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American authors James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler published Double Indemnity in 1943 and “Red Wind” in 1946, after the Great Depression. Both texts belong to the genre of noir fiction. The two main components of noir texts include hard boiled fiction and femme fatale. Hardboiled fictions are stories that resonate with American crime stories; whereas, femme fatale is the portrayal of females as the attractive, seductive, and manipulating characters of the stories. Both Cain and Chandler are authors that share similar views, but use different techniques to portray the same components of femme fatale and hard boiled fiction in their texts. They both incorporate the use of satire and symbolism to criticize the increasing status of women in society.
The Great Depression was a worldwide financial crisis that occurred due to the crash of the stock market in 1929. The Great Depression gave the women’s rights movements a chance to pursue employment. It was the norm for women to be responsible solely for the household chores, being an acceptable mother, and to fulfill the duty of being a wife. Due to the pressures of the Great Depression and shortly after World War II, women were able to maintain their employment in order to support their families. Many of the occupations women held included working as clerical workers, nurses, housekeepers, and teachers. The majority of men, who considered themselves as the “breadwinners” or the main financial supporters of their families, strongly disapproved of women obtaining paid employment as they believed that the only title women should have obtained was “caretaker”; furthermore, their position in the forever known patriarchal system was threatened. Their jealousy derives from women receiving paid labor as many men, fathers, and husbands were laid off from their professions. This mentality that men held during this time period can be found in the work of author James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Raymond Chandler “Red Wind”. Both Cain and Chandler satirize the women in this time period by using femme fatale to focus on women who use seduction as a technique to bring her lovers into disastrous and compromising situations which alongside degrades the intelligence and purpose of the women’s rights movement of achieving equality to men both economically and socially.
James M. Cain, born in 1892 worked as a journalist before being drafted in the United States Army for World War I where he was deployed to France for the final year of the war. His return to the states influenced him to pursue his writing as he became well known for his hardboiled fiction. After publishing noir fiction he moved to Hollywood to begin writing screenplays. Cain’s well known hard boiled fiction titled Double Indemnity begins when Huff, an insurance agent visits a client, Mr. Nirdlinger, to persuade him to renew his auto insurance. When he learns that Mr. Nirdlinger is not home, he encounters Phyllis, his clients wife. Cain’s use of femme fatale is portrayed through Mr. Nirdlinger wife, Phyllis. Phyllis, described to be exceedingly attractive, catches the eye of Huff and leads him to his destruction as together they have an affair and concoct a plan to murder Phyllis’s husband with the intentions of capturing her husband’s insurance policy. After Huff has fallen in love with Phyllis and they have murdered her husband, Mr. Nerdlingers daughter, Lola is convinced that her mother died of pneumonia and her mother’s nurse, Phyllis intentionally fell in love with Mr. Nirdlinger for his money. To avoid Lola from discovering the truth of her father’s death, Huff understands that he must kill Phyllis despite his love for her. With the intention of trapping her, his guard is let down and he wakes up in the hospital from a gunshot wound given to him by Phyllis. Confessing his crimes, Huff falls in love with Lola, but learns that she has promised another. Feeling hopeless and alone both Phyllis and Huff commit suicide by jumping overboard. Red Wind incorporates a similar plot that also portrays the themes of hardboiled fiction and femme fatale. Facing unemployment due to the Great Depression, American novelist Raymond Chandler began writing noir fiction in 1932.
Chandler’s hardboiled fiction, “Red Wind” immediately begins with the murder scene. Chandler begins the story with the murder scene to capture his readers attention. Three men: Philip Marlowe, a drunk, and a man referred to as Waldo, sit in a bar and engage in a conversation. It becomes surprising to readers when they learn that suddenly the drunk kills Waldo and quickly scurries from the crime scene. Marlowe, a detective and a witness to the crime learns that a woman named Lola was supposed to meet Waldo to retrieve her pearls as Waldo was blackmailing her for having an affair on her husband. Throughout the novel Marlow aids Lola in finding her pearls despite the killer later attempting to murder any witnesses of the crime. Femme fatale is prevalent in “Red Wind” through the character of Lola. Similar to Phyllis in Double Indemnity, Lola represents femme fatale as she leads Marlowe to his destruction. After Lola saves Marlowe’s life his feelings for her change and he is willing to protect her no matter the cost. It’s this mentality that leads him down a catastrophic path. Chandler portrays Lola as a damsel in distress that needs the help of a masculine character to retrieve her pearls which further validates Chandler’s message that women do not have the capability to uphold independent and heroic roles and that they are highly dependable on men. Cain developed Phyllis’s character throughout the text to demonstrate femme fatale in Double Indemnity. Her seduction and attractiveness caused Huff to fall in love with her, but her greediness ultimately lead him to a depressive state luring him into danger from the beginning. Keyes exclaims to Huff, “This woman would even kill two extra children, just to get the one child that she wanted..she’s a pathological case”. In a patriarchal system where men are the breadwinners that provide financially for their families and women are caretakers, the characters of Double Indemnity are the opposite. As Mr. Nerdlinger is the financial income for his family, Phyllis neglects her duties as a mother and fails miserably at being a wife. Her ignorance, selfishness, and greed for money threatens the ideas of the patriarchal ideals familiar to society.
Through the language of the text, it is possible that Cain’s disapproval of women’s increasing status in society is shown in Double Indemnity as he uses satire to mock and criticize women for abandoning their roles as full time household caretakers to pursue the workforce. This is satirized in the text as Phyllis abandons her duties in pursuit of cashing in her husband’s insurance policy to take his money. On the other hand, Chandler gives more flexibility and understanding to the character of Lola in regards of femme fatale. Lola is portrayed as a helpless character in search of her pearls but her attitude and presence show that she is an independent character with an increasing status in society as Chandler writes, “she jabbed the little gun hard into his short ribs, without a single sound”. This proves that Lola is more than capable of taking care of herself and does not completely rely on a man to completely support or save her. This declines the patriarchal system as it described that women could not fend for themselves. Additionally symbolism is used by Cain and Chandler to help create a meaning or emotion to the story. In Double Indemnity the house of the Nerdlinger house is described with “blood red drapes” which symbolizes “The House of Death”. This brings emotion to the story as Phyllis kills her husband and Cain enforces the readers and his audience to feel a sense of horrific emotion. On the other hand, the stolen pearls that belong to Lola in Red Wind represent Lola’s love and compassion in the story. Lola is a character treated with respect but whose savior becomes Marlowe as she is in desperate need of help. Lolas distress comes from her past lovers but it is understood by readers that Lola is not in desperate need of Marlowes support but rather that she prefers his help. Chandler addresses her increasing status in society but like Cain’s attitude is shown through the language and text, it is questionable if Chandler is a supporter of women increasing their status both socially and economically.
The differences between both texts are in the language and writing of Double Indemnity and Red Wind. Cain takes a more direct appointed view on commenting on his dislike for women becoming more socially and economically active in society. Although Chandler shares similar viewpoints, he takes a less direct approach and subtly hints at this dislike. Both texts follow the themes of hardboiled fiction and femme fatale. It follows the idea of old American crime stories. The audience of both texts relates to women and men as each others standings can be understood. Men can feel the attraction and seduction of a woman through femme fatale and similarly female readers can feel the strength and masculinity of the male characters in both plots.
A separation in style can be found between the texts of Cain and Chandler. The separation is found in the way that the main characters respond to the temptations of the criminal activities that take place in both of the plots and in femme fatale. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis is described as a more manipulative and scheming character than Lola. Phyllis, who is in control of the male characters of the story influences the audience to dislike her. Whereas, Chandler shows the vulnerability and strength that remains in Lola which causes readers to like Lola more than Phyllis.
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