to tell Brigid this story at this particular 
moment? What message does the story carry? Does Brigid seem to understand? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to write a short story of no more than two pages that 
functions as a parable. They should pay close attention to characterization and 
imagery. What makes the story a parable? How does it explain something about 
the world in which they live? 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapters 12-14 (pp. 112-139). In tonight's reading, the students will learn 
more about the history and value of the Maltese falcon. Ask them to begin 
thinking of the ways the falcon works as a symbol within the novel. 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

The most important symbol in The Maltese Falcon is the falcon itself, 
a statuette once given by the Knights of Rhodes to King Charles V of 

Lesson Six 



Spain. Gutman, Cairo, and Brigid OShaughnessy selfishly pursue their 
own interests as they try to obtain the bird. Driven by greed, they become 
mired in the quest for fortune without considering the cost. Spade becomes 
embroiled in the pursuit after his partner, Miles Archer, is murdered. 

Discussion Activities 

Read Handout Three. Ask your students to think of the novel as an allegory. 
How do the novel's characters, objects, and events symbolize concepts of moral 
or social significance? Do their names provide any clues? Divide the class into 
four groups. Assign each group a character: Sam Spade, Casper Gutman, Joel 
Cairo, or Brigid O'Shaughnessy. If The Maltese Falcon is read as an allegory, what 
abstract ideas might each of these characters personify? 

Ed Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to think about the qualities of a real falcon. Does the 
character they were assigned today share any of these characteristics? If so, what 
are they? Does the falcon represent different things to different characters? Have 
students support their answers with passages from the text. 

H Homework 

Have students read Chapters 15-17 (pp. 140-171). Ask the students to pay close 
attention to the phone call Effie receives from Brigid and the scene with Rhea 
Gutman. Do they feel Brigid can be trusted? Why or why not? 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each 
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next and the protagonist's eventual success 
or failure. 

"Flat" or "two-dimensional" characters in a work of fiction do not 
experience a profound emotional change and personal growth during the 
course of the story. They serve to provide comic relief or help advance the 
plot. "Round" or "three-dimensional" characters have complex emotions 
and motivations. They encounter conflict and are changed by it. 

The archetypical private detective, Sam Spade is motivated not by 
conventional standards but by an internal code of conduct. Like the 
criminals he encounters while pursuing the falcon, Spade divulges only 
what suits his purposes. He tells each of them what he believes they want to 
hear without revealing how much of the truth he has pieced together from 
their various stories. His motivations remain a mystery until the end. 

The classic femmefatale, Brigid is beautiful but dangerous. She lies 
compulsively, revealing bits of truth sandwiched between falsehoods. Brigid 
feigns loyalty to various characters, but ultimately she betrays them all. 

Discussion Activities 

Discuss with your students the roles of "flat" and "round" characters. Ask them 
to identify some of their favorite fictional characters. What attributes bring 
them to life? Some critics feel the characters in The Maltese Falcon lack depth. 
Do your students agree? Which characters in the novel seem the most "real"? 
Why? Using your discussion of allegory from Lesson Six, ask the students to 
consider how using two-dimensional characters can sometimes enable writers to 
represent broad concepts. 

Writing Exercise 

Ask the students to write two paragraphs about the characters they most 
trust. What particular actions or qualities contribute to that feeling? Have them 
support their answer with examples from the text. 

H Homework 

Have students read Chapters 18-20 (pp. 172-217). Ask your students to come 
to class ready to present the two most important turning points in the novel. 

10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

The Plot 


The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented. 

The Mti It esc Falcon begins as a mystery novel, with the hard-boiled 
detective, Sam Spade, trying to solve his partner's murder. It evolves into a 
quest tor the falcon, of course, but also for abstract concepts such as truth 
and justice. The chase leads to a final truth: the statue is a fake, a worthless 
piece of lead. The criminals blame one another and, in the aftermath, 
Wilmer shoots Gutman. Though Spade admits he might be in love with 
Brigid, he turns her over to the police, unwilling to protect her from 
punishment for Miles Archer's murder. 

Discussion Activities 

In small groups, have the students map a timeline that depicts the development 
of the story and the building of drama. This timeline should include the most 
significant turning points but also examine lesser events that build tension. As 
students develop their timelines, they should define the beginning, middle, and 
end of the novel. Groups will present their timelines to the class. 

Writing Exercise 

Ask your students to write a different ending to the novel. 

