Agatha Christie  on the Problem of Gratitude

By Erika Ruonakoski | Image Pauliina Mäkelä

In Ordeal by Innocence, Agatha Christie describes a family under the benevolent tyranny of an “omniscient” adoptive mother. Has one of the adopted children hated the benefactor enough to kill her? Why aren’t the sacrifices we make in order to help the other enough to make him grateful? When are we actually helping people, and when are we pressurising and coercing them?

Rachel Argyle, a character in Ordeal by Innocence, is, to put it mildly, a strong-willed woman. She believes she knows best how each and every one should run their lives. More to the point, she rides roughshod over everybody else’s opinions, promoting her own views without scruples. In the aftermath of World War II, she has adopted five children and sees herself as a benefactress, definitely a better alternative than somebody’s alcoholic mother or negligent relatives. In the eyes of her family members, she is a complacent queen bee, who rules over others with a firm grip. To her, the wishes and hopes of her husband and the longing of the children for their earlier families are insignificant details. Due to the wealth and subsequent influence of the adoptive mother, the children depend on her even when they are adults. Their choices are, for a great part, reactions to Rachel’s autocracy: in the questions of career, morality and choice of spouse, it is essential for them to do what is opposite to the wishes and demands of the mother. In a tight spot, however, the children turn to their mother, thereby submitting to her will.

“Ingratitude is the world’s reward”, goes an old saying. This is true in the sense that the help we give directs our interest in the behaviour of those it is given to. Do these individuals use the given assistance in a sensible way? Are they diligent, likable or loving? Or is the help “wasted”? Do they ruin their chances once more? In other words, the given help not only makes possible the actions of the objects of help but also limits them. Often these individuals are forced into a framework given from outside, and they are expected to work for the goals set by others. They, on the other hand, hope that good things happen to them, because they have done something to deserve those things. They do not want to be objects of charity, but useful members of the society – respected for their actions and abilities, and as themselves. They want to make their choices freely, come hell or high water. That somebody has the capacity to help them underlines their inferiority and incapacity to improve their life conditions or to have a positive impact in the lives of others.

In Ordeal by Innocence, one of the minor characters, Dr MacMaster, asks: “Isn’t it the Chinese who held that beneficence is to be accounted a sin rather than a virtue? They’ve got something, there, you know. Beneficence does things to people. Ties ‘em up in knots.” He suggests that even if you feel kindly towards the person you do a good turn to, it cannot be taken for granted that the person in question would feel the same towards you: “Does he really like you? He ought to, of course, but does he?”

‘‘When the “right solutions” are forced upon us from above, the correctness and appropriateness of these solutions become insignificant in comparison to the freedom we yearn for.’’

Those who follow politics often wonder why people vote against their own interests, that is, why they do not understand their own good but act in a way that with great likelihood makes their own situation worse in the long run. If these allegations are true, could a part of the answer lie in the experiences of agency offered by different choices? In that we are even ready to dig our own graves if we only feel that we do the digging out of our own will and for our own goals? That doing so is more rewarding than watching “the wise” act to our benefit, while we fail to understand the grounds and goals of their actions?

Writing about the liberation of the German-occupied Paris, Simone de Beauvoir has stated: “The goal was not a liberated Paris, it was the liberation itself; for the combatants having liberated Paris was not enough, they wanted to liberate it themselves.” In other words, people want to improve their living conditions by themselves. Only through their own activity do they commit themselves to the world and build their own futures. True enough, Paris may not have been liberated without American help, and an employee cannot do her work without first getting a job. Nevertheless, the support an individual obtains should not determine her doings to the extent that she becomes merely a means to realise the will of the other.

Therefore, we do not necessarily experience gratitude in the situations in which it may be most expected. On the other hand, the other’s joy about my presence and even about my mere existence can very well evoke feelings of gratitude in me. It is impossible to give such a gift to someone, whose primary goal has been to “save” me and to act as my benefactor. Paradoxically, the experience of gratitude seems to presuppose that its object does not strive for it and or take it for granted. She does not need the other’s gratitude.

The same is true for knowledge and information: when the other thinks he knows everything better than his interlocutor, no real exchange comes about. If we want a discussion to truly actualise itself as a discussion, as exchange, neither the end result nor our own views can be fixed in advance.

In Ordeal by Innocence, the theme of patronage and ingratitude recurs not only in the relationship between the mother and her children but also in the relationship of the eldest child, Mary, to her disabled spouse Philip. Mary has become her spouse’s nurse after he was stricken with polio and ended up in a wheelchair. When Philip states that Mary ought to have been a hospital nurse, she replies: “I’ve not the least wish to nurse a lot of people. Only you.” In this way she comes to admit that she is, in fact, pleased by her husband’s dependence on her. Philip, however, is bitter in the role of the dependent. He wants to be the one who makes things happen, and so he engages in murder investigations of his own, ready even to risk his life in them.

Both the grown-up adopted children and Philip, who is tied to his wheelchair, can hardly contain their rage against their “benefactors”. Material abundance has not provided them with freedom or autonomy. When the “right solutions” are forced upon us from above, the correctness and appropriateness of these solutions become insignificant in comparison to the freedom we yearn for.

At its worst, “helping” the other is pure violence, and the talk about “help” is merely a smokescreen, behind which one can manipulate things to one’s liking. Only the “helper” herself knows if she believes any part of her own story. Often she is motivated by a tangle of unquestioned beliefs and self-interest. Such a person will wait until the end of the world without ever encountering true gratitude.


Beauvoir, Simone de. 2004. “Moral Idealism and Political Realism”. Trans. Anne Deing Cordero, in Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmermann and Mary Beth Mader (eds) Philosophical Writings: 175–193. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (Original text “Idéalisme moral et réalisme politique”, 1945.)

Christie, Agatha. 1958. Ordeal by Innocence. London: Collins.

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