Agatha Christie as a Defender of the Innocent
By Erika Ruonakoski | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
“It is innocence that counts, not the guilt”, writes Agatha Christie in her autobiography. Aren’t we all, however, most often innocent in our minds – aren’t the guilty always elsewhere? What are innocence and evil really all about? To analyse these questions, we can look for inspiration from Christie’s novels such as Ordeal by Innocence.
Agatha Christie’s novel Ordeal by Innocence (1958) tells the story of a family that finds itself in a strange situation. One of the sons, the psychologically unstable and manipulative Jacko Argyle, has been convicted of the murder of his adoptive mother. After the family has already accepted this fact and Jacko has died of pneumonia in prison, a witness, Dr Calgary, appears at their door, providing an alibi for Jacko. At the time of the murder, Jacko has been in Calgary’s car on his way to Drymouth. Calgary, however, has met with an accident right after Jacko’s lift, and he has lost his memory. After recovering his memory, he feels obliged to inform the family of Jacko’s innocence. Jacko’s sister Hester Argyle, however, acts in an openly hostile manner after Calgary’s revelation, pointing out that he makes them face the painful events again. When Calgary asks why Hester does not want justice for her brother, the young woman replies: “It is not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent.” This phrase is almost identical with what Christie suggests in her autobiography: “It is innocence that counts, not the guilt.”
The word innocence can be understood in a number of ways. It can be a state in which a person has not committed evil deeds and in which he can also be “pure” in thought: he has not done bad or even thought of evil, and lives therefore in a kind of state of naivety. Innocence can also refer to the fact that a person has not committed a specific crime. Jacko appears to be innocent of the murder of his mother, but he is not innocent as a person. He is “one of Nature’s misfits”, unable to answer for his actions.
On the other hand, the state of innocence can be seen also as one in which the basic trust of a person in the safety of the world, the continuity of life and benevolence of other people has not been shaken. When we face events that shatter our experience of safety and continuity, we lose our fundamental innocence: we understand that bad things can be realised, and, in fact, have been realised even in our own case. From this point of view, the idea of incarnate evil becomes understandable. For a victim of violence or deceit, the wickedness of the other can appear as absolute, because the other has shattered her sense of security. It is precisely this narrative point of departure that appears to motivate Christie’s stories. Quite often, her characters emphasise the reality of evil.
More often than not, the murderers of Christie’s novels are manipulative psychopaths like Jacko, and as such are unable to experience guilt. Dr Calgary, on the other hand, represents the other extreme in characters, namely those who are excessively decent. At first, he feels guilty for not having helped Jacko in time. Later, his guilt arises from the fact that his revelation of Jacko’s innocence has upset the whole family. Calgary’s disproportioned sense of guilt may appear unconvincing, but behind it we find the situation that makes most responsible people grieve: he has brought suffering to the lives of others.
Sometimes the only way not to inflict pain on the other would be to act against the moral rules of the community or against one’s own morals. The other can act in an unjust, treacherous or even criminal manner, and still expect us to accept their actions. Christie’s works are full of characters that are not necessarily psychopaths but who are totally incapable of seeing the events outside their own narrow perspective, one that is dictated by their own interests, passions and ossified opinions. That one’s own attitudes and actions are quite questionable, remains unacknowledged – others are to blame.
‘‘After grave disappointments, the wickedness of others can become the narrative that primarily characterises our attitude to life. In such a case we might have to ask ourselves: have I been so badly shattered, at some point, that the fear of being shattered again – of being betrayed – has total control over my way of relating to the world?’’
Nevertheless, the vulnerability of others opens us up to the possibility of questioning our own motives and the justification of our actions even when those others attack us and when their motives seem questionable, to say the least, from our perspective. This is true in the case of Dr Calgary: he doubts the justification of his actions. After a moment of hesitation, however, he sticks to his initial moral intuition. He states that the family members have lived with a false sense of security, among cardboard scenery, which does not provide true safety. It is his task to put an end to the calamity of the innocent, to dissolve the shadow of guilt. When the “wicked person”, that is, the killer has been caught, the innocent will be able to live in harmony.
Whether this phantasy can be realised in real life, is doubtful. In our most challenging relationships, however, we may come close to extreme disappointment and, in this sense, to encountering “evil”. This is when we lose our faith in the fundamental trustworthiness of the other human being, and we may have to give up our expectations of reciprocity. In everyday life, though, the reason for this is rarely the other’s bloodthirst but rather the difficulty or even impossibility to communicate with the other. Everything that I say is reflected as if through a maliciously distorting mirror while the other acts in a way that I myself find extremely offensive. Is the evil in the eye of the beholder – are there no objective criteria for evil after all? Or are we all fundamentally evil?
After grave disappointments, the wickedness of others can become the narrative that primarily characterises our attitude to life. In such a case we might have to ask ourselves: have I been so badly shattered, at some point, that the fear of being shattered again – of being betrayed – has total control over my way of relating to the world? If we are able to take part in this movement of questioning, the game is not lost altogether. We still have the possibility of an inner dialogue, which passes over the temptations of simplification and paranoia. Likewise, we still have the possibility to try to understand the other, even if all our expectations of that person have come to nothing.
The theme of deception is discussed in more detail in my research article “Innocence, Deception, and Incarnate Evil in Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors” (Literature and Aesthetics 2020, vol. 30, no 2, 55–70). The article includes spoilers from Christie’s novels.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1976. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York, NY: Citadel Press. (Original text Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté, 1947.)
Christie, Agatha. 1958. Ordeal by Innocence. London: Collins.
— 1977. An Autobiography. London: Collins.