□ Homework 

Have your students come to class with three major themes of the novel. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Themes of 
the Novel 

Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the reader's mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises in 
order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Using textual references to support 
ideas, explore the statements The Maltese Falcon makes about the following: 

• Greed: Gutman, Cairo, O'Shaughnessy, and Wilmer have been pursuing the 
falcon for quite some time. Spade has only recently joined the search. Discuss 
the various characters' motivations. Are Spade's more noble than the others'? 
Why or why not? 

• Trust: After Spade discovers some of Brigid's lies, she pleads with him, "I've 
been bad — worse than you could know — but I'm not all bad. Look at me, Mr. 
Spade. You know I'm not all bad, don't you? You can see that, can't you? Then 
can't you trust me just a little?" (p. 35). 

1 . Why does Brigid want so desperately for Sam to trust her? 

2. Does she trust him? Why or why not? 

• Human Adaptability: Throughout the novel, circumstances change that are 
beyond the control of the characters. The way they adapt (or cannot adapt) 
reveals a great deal about their personalities. Discuss the various ways the 
characters react to the following situations. 

1. Chapter 7. When Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus pay a surprise visit to 
Spade's apartment, Cairo, Brigid, and Spade each react quite differently. 
How does the action of each character advance the plot? 

2. Chapter 19. Using his knife, Gutman finds that the falcon is made of lead. 
How do the various characters react? Do any of their actions surprise you? 
Why or why not? 

EJ Homework 

Have students begin their essays, using the essay topics at the end of this guide. 
Outlines are due at the next class. 

| 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


What Makes 
a Book Great? 

Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the 
larger context of the human struggle. The writers voice, style, and use of 
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects 
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and 
breaks new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Put these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within 
groups, other books that include some of the same characteristics. Do any of 
these books remind them of The Maltese Falcon? Is this a great novel? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does 
Hammett provide through the third-person objective narration of this hard- 
boiled detective novel? What does this voice tell us about the concerns and 
dreams of Hammett's generation? 

Split the class into groups. Have each group choose the single most important 
theme of the novel. Ask a spokesperson from each group to explain his or her 
decision. Write these themes on the board. Are all the groups in agreement? 

Ed Writing Exercise 

If you were the voice of your generation, what would be your most important 
message? Why might you choose to convey this in a novel rather than a speech 
or an essay? What story would you tell to get your point across? 

Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist with outlines, 
drafts, and arguments. Have each student partner with another to edit outlines 
and rough drafts. Provide students with characteristics of a well-written essay. 

El Homework 

Students should continue working on their essays. See the essay topics at the 
end of this guide. For additional questions, see the Reader's Guide "Discussion 
Questions" (p. 14). Turn in outlines and rough drafts for the next class. 

National Endowment for the Arts 




The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essav topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as thev are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis — that is, an assertion — about the 
novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. 
The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed bv references to the text. 

1 . Write an essay about what motivates Sam 
Spade. Does he demonstrate commitment to 
his profession? If so. how? Is he a hero or an 
antihero? Which character most effectively 
serves as a foil to Spade? What personality 
traits make the foil effective? Are Spade and 
the foil more alike or different? 

2. Sam Spade has three women in his life. 
Compare his relationships to Effie Perine. Iva 
Archer, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy. How are 
they similar? How are they different? Does 
Sam care for any of them, or is he simply using 
each to his own purposes? Does he trust any 
of them? Support your answers with examples 
from the text. 

3. Write an essay that analyzes the relevance 
of the Flitcraft parable. What does it mean? 
What does it reveal about Sam Spade? 
Brigid O'Shaughnessy? How would the novel 
be different if Hammett had chosen not to 
include it? 

4. Discuss the ways money motivates characters 
throughout the novel. Which characters 
seem most interested in money? The Makese 
Falcon was published in 1930, the end of the 
decade known as the Roaring Twenties, a very 
prosperous period in our nation's history. Do 
you think Hammett is sending a moral message 
about the relentless pursuit of wealth? If so, 
what is that message? 

14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1. Have students re-enact several different scenes 
from the novel as they might be done in a new 
movie version. Ask them to write their lines in 
a script, paying close attention to the novel for 
clues as to stage direction and body language. 
Before each presentation, have a narrator 
explain the context of the scene. 

2. Host a movie screening of the John Huston 
version of The Maltese Falcon at a local theatre. 
Invite a scholar to come to the screening and 
lead a discussion about the film's interpretation 
of the novel. 

3. Have students work together to produce an 
e-zine using pulp magazines as a model. A 
student (or group of students) should begin 
to serialize an original short story, complete 
with cliffhanger chapter endings. Have other 
students choose areas they would like to work 
on, such as graphics, editing, and layout. Post 
your e-zine on the school's Web site. 

