All the characters of Christie's novel seem to reflect concerns raised by life in civilized society, some of them universal, some of them peculiar to Christie's historical moment. They make the reader aware that, like the characters stranded on Indian Island, we, as members of an organized society of institutions, must also live with each other, and with the consequences of other individuals' actions.
Two characters represent the institution of law: Justice Wargrave and Henry Blore. Their actions warn the reader of the consequences of a legal system, or individual keepers of the law, gone mad. Blore and Wargrave are both accused by the voice of Owen of using their power to manipulate the law and send innocent men to their deaths. A society of laws run by individuals always runs this risk: that personal feelings will inspire those who uphold the law to act outside it.
Vera Claythorne's character also calls attention to a certain risk inherent in a societal institution. As a nanny, Vera was entrusted with a family's most prized possession, its child. So confident was the child's mother in the competency of her nanny that when the boy drowned she held Vera above suspicion. Her confidence, however, was unfounded. Moved by love for Cyril's cousin Hugo, Vera conspired to send the child on a swim from which he would certainly not return. Today child care is in a crisis. Few working families can afford the best facilities, and abuses are constantly unveiled. The character of Vera shows that the moral fiber of those who care for children was no less a concern in Christie's day than it is today.
Another concern of Christie's day that remains relevant is the guilt pervading Western societies as a result of the industrialized world's exploitation of its former colonies. Phillip Lombard's crime calls attention to this guilt. His murder was not of one man or, as with Vera Claythorne, of a child. Instead, Lombard admits to being responsible for the deaths of twenty-one people. Though his escape from the bush cost his native guides their lives, Lombard feels not guilt but a sense of pride when he remembers the sticky situation. He rationalizes his act by asserting that self-preservation is more important than self-sacrifice and that natives do not fear death as Europeans do. His callous racism inspires contempt in his fellow captives (except Emily Brent) and, hopefully, in the reader. It is important to remember, however, that blatant disregard for the lives of native peoples did not always inspire such disgust in the common British subject. With the turn of the century came a franker look at the problems of colonization. Christie, through Lombard, highlights both the...
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Dr. Edward Armstrong
Dr. Armstrong is coming to Indian Island to examine and treat Mrs. Owen after receiving a letter from her husband. He takes pleasure in a reputation as “a good man at his job” and so has enjoyed a great deal of success. However, “he was very tired…. Success had its penalties.” As he travels to Devon, he alludes to a past incident that occurred fifteen years ago that “had been a near thing.” During that period, he notes that he had been “going to pieces,” and the shock of the traumatic event prompted him to give up drinking. Later his thoughts about the incident reveal that his drunken performance in the operating room killed Louisa Clees. While on the island, Armstrong is a bundle of nerves. His gullibility leads him to help Wargrave carry out his plans, which include murdering Armstrong.
William Blore pretends to be Mr. Davis, a “man of means from South Africa,” sure that “he could enter into any society unchallenged.” His true identity as a detective hired to watch Mrs. Owen’s jewels is quickly and easily exposed soon after he arrives at Indian Island. The narrator describes him as “an earnest man” and notes that “a light touch was incomprehensible to him.” Lombard observes his lack of imagination. After discovering that Blore committed perjury during the bank robbery trial that resulted in the conviction of an innocent man, Inspector Maine declares him to be “a bad hat.”
Miss Emily Brent
Miss Emily Brent, a “hard and self-righteous” sixty-five-year-old woman, received a letter signed “UN” from someone claiming to have met her years ago at a guesthouse. Her repressed nature becomes immediately apparent as she sits “upright” in the train, because she “did not approve of lounging.” She agrees with her father, “a Colonel of the old school,” who thought “the present generation was shamelessly lax—in their carriage, and in every other way.” She sits in the compartment, “enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles.” Since her income has been lately reduced, she looks forward to a free holiday at Indian Island. When she hears the voice on the record accuse her of murder, she becomes “encased in her own armour of virtue,” and insists “I had nothing with which to reproach myself.” When Vera asks her whether she has been affected by the murders that have been taking place on the island, Emily responds, “I was brought up to keep my head and never to make a fuss.” Vera concludes that this confession proves that Emily must have been repressed in her childhood and so explains her inability to respond normally to what has happened on the island. Emily eventually admits