Agatha Christie’s Psychological Insight in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The early 20th century was an era of rapid societal change, including a shift from the stable, unitary model of masculinity to more fluid notions of gender construction. The erosion of social and economic control and the growth of feminism have challenged the male ‘breadwinner ideal’, pressuring men to redefine ‘manliness’ As the recent #MeToo movement demonstrates, the fight to dismantle patriarchal structures and diminish male cultural dominance continues. These cultural shifts have threatened some men, leading to the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and various men’s rights groups that are striving to maintain or resurrect previous notions of “ideal” masculinity. The tension between possible male responses to these cultural crises of masculinity can be found in the wrings of Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Psychoanalytic theory, specifically, is helpful in demonstrating how Hammett presents a hypermasculine rejection of femininity, in contrast to Christie’s more nuanced hybrid masculine construction.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd rests on the death of two people, who are closely related to each other. The novel opens with a death that appears to be suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Dr. Sheppard, from whose point of view the novel is narrated, has just returned from the deathbed of Mrs. Ferrars, a local woman. Most profoundly influenced by her death is Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy manufacturer of wagon wheels. Ackroyd, a widower himself, was in love with Mrs. Ferrars and she with him. In fact, the two had agreed to be married.

In this context, the novel was criticized heavily at the time of its publication, because it was thought that Christie was not “playing fair” with her readers on account of her deceiving the readers about the identity of the murderer. After being misdirected throughout the novel, the reader is left bewildered by unexpected revelations Christie broke with many of the early format restrictions of the detective story which had some strict rules and limits within which writers of detective stories should operate.11 Christie’s violating the “rules” of the game, undoubtedly, enabled her to unveil social pretence and to make us, as readers, less secure in our expectations of comfortable closure.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd presents the refugee Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who enters a situation after its central action has already taken place. Provided with the details of unfamiliar lives, he indulges in the business of deciding what is relevant and what is not, which in fact leads to the truth, and who among a group of diverse personalities has been driven to commit a crime and thereby demolishing the prevalent order. Poirot penetrates a tangle of actions and emotions and, as the agent of the reassuring patriarch, eventually establishes the order.

Poirot is not English, he is a Belgian. So he is foreign. It is worth noting his Belgian nationality because of Belgium’s occupation by Germany, it was considered patriotic to express sympathy with the Belgians, since the invasion of their country had justified Britain’s entering the First World War. 14 Alison Light and Gill Plain, in their work on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, have defined a sense of antiheroism in the figure of the male detectives created by female authors in the traumatised aftermath of the First World War. 15 Susan Rowland, supports this argument by drawing attention the fact that, “The detective in golden age fiction is a new hero for the post World War I traumatised landscape” 16. The feminised detectives of the interwar years, such as Christie’s Poirot, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Allingham’s Albert Campion exemplify a reaction against a posited traditional male heroism of wartime endeavour because they uphold feminine intuition and empathy as their fundamental methods of detection.

The conflict between professional masculine science and feminine modes of knowledge is brought upside down by the arrival of “feminised” detective, Hercule Poirot, who defends Caroline’s form of social detection by interpreting her strange signs of intuition as keen skills of perception. 19 Quite interestingly, the breakdown of gender polarity is further illustrated by Poirot’s utilizing intuitive forms of knowledge traditionally constructed as feminine for his detecting process. Although he is at first disliked by almost all the male characters, Poirot continually turns the tables on them and wins hands down, for instance, by undoing the bumbling work of the local policemen who are notoriously clumsy in their attempts to solve the criminal mystery. His novel methods of scientific deduction and his deep insight into human nature, which is the basic component of unravelling a mystery in detective fiction, enable him to establish an empathy with the passions of both victim and suspects in the English country village of King’s Abbot. The village name, the embodiment of the religious, social and political authority, is evocative of the fact that two forms of prevalent institutional masculinity can no longer keep the established order.

From the very beginning of the novel, Caroline acts like a detective herself, which annoys her scientific- oriented brother James since she bases herself on subjective forms of knowledge conventionally assigned to an inferior, feminised position. Similarly, Poirot is also criticized for his attention to domestic details and gossip, but his defence of what are characterized as “feminine” methods of investigation in the novel turns out to be crucial. Dr Sheppard disregards Caroline’s statements as she strikes him as not quite intelligible. Caroline’s being a spinster, and as such having no identity, furthermore, evokes a male fear of the unmarried, and therefore unsubdued, placeless female. She challenges male control of female sexuality, since activity and self-assertion are male prerogative, and females who attempt to transgress gender roles are doomed to be annihilated. When it comes to women, the male-dominated system is essentially the same: the female of the species should be suppressed as much as possible.

