Part 1 of our Agatha Christie miniseries! Aditi and Debraath talk about Dame Agatha’s eventful life and analyse the themes of one of her best-known works: And Then There Were None! Did you marvel at the buildup of paranoia as the story progressed? Were you intrigued by the moral ambiguity of Justice Wargrave?
Aditi: Hi School! Journsplit is back with another episode!! This episode will be a bit special as this is the first episode of what will soon be a three-part miniseries on the queen of crime, Agatha Christie, and some of her works.
Debraath: Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, was an English writer known for her sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections, particularly those revolving around fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
A: Yes! She also wrote the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in the West End from 1952 to 2020, as well as six novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
D: In 1971, she was made a Dame for her contributions to literature. Guinness World Records lists Christie as the best-selling fiction writer of all time, her novels having sold more than two billion copies.
A: Since childhood, she was quite the rebel. According to her, her mother believed she should not learn to read until she was eight, Curious young Agatha paid her no heed and was reading by the age of four. In 1905, after her father died, her mother sent her to Paris, where she was educated in a series of pensionnats (boarding schools), focusing on voice training and piano playing. Deciding she lacked the temperament and talent, she gave up her goal of performing professionally as a concert pianist or an opera singer.
D: Yup, definitely a rebel. Apparently her husband had asked her for a divorce soon after they got married, because he had fallen in love with a woman called Nancy Neele. On 3 December 1926, the pair quarrelled after her husband announced his plan to spend the weekend with friends, unaccompanied by his wife. Later that evening, Christie disappeared from their home. People back then were really hungry for a scandal and this disappearance made headlines. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes even gave a spirit medium one of Christie’s gloves to find her!
A: The following morning, her car, a Morris Cowley, was discovered at Newlands Corner, parked above a chalk quarry with an expired driving licence and clothes inside. This disappearance drove people to utter madness. People were scouring the streets for any trace of where she might be, but as you can deduce from the true stroke of genius with which she wrote her stories, she wasn’t found for quite a while. Finally, after 10 days, she was found at a hotel. You’ll never guess what name she was registered under – Tressa Neele! She used the surname of her husband’s lover! Savage… It’s really cool how she could think up such a sophisticated plan in just a day! There’s no doubt where the criminals and detectives in her books get it from!
D: According to a few sources, Christie’s autobiography makes no reference to the disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from “an unquestionable genuine loss of memory”, yet opinion remains divided over the reason for her disappearance. Some, including her biographer Morgan, believe she disappeared during a state of psychological dissociation and amnesia. The author Jared Cade concluded that Christie planned the event to embarrass her husband but did not anticipate the resulting public melodrama. Christie’s biographer Laura Thompson provides an alternative view that Christie disappeared during a nervous breakdown, conscious of her actions but not in emotional control of herself. Public reaction at the time was largely negative, supposing a publicity stunt or an attempt to frame her husband for murder.
A: If you thought her life was interesting, wait till you hear about her stories. Today, we’ll be talking about And Then There Were None.
D: We’ll be analysing its themes today. Ten Little Soldier Boys, a well known, rather morbid nursery rhyme is a major plot point as it dictates the manner in which the people are killed.
A: There were three main themes for the story: Conscience and Guilt, Paranoia (about dying) and finally Justice. The first theme is evident from the start where the ten people killed by the judge, Justice Wargrave (including Morris) all were responsible for killing someone. Wargrave also fulfilled his lustful intention of killing others.
D: Yes! You can tell the story is about guilt right from when the gramophone record sets the story going, with a voice reading out which of the ten was responsible for whose murder and when the murders were committed. This also causes the breakdown of Mrs Rogers. After hearing the voice, she let out a scream and collapsed.
A: By the end of the book, Vera has killed 2 people in the course of her entire life. The first was Cyril who was her charge when she was a governess, and the second, Lombard, was shot by her as a means of self-preservation. After killing Lombard, her mental state coupled with her guilt and regret causes her to kill herself by hanging. To think of it, the way Wargrave set up the hanging was sadistic. Wargrave took his mind games to a whole new level… Vera saw Hugo and Cyril whenever she was close to encountering death.
D: In the epilogue, when Wargrave tells the reader indirectly that he was the mastermind, the resolution is when he shoots himself in the forehead in the manner he disguised his death on Soldier Island, hence rendering the case nearly impossible to solve. Indeed, the set-up was very intricate.
A: Quite a sizeable portion of the book involves frequent flashbacks and monologues. They detail mental conditions of the people and their lingering guilt such as Ms Brent, who kicked Beatrice Taylor out of her house as the girl had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Following this, Beatrice jumped off a bridge and committed suicide by drowning. Especially for Vera, when even the seaweed and the smell of the sea it released caused her to remember the repressed memory and trauma. She was so terrified at the point of time that she thought she was being strangled when the seaweed touched her neck in the bathroom.
D: Here’s an interesting observation: Lombard does not consider himself to be a murderer because he didn’t think that the natives he killed were actual deaths. This is clearly evident from “And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do” to which Vera reacts in a shocked manner initially but is not affected by it (“They were only natives”) and when Ms Brent replies that they were humans too, she mockingly replies “Our black brothers – our black brothers. Oh, I’m going to laugh”. It could be hysteria from immediately listening to the record recite the misdeeds of the ten people, or it could be her actual opinion.
A: The second theme is Paranoia, especially about their deaths. As the number of living people left on Soldier Island begins to dwindle, everyone begins to suspect the other living members left. The suspicion and terror mounting is written in a way so that the reader too feels terrified. From the moment when there are six people left, the monologues of each person show how panicked they are getting.
