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Existentialism & Culture

Sam Spade, Existential Hero?

Michael Rockler scrutinizes the private investigator’s existentialist credentials.

Perhaps the most popular existential work of the 20th century was written by a man who has not usually been identified as a philosopher, but whose work clearly embodies existential themes. Dashiell Hammett, creator of the hard-boiled detective novel, applied an existential viewpoint to his writing. His novel The Maltese Falcon is an excellent example of literature in which existential themes run through the story.

The Maltese Falcon begins when a young and very attractive women, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, approaches private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer. She wishes to hire them to rescue her sister from Floyd Thursby, whom she believes has her sibling under his control. Spade and his partner take the case, but it results in the murder of Archer. It also compels Spade into a hunt for a mysterious statue in the shape of a Falcon, which is allegedly encrusted with jewels. In the end, Spade solves the murder of Archer and turns the perpetrator over to the police even though it may ultimately not be in his best interest to do so. But as Spade says, “when a man’s partner is killed, he has to do something about it.”

Existentialism, as defined by Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard and others, begins with the premise that ‘existence precedes essence’. For many other philosophical systems, the essence of a person is present at birth. For existentialists, however, an individual must define his or her own reality. Because the universe does not provide meaning, only existence, the existential task of a human being is create his or her own meaning, and the central requirement for living a meaningful life is a continual process of self-definition. A person is not defined by what he or she claims to be, but rather by his or her actions.

Existentialists often focus on death in their writings because death provides a temporal limit to the process of self-definition. Existentialists further believe that the defining process encompasses solitude, choice and freedom. In order to create one’s self, freedom of action is required. Hence, one must not become so entangled with the lives of others that one’s autonomy is diminished. Generally, existential decisions regarding the creation of self may be difficult ones, and can lead to great anguish.

Hammett, Hamlet and Macbeth

Dashiell Hammett was born on May 27, 1894 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended a vocational high school for one semester in 1908. He left school to help in his father’s business, which he did not want to do. At 14, he had completed all the formal education he was ever to receive. In 1915, Hammett joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency – a job he enjoyed, and held for three years, before enlisting in the army in June 1918 to fight in the First World War. In 1920 he returned to Pinkerton and worked in the Spokane, Washington branch of the agency. In November, he entered a hospital with tuberculosis, which he had contracted during the War. In 1921 he married Josephine Dolan, who was his nurse, and soon thereafter the Hammetts had their first child and moved to San Francisco.

Hammett was no longer able to work as a detective, so to make a living for his family he began to write detective stories, drawing on his work as a Pinkerton operative. His novels were well received, and in 1929 he published his best-known book, The Maltese Falcon. It has been made into several films; the most successful one being produced in 1941, directed by John Huston. Huston essentially adapted the novel into film by following the novel closely, but not quite verbatim. Hammett wrote several more novels, and later in his life he earned a living as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He also adapted his work for radio and television. He died in January, 1961.

In an essay originally published in 1976, John G. Cawelti argues that for Hammett, and thus for Sam Spade, the cosmos is godless and ruled by chance and violence. Rather than being in a benevolent universe in which there is progress, human beings are alone in a meaningless world. This view is also present in Macbeth’s famous lament:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Unlike Sam Spade however, Macbeth is not an example of existential man, but rather is defined by the people and circumstances around him. The weird sisters and Lady Macbeth define his choices, diminishing his freedom as they help him hurl himself into the abyss. While Hamlet, for example, struggles to define himself, Macbeth allows others to define him. Sadly, the end is the same for both; but Hamlet remains a noble figure while Macbeth has become an archetypal tragic villain.

Sam Spade’s Self

In Hammett’s novel, Spade tells Brigid the story of Flitcraft – a person from an earlier case solved by the detective. Mrs Flitcraft asked Spade to find her husband. The man had left his family with enough financial resources to be comfortable, but could not be found.