The novel ends with an unprecedented twist. near the investigation’s end, like a magician performing a trick, Poirot, the centre of attention, gathers all of the suspects including the guilty party and delivers a masterful speech in which he lays out his view of the case. The main point of this dramatic scene is to unmask the criminal, the doctor, in front of the pre-assembled audience.

During this time, Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming more popular, partly through its use to treat WWI soldiers suffering from “shell shock” Psychoanalysis challenged the belief that masculine qualities, such as “physical vigor, energy and resolution, courage” and independence (or the ability to “be one’s own master”) were personality traits that could be perfected through development. Instead, Freud viewed gender identity as a deeply unstable, nonunitary process that begins with the male recognizing his penis, which can be castrated’ at any time, followed by a disidentification with the mother and a greater identification with the father (due to an Oedipal complex). A Lacanian (allegorical) interpretation posits that masculine identity is formed when harsh restrictions imposed on the male by the father (culture and language) force them away from the mother (emotion and desire), resulting in feelings of psychological ‘castration’. In the absence of definite societal norms concerning masculinity, the male becomes ‘fatherless’ and a crisis in masculinity may occur.

Agatha Christie’s MORA, on the other hand, presents readers with Hercule Poirot, an evolved, feminized version of the masculine detective who defeats the hypermasculine ego of Sheppard. Poirot consistently engages in stereotypically ‘feminine’ behaviour, including grooming himself while “inspecting his appearance in a tiny pocket glass” (Christie 110), gardening, and “prostrat[ing]” (Christie 19) himself before other men. At other times, he produces a “ruthless power” (Christie 202), or an assertive, “challenging and accusing” (146) demeanor. Poirot thus demonstrates the ability to use both feminine and masculine qualities depending on the circumstance. Therefore, Poirot represents a solution for men seeking to redefine themselves in the wake of a masculinity crisis. As Blazina argues, “cutting off” from the mother and solely identifying with the father is not necessary to create a masculine identity (154). Instead, a male can retain stereotypically feminine traits “without negating… [a] cohesive sense of maleness” (Blazina 154).

This reflects an adaptability in this “obsessively neat and fastidious” detective’s approach (Aficici 6). In contrast to the Op’s method, Poirot combines masculine’ science and ‘feminine’ intuition to correct the mistakes of the ‘manly-man’ inspectors. Poirot himself claims that feminine intuition arises when “women observe… little details, without knowing they are doing so” (Christie 148) and subconsciously “[add] these little things together” For instance, Poirot congratulates Caroline on her keen social detection skills, remarking that she has “the makings of a born detective… and wonderful psychological insight” (Christie 133). In the same way, Poirot utilizes this “hybrid” thinking (harkening back to previous sleuths) to empathize with “the passions of both victims and suspects” (Aficici 7) and glean insights into human nature. This enables Poirot to outwit Inspector Raglan, who “seems very sure of himself” (Christic 79) and exhibits the rational, confident masculine ideals, yet is unable to solve the case.

Moreover, James Sheppard, the criminal of the novel, displays characteristics of the hypermasculine reaction to a masculinity crisis. As with ‘fatherless’ males, they view relationships with women as a source of conflict (Erickson 49). We observe this through the competition between James and his sister Caroline. In this case, however, the strong female overpowers the masculinity presented by Sheppard, with Caroline describing him as “weak as water” (Christie 199). This reinforces how women view the psychologically castrated male as ‘impotent. By remaining in conflict and not maintaining strong relationships, the hypermasculine male resorts to violence through fear of abandonment (Blazina 159). Poirot summarizes these feelings through his allegorical narrative of a man with a “strain of weakness” (Christie 201). Resulting from his repressed anger, Sheppard blackmails Mrs. Ferrars and murders Mr. Ackroyd, revealing his ‘weakness’ (castration). Christie further highlights Sheppard’s repression by the clinical manner he describes Roger Ackroyd’s (a supposed friend’s) murder. Poirot even notices that Sheppard “kept [his] personality in the background”, where “only once or twice” do his emotions “obtrude” through his repression (Christic 255).

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd argues that an adaptive form of masculinity which combines feminine and masculine traits can triumph over reactionary masculinity. This evolution in the definition of masculinity is more stable and better able to survive in the long term. These ideas still hold relevance today. namely in cases where older definitions of masculinity are challenged.

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