D: Indeed, this culminates when only Lombard and Vera are left. Without hesitating, she shoots Lombard because she knows that she isn’t the murderer and hence wrongly deduces that Lombard must be responsible for the killings.
A: Wargrave purposefully exploited this building paranoia by making the people whose crimes were worse suffer from the slow mental breakdown and guilt by killing them last (he mentioned this in his letter). Hence, Marston is killed first for his recklessness and the absence of guilt he had towards the death of the two children while Vera is killed last, by her own hands, for the guilt of killing Cyril by purposefully letting him swim in the sea when she knew he would not be able to survive the strong currents. She then lived with the guilt of her lover, Hugo losing all his trust in her after she killed Cyril for his inheritance. (this was proven when Wargrave met up with Hugo where he talked about the vile action she committed).
D: Also, from the very start, there is a blame game being played. Dr Armstrong is blamed first after the death of Mrs Rogers, and this is then further exacerbated once the hypodermic syringe used to inject cyanide into and hence kill Ms Brent is found to be missing from his room when the remaining people go to investigate. The paranoia leads to a continual exchange of accusations and distrust. This shows how easily people turn against each other when their lives are at stake.
A: The last theme is Justice. Wargrave wanted justice for those who died unnaturally at the hands of others, and thus went on a relentless hunt for ten murderers who slipped through the loopholes of the Law. As a judge, he could not help the victims of these murderers because the cases fell through the cracks of the law. Thus, he tried to be a vigilante by killing the perpetrators.
D: Come to think of it, that is a common line in some of her books! Remember Murder On The Orient Express? Cassetti was not punished for his crime hence people ganged up on and murdered him.
A: Oh yes! That’s a very good observation. Wargrave really wanted to help avenge the victims, though. He went the extra mile to find the ten murderers and then methodically kill them. Only in the epilogue do we realise the judge kills them in those ways to avenge the people who were wrongfully killed.
D: But then, the ethical question arises of whether whatever the judge did is justified. There’s two sides to this: Some people think his actions are justifiable – he was delivering justice where the legal system had failed. Others consider him to be in the wrong, along the lines of the quote by Gandhi, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind”. Furthermore, he enjoys killing so it’s a personally motivated goal rather than an act of avengement. This is exemplified by the methodical way he killed them in accordance with the nursery rhyme, which he himself described to be childish.
A: In the end, Wargrave wanted recognition, and wrote down the whole setup of the crimes because he was proud of it. This can also be seen in the way that he tucked in the chair neatly after Vera hung herself (which also shows the level of conniving organisation and diabolically methodical planning that went into being the mastermind of such a grand and heinous crime – it was as if he was taking a bow after starring in a play or putting the finishing touches on a 10-layered cake). He wanted to confuse the police (which he successfully did) as the moving of the chair indicated that there was indeed someone left alive after Vera hung herself, but the police were unable to figure out who it was as by then, Wargrave had killed himself, but had made it look like the work of another, in line with the nursery rhyme, further showing his childish yet elaborate scheme.
D: Unlike the other people, he felt no remorse for killing the people as he felt he was enacting revenge. Pity though, he orchestrated such a finely woven plot and could have used his intelligence for the betterment of society instead of the sadistic murders that he committed.
A: In this way, Agatha Christie explores the line between true justice and vigilantism. Wargrave seems insane due to his actions. Although he is avenging their victims, the guests on soldier island seem likeable, which could be indicative of how appearances are deceiving.
D: I agree. Everyone starts out by feeling wonderful and excited about spending the weekend on the island till the record plays and people begin dying soon after. They are driven to extremes by the mounting paranoia of their impending death and are pushed from civility to a total breakdown of such courtesies. For example, at the start of the book, they behave in a very civil manner during their first dinner on the island but when the guests are murdered, everyone begins to suspect one another. People are terrified of being accompanied by only a single person in fear of them getting murdered and the formal politeness disappears among the terror. In the book, when only half the people remain, the dinner is a very terrifying moment because they know that there is a murderer amongst them but they cannot pinpoint as to who that person is.
A: Here’s some Fun Facts! The judge was mostly described as reptilian and wherever someone died, the murderer was described with turtle-like qualities. For example, when Emily Brent was killed, the murderer was described as somebody all wet and dripping with soft dragging footsteps.
D: Oh, cool! Another interesting thing: Agatha Christie was compelled to write And Then There Were None because it was such a difficult plot to write effectively that the idea fascinated her. The story outline went through massive rewrites before she was ready to write it.
A: I also read that initially the crimes the characters committed were quite different from the final version. Vera Claythorne originally drove her lover to suicide instead of indirectly causing her lover’s nephew’s death, Emily Brent bullied her servant into taking poison instead of kicking her out after she got pregnant out of wedlock, and General MacArthur sent thirty soldiers to die in battle unnecessarily instead of purposely sending his wife’s lover to his death in a war operation, just like the biblical narrative of David, Bathsheba and Uriah.
D: Ending off, there were originally 12 characters on the island, instead of ten. And finally, this is kind of obvious, but the name of the island is Soldier Island, just like the rhyme Ten Little Soldiers. In older versions where the rhyme uses Ten Little Indians, the island was called Indian Island.
A: That’s all we have for And Then There Were None. In the second episode of our trilogy, we will be exploring another one of her famous works, Death On The Nile. Hope you learnt something new today, and we’ll see you in the next episode.