4. Create a new cover for the novel. Display your 
students' artwork at a local bookstore or Big 
Read sponsor. 

5. Explore creative writing skills through the 
following exercises: (I) write a short story 
using mostly dialogue, (2) write a short 
story without depicting the main character's 
personal history, or (3) write a detective story 
where the main character solves a mystery. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



San Francisco in the Roaring Twenties 

In 1920, more than half a million people lived in 
San Francisco, making it the twelfth-largest city 
in the United States. The city had rebuilt after the 
devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. As in the 
rest of America, many of the well-to-do were 
playing the stock market and drinking bootleg 
gin. Increases in manufacturing, especially of 
automobiles, were changing the American way of 
life. But the stock market crash of October 1929, 
which would herald the Great Depression, was 
lurking just around the corner. 

All this fleeting prosperity had a flipside, and 
Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Call, 
exposed it in My Own Story, an account of his 
years on that paper's city desk. An insider's look 
at crime on the streets of San Francisco, these 
terse stories, originally serialized in his newspaper, 
included many intimate details that could onlv be 

/ J 

published after the fact. The serials mesmerized 
San Francisco readers with a glimpse of their city's 
corrupt politicians and crooked courts — a system 
easily glimpsed between the lines of The Maltese 

Geographically, the city was a different place from 
the one we know today. San Francisco Bay's two 
great bridges didn't go up until the 1930s. The 
1920s were really the last decade in which the 
city stayed true to the one physical feature that 
originally induced people to settle there: namely, 
the greatest natural deep-water port on the West 
Coast. Cars were already menacing pedestrians in 
the city proper, the East Bay and Marin County, 

but driving from one of these places to another was 
virtually impossible. Instead, ferries transported 
people around the bay, and the Ferry Building 
at the foot of Market Street numbered among 
San Francisco's greatest landmarks. It still does 
today, but as a gourmet mecca, not the teeming 
transportation center it was during the 1920s. 

With easy air travel years away, the international 
steamship trade accounted for most of San 
Francisco's foreign commerce. The Embarcadero, 
mostly a pedestrian and tourist destination 
nowadays, remained for decades a working 
waterfront. When Sam Spade checks the daily 
paper for the comings and goings of Captain 
Jacobi's ship in The Maltese Falcon, this is no 
exaggeration. A San Francisco newspaper in the 
1920s would no sooner omit the shipping news 
than a radio station today would discontinue its 
traffic reports. 

In the era of The Maltese Falcon, San Francisco 
celebrated its diamond anniversary by tucking 
into a banquet of prosperity and expansion, with 
a piping-hot side of debauchery. The stock market 
crash soon brought an end to what had appeared 
to be limitless growth for almost everyone — 
except, curiously, Dashiell Hammett. With the 
publication of The Maltese Falcon the following 
year, he was about to make his fortune as all 
around him were losing theirs. 

16 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Hard-Boiled Fiction and Hammett's 
Writing Style 

Hard-boiled fiction is a literary term describing 
unsentimental stories and novels about violence, 
corruption, and sex, particularly among society's 
criminal element, and combining unflinching 
realism with an often flippant sense of humor. The 
name comes from hard-boiled eggs, whose last 
trace of softness has been thoroughly boiled out of 
them. I he writing is gritty, understated, and tough. 
The stories are often set in large cities where graft 
and corruption are commonplace. The hard-boiled 
hero is usually a man at odds with society, whose 
motivation stems not from monetary reward but 
from a personal code and the search for truth. 

Many hard-boiled detective novels were first 
published in serialized form in such pulp magazines 
as Black Mask and Dime Detective. Popular from 
the 1920s through the 1950s, pulp magazines took 
their name from the cheap wood-pulp paper on 
which they were printed. 

In an era before television brought entertainment 
into American homes, short stories were commonly 
popular with the public. Hammett wrote more 
than eighty short stories and five novels. His stories 
were popular in the pulps, his serialized novels 
found mainstream publishers, and filmmakers have 
enthusiastically adapted his work to the screen. 
He is credited with bringing detective fiction from 
pulp into the literary mainstream. 

His crisp writing style and use of slang brought 
the language of the streets to the page, creating an 
urban realism that registered strongly with the 

public. He developed his style by writing case 
reports during his stint as an operative for the 
Pinkcrton National Detective Agency This "just 
the facts" approach colored his writing, creating 
highly readable, fast-moving stories. Hammett 
strove for the highest standard in dialogue, setting, 
and pacing. 

