The Maltese Falcon: Summary, Characters & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Characters of 'The…
  • 2:17 Plot Summary
  • 3:38 Analysis
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

In this lesson, we will review the numerous characters in Dashiell Hammett's crime novel 'The Maltese Falcon' and also consider some common ways that critics have analyzed the story. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Characters of The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade is a private detective with a strong distrust of cops and other authority figures. His treatment of women often appears thoughtless, if not outright disrespectful, such as when he seduces his partner's wife Iva or when he threatens to strip search Brigid in front of other men. His sense of loyalty is rarely clear, since he accepts money and agrees to help different people, even when their wishes are antithetical. Nevertheless, Spade does appear to have a personal sense of honor underlying his actions.

Miles Archer is another private detective and Spade's partner and is shot dead early in the novel while working a job for their client Miss Wonderly.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a.k.a. Miss Wonderly, is a perfect example of the character archetype femme fatale. A femme fataleis a type of woman who uses her sexuality combined with an appearance of helplessness to get men to do what she wants, even though she's actually quite self-sufficient and dangerous.

Casper Gutman, a.k.a. 'G', is the fat, outspoken mastermind of the search for the Maltese Falcon. He's been looking for the valuable statue for seventeen years.

Joel Cairo is a well-dressed, exceptionally polite man working for Gutman. His features are described as 'Levantine,' a term which typically refers to people of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent. His overall mannerisms and actions at the end of the novel heavily imply that he and Wilmer Cook are lovers. Cairo's ethnicity and his sexuality are both depicted in such a way as to mark him as an outsider.

Wilmer Cook is Gutman's young, surly hired gunman. He kills Thursby, Jacobi, and Gutman.

Floyd Thursby originally works with Brigid in her search for the Maltese Falcon. Brigid claims that Thursby betrayed her, although we never learn if this is true. He turns up dead the same night that Miles Archer gets shot and killed.

Captain Jacobi brings the Maltese Falcon into port on the ship La Paloma. After being shot by Wilmer Cook, he manages to carry the statue to Spade's office before falling over dead.

Effie Perine is Spade's loyal secretary. She believes in Brigid's innocence and fiercely insists that Spade must protect his client.

Iva Archer, Miles Archer's wife, is having an affair with Spade. She expects Spade to marry her, but he clearly has no intention of doing so.

Plot Summary of The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon itself is a statue of a bird covered in valuable jewels. It's been painted black to hide its true worth. Those who know about the statue will go to criminal lengths - including murder - to track it down (Hey, this wouldn't be a crime novel without a good batch of greedy criminals, right?).

Early in the novel, Miles Archer gets shot and killed while following Thursby. Thursby also turns up dead. However, everyone seems to care more about finding the Maltese Falcon than uncovering the murderer (I did mention they were greedy!). Cairo and Gutman each offer Spade large cash rewards for his help. Brigid doesn't have lots of money, so she tries to seduce Spade.

Spade plays Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman against each other by telling each individually that he will help him or her. He takes money from both Gutman and Cairo. He even has sex with Brigid (Nice guy, huh? In this novel, even the hero is a jerk!).

Eventually, Captain Jacobi shows up at Spade's office with a bullet wound and dies holding the Maltese Falcon. Spade agrees to give the statue to Gutman as long as they can pin the murders on Wilmer. They make the exchange, and Gutman peels off the black enamel only to discover that the bird is a fake made of lead.

It turns out that Wilmer killed both Thursby and Jacobi while working for Gutman and Cairo. Brigid confesses that she shot Miles Archer in an attempt to frame Thursby. At the end of the novel, Wilmer kills Gutman, and Spade turns Brigid over to the police.

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