Spade traced his quarry to Canada. It turns out Flitcraft was a successful businessman. As he was returning from lunch one day a beam from a construction site fell and nearly killed him. This led Flitcraft to reflect on his life, and he concluded that he had not made enough of it. His near-death-experience made him decide to leave San Francisco and seek a better life elsewhere. He took care to see that his family was well provided for, then left.

Spade goes on to tell Brigid that in fact, Flitcraft’s new life was an almost exact replica of his former life. He married again, and his new wife was very much like his first spouse. He even had a similar kind of job.

Spade tells this story to Brigid because he (and Hammett) need to make the point that people do not easily change. Once one has defined oneself, it is difficult to become a different person. Thus Spade tells this story partly to prepare Brigid (and the reader) for the climax of the novel. Hammett puts it in the novel to make the point that creating one’s life requires difficult choices and hard work. Simply leaving San Francisco for Canada does not lead to the creation of a new essence. But unlike Macbeth, Sam Spade has defined and is defining himself. The ending of the novel makes this clear.

Spade has finally acquired the elusive Maltese Falcon. He offers to sell it to Gutman and Joel Cairo. They seemingly agree to terms, and spend the night in Spade’s apartment waiting for Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary, to bring the Falcon. However, when it arrives the Falcon turns out to be a fake. Now Spade faces a crucial definitional choice. The two characters who have been chasing the Falcon ask Spade to join them as they continue their quest. Should they succeed (and the odds of their success would certainly increase if Spade joins them), all of them would become immensely wealthy, including Spade. Spade declines the offer, and after Gutman and Cairo leave, he calls the police, and this leads to their apprehension and arrest.

Spade then faces a second major choice. He has developed a romantic attachment to Brigid, with whom he has made love. He has also deduced that Brigid killed his partner, Miles Archer. Does he accept Brigid’s offer to be with her, or does he turn her in to the police for murder? Spade deliberates:

Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good.

You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away – bad for that one organization and bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go.

Here Sam Spade has defined himself as a detective. That’s not only how he makes a living, it’s also who he is. That definition entails certain behaviors which he cannot change if he is to maintain his identity – part of being a detective involves catching criminals and bringing them to justice.

Sartre proposed a Kantian ethical test: he argued that one’s behavior must meet a standard of universal applicability – one’s actions must be applicable by all. Spade has applied this test to his definition of himself as a detective: if all detectives caught criminals only to let them go, what would be the consequences for law enforcement? Spade’s self-definition includes a commitment to do something when one’s partner is killed. It’s part of his code as a detective, and if he violates this code he’s no longer living within the self-definition he has created. In his life Flitcraft defined himself as a dedicated husband and businessman. That definition remains for him even if he changes wives and countries: it’s who Flitcraft is. And being a detective is who Sam Spade is. (However, Sartre would call such an attitude of fixed self-definition ‘bad faith’, or ‘inauthenticity’.)

Effie Perine, Spade’s secretary, is the one person in the novel who accepts Spade for who he is; and she is the one female in the novel with whom Spade has an authentic relationship. Iva Archer, Miles Archer’s wife, would like to have a serious relationship with Spade, as would Brigid. But relationships with either of these women would interfere with the definition of himself that Spade has created. Only Effie accepts (and probably loves) Sam Spade for who is.


Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon provides a literary exposition of existentialism. The novel continues to be read and studied because, unlike many other detective novels of that era, it explores the nature of human life. Mystery buffs still read Agatha Christie’s novels, and they still read about Sherlock Holmes; but these works are read because of the intricate puzzles created for their protagonists to solve. Dashiell Hammett’s works are read because they offer less intricate puzzles in a bigger philosophical context. As a result Hammett’s work will continue to be read and studied for many more generations. After all, Macbeth is still being performed, more than 400 years after it was first written for the stage.

© Michael Rockler 2009

Michael Rockler is Adjunct Professor of General Studies at Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland.

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