Stylistically he has been compared to his 
contemporary Ernest Hemingway because they 
share a similar minimalist approach to writing. 
Like Hemingway, Hammett employs a spare style 
with plain sentence structure and fairly accessible 
language. Both are considered masters of dialogue. 
Conversations in their books convey messages 
beyond the literal meaning of the page's words. 

But the pacing of Hammett's writing and his 
penchant for hairpin plot turns are what first 
endeared him to readers of the pulps, and later to 
millions of fans of detective fiction. The Maltese 
Falcon has an intricate series of plot twists, but the 
story is told in a straightforward, uncomplicated 
way. Hammett's style influenced a host of later 
writers of detective fiction, including Raymond 
Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, 
and Walter Mosley 

National Endowment for the Arts 



The Falcon as a Symbol 

The Maltese falcon really existed, if not in a form 
Hammetts readers would recognize. It dates 
back to the Knights or Malta, a religious order 
rounded as the Knights Hospitaller in the year 
1080 to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims 
to Jerusalem. In 1530, Holv Roman Emperor 
Charles V of Spain gave the order a large territory, 
including Malta, in exchange for an annual fee of a 
single — live, not bejeweled — Maltese falcon. Even 
though it has no territorv today, the order survives 
and is considered a sovereign state, with observer 
status at the United Nations. 

Dashiell Hammett drew on the history of the 
Knights of Malta when creating the plot hook for 
The Maltese Falcon. He explained this historical 
influence bv saving simply, "Somewhere I had read 
of the peculiar rental agreement between Charles 
V and the Order of the Hospital of Saint John 
of Jerusalem." The Crusades probably intrigued 
Hammett because of their mythic association with 
the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the last 
supper. The association with the Crusades subtly 
elevates Sam Spade to a knight on a noble errand, 
a ploy that intensifies the quest and, considering 
how ignoble mam- of Hammetts characters are, 
mocks it at the same time. 

Falconry, the sport of using trained birds to hunt 
small pre\ r , dates back thousands of years. Well- 
trained birds were prized for their beaury, skill, and 
practicalitv. A fearsome hunter, the falcon has long 
been a symbol of prowess and ruthlessness — not 

unlike Sam Spade, the detective who pursues it 
in Hammetts novel. Early Christians borrowed 
pagan svmbols like the falcon but altered their 
meaning to reflect their own values. Because 
they are relentless hunters, wild falcons often 
symbolized evil, while tamed falcons represented 
Christian conversion and repentance. Coats of 
arms from the Middle Ages often included falcons 
as a symbol of a pursuer, one who will not rest 
until his objective is achieved. This single-minded 
imperviousness to distraction, too, should remind 
readers of Spade and his fellow falcon-hunters. 

A valuable prize that everyone in a story is chasing. 
as with Hammetts falcon, is sometimes called 
a "mas;uffin." Film director Alfred Hitchcock 
popularized the term to describe the elusive objects 
that so many of his heroes and villains pursued. In 
each case, the nature of the object is less important 
than how much evervone wants it. 

In the book, greed destroys any hope the characters 
have for contented lives, yet they cannot give 
up the chase. Thev are driven by uncontrollable 
yearnings that eat away at their humanity and 
contaminate relationships. Reversing the lead-into- 
gold transformation familiar from alchemy, the 
Maltese falcon has been reduced from gold to lead, 
and down with it go the lives of all who vainly 
chase it. 

I 8 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Printed Resources 

Layman, Richard, ed. Discovering The Maltese Falcon and 
Sam Spade. San Francisco: Vince Emery Books, 2005. 

Layman, Richard. Shadow Man. San Diego: Harcourt Brace 
Jovanovich Books, 1981. 

Thompson, George J. Hammett's Moral Vision. San 
Francisco: Vince Emery Books, 2007. 

Web sites 

This site is a cyber-reincarnation of the popular pulp 

magazine. Contains history, cover art, and links to some 

of the fiction that appeared during the heyday of the 

Part of Court TV's online Crime Library, this Web site 
gives a good overview of the history of the Pinkerton 
National Detective Agency. 

A Web site dedicated to preserving the colorful history of 

San Francisco. 


American Masters site about Dashiell Hammett's life and 

his writing. 

The official Big Read Web site. Refer to the handouts from 
The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms Teacher's Guides 
for more information about the culture and history of 
Hammett's era. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1. Students read a wide range of print and 
non-print texts to build an understanding of 
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of 
the United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

11. Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 




'My clients are entitled to a 
decent amount of secrecy. • . . 
As far as I can see, my best 
chance of clearing myself of 
the trouble you're trying to 
make for me is by bringing in 
the murderers — all tied up." 

Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon 


Z j 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

A great nation deserves great art.