Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett’s Subliminal Messages An analysis of themes, allusions, and symbols in “Arson Plus” Author Salman Rushdie once said, “A little bit of one story joins onto an idea from another, and hey presto, . .

. not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing,” (Goodreads). This begs the question, are all works of literature just derivations of older stories, presented in a new, different format? This is only partly correct. What Rushdie is suggesting is that all literary work has inspiration, whether it is from a different story, or from history. These new derivations of old stories are what can be analyzed to find parts of the original inspiration, which have come to be known as allusions.

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Allusions are abundant in literature and enrich the story, while allowing the reader to interpret the scenes of the story more clearly. Theme is another valuable literary technique almost every author uses to convey their underlying message to the reader. Theme can be analyzed to view the world from the author’s point of view, and see what values are important to the author. Symbolism is a technique authors use to give meaning to objects that would otherwise seem insignificant to the reader. The added profundity to such simple objects allows the reader to realize why some objects are always associated with certain characters, or why some objects are brought up time and time again. In his short story “Arson Plus”, Dashiell Hammett uses allusions, thematic elements, and symbolism to establish the intrinsic meaning behind his words.

Hammett makes use of many allusions in “Arson Plus”, but an extremely clear allusion is one to The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One such connection can be seen when main characters obsess over hopeless events. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby has a burning passion for Daisy, but when Gatsby’s shady criminal activities are revealed to Daisy, she cannot return to loving Gatsby. At this point in the story, rekindling his fiery love for Daisy is impossible for Gatsby. Gatsby persists however, and he stays up all night watching Daisy and Tom from outside their house, and making sure Daisy is safe, “He put his hands in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house, as though my presence marred the sacredness of the vigil.

So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing,” (Fitzgerald-153). Gatsby stands in a very melancholy scene, overseeing all the actions in the house, as his burning love for Daisy slowly extinguishes. In “Arson Plus”, the criminal, Handerson, is shown in a scene which bears an uncanny resemblance to this scene from The Great Gatsby. In the scene, Handerson watches the fire burn down the remaining structure of the building, “(Handerson) stayed there watching the fire until it had burned itself out,” (Hammett- 8). Handerson is eventually found to be the one who owns the house, and he was the one who burned it down and faked his own death to collect insurance payments.

This scene is stunningly similar to the one described in The Great Gatsby. In this scene, Handerson watches as a literal fire burns out the remains of his house, just as Gatsby saw his fiery lust for Daisy burn out. Although Handerson had motive to burn the house down, it can be assumed that he did have some lugubrious thoughts as the house burned down, based on the dismal mood created in the scene. Just like Gatsby, Handerson has just lost a very valuable aspect in his life, but he stands to benefit from this loss, while Gatsby does not. Another comparison that can be made between The Great Gatsby and “Arson Plus” is the insistence to dwell on the past. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s goal is to relive the past he shared with Daisy.

This theme is apparent in “Arson Plus”, especially when the detectives arrive at the scene of the fire. When the detectives arrive, they look around the scene, “we poked around the ashes a bit- not that we expected to find anything, but because it’s the nature of man to poke around in ruins,” (Hammett- 9). The detectives look through the ruins, which are symbolic of the past and previous events. Hammett introduces the idea that it is an innate part of human nature to dwell on the past. The detectives don’t expect to find anything in the ruins, meaning that the search in the ruins has been a waste of time. This waste of time allows the reader to interpret Hammett’s opinion on the subject: that dwelling on the past will not help people progress toward their goal.

Fitzgerald also suggested this when he had Gatsby killed as an end result of dwelling on his past. Dwelling on the past is one of the many themes which serve as a connection between these two stories. Hammett creates another similarity between The Great Gatsby and “Arson Plus”, this one being that many characters seem innocent on the outside, but their innocence has been tarnished by sin and corruption on the inside. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby fills this role, being a seemingly innocent individual. Rumors spread regarding Gatsby and how he accumulated his wealth, leading many speculate that Gatsby has taken part in criminal activities and that he has a fraudulent background. Later, these conjectures are corroborated, “‘I found out what your ‘drug stores’ were.

‘ He (Tom) turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He (Gatbsy) and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong,” (Fitzgerald-134). The truth of Gatsby’s criminal past has finally come out, shocking everybody in the room. Following a similar structure, Hammett creates an allusion to The Great Gatsby.

Handerson, like Gatsby, seems innocent at first, and the detectives consider ruling him out as a suspect. In the end, however, the truth of the crime is surfaced. Handerson also creates a semblance of purity, much like Gatsby. He does this by putting up a fake company name on sign atop the doorway to his office, the sign reading “Instant Sheen Cleanser Company”. This minute detail has extreme significance, and helps build an allusion to Gatsby.

A cleanser provokes an image of something pure, or something that will remove all dirt and imperfections. By creating such a name, Handerson subliminally hints that he is ‘clean’ or innocent. Gatsby and Handerson both create a pure, innocent facade, while truly being corrupt under it all. The idea of seeming innocent and really being corrupt leads the reader to a major theme in the novel, things aren’t always what they seem. Hammett uses this theme in relation to the Coonses and Ms. Trowbridge.

The Coonses are the servants that work in the house which had burned down, and they were initially interrogated to reveal any involvement in the crime. The detectives were unable to gather valuable information and felt that the two couldn’t be the culprits, “They (Coonses) might pad the bills, or even go South with some of the silver, but they don’t figure as killers in my mind,” (Hammett-7). The detectives feel the Coonses couldn’t have commited the crime, so they do not pursue the lead any further. Later, however, the detectives realize that the Coonses were part of the fraud to receive the insurance money. Ms. Evelyn Trowbridge is also a prime example of someone who seemed somewhat innocent at first, but was found to be guilty in the end.

Her alibi is that she had been entertaining guests the night of the fire, and this alibi is proved to be true, “However, between her (Trowbridge), the janitor, and the manager of the apartments, I learned that she had really been entertaining friends on the night of the fire- until after eleven o’clock- anyway, that was late enough,” (Hammett- 17). This seems to be enough evidence to exonerate Ms. Trowbridge from any accusation. In reality, Ms. Trowbridge was part of a group of people including the Coonses and Handerson who conspired to burn the house down and split the money.

Through these ambiguous characters Hammett relates an important theme in life: things may not always be as they may seem. Hammett encourages some cynicism by incorporating this theme into his story. He suggests that rather than blindly believing everything, people should think twice and be aware of what or who they are truly dealing with. This ambiguous theme can also be observed in the poem “The Hound”, by Robert Francis, as well as Hammett’s story, “Arson Plus”. Hammett creates this theme through his characters in “Arson Plus”.

In “Arson Plus”, Handerson, the Coonses, and Ms. Evelyn Trowbridge are all seen as ambiguous chracters. As the investigation continues, their involvement in the crime is unknown, making them seem suspicious at times, and innocent at other times. This ambiguity is also clearly documented in the poem “The Hound”, by Robert Francis. Francis writes, Life the hound Equivocal Comes at a bound Either to rend me Or to befriend me The ambiguity in the poem is clear, as the hound can either attack the man or befriend the man. The hound, as explained in the first line, is a metaphor for life itself.

The poem proposes the idea that life can either be very harsh and punishing, or it can be very pleasing and peaceful. The last two lines of the poem show that life’s course of action, whether it is pleasing or punitive, is completely out of human control. Meanwhile I stand And wait the event Francis portrays life as an ambiguous, unpredictable being, much like Hammett has through his ambiguous characters. Both authors portray ambiguity as a prevailing factor in life that humans must be weary of. Two important symbols in “Arson Plus” include the fire which had burned the house down and the gasoline which had been used to ignite the fire. In “Arson Plus”, fire is symbolic of corruption and fraud.

Handerson, the Coonses, and Trowbridge all burned down the house for money, and this act of immorality can be seen as corrupt malfeasance. The fire is the means by which the money is acquired, and the processes employed to obtain illegal money are unscrupulous. The gas which lights the fire is symbolic of greed and materialism. If the fire is seen as the corrupt mechanism to procure the money, then the gas must be the driving force behind the fraudulent fire. It is imperative that the gas is symbolic of something so drastic that it drives the culprits to completely immoral ways just so they may live their materialistic lifestyles.

This driving force must be greed, as it is a strong enough feeling to enable the three characters to lose track of morals and social standards while keeping the sole ambition of money in their minds. Allusions, themes, and symbols all help to uncover Dashiell Hammett’s true message in his short story, “Arson Plus”. Just as Salman Rushdie stated, ‘nothing comes from nothing’. Every piece of work has inspiration and similarity to other works of literature. “Arson Plus” is no exception to the rule, leaving hidden messages on every page for readers to interpret and remember. Through subtle hints, Hammett comments on the aspects of life from human nature to ambiguity.

Hammett has proven himself to be a master at leaving subliminal messages throughout his works, and these are the messages readers will remember for the longest time, even if they are not aware of it. Works Cited Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 1996.

Print. Hammett, Dashiell. “Arson Plus.” Crime Stories and Other Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2001.

3-21. Print. Perrine, Laurence. “The Hound.” Sound and Sense, an Introduction to Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

N. pag. Print. “Quotes About Allusion.” Good Reads. Goodreads Inc, n.

d. Web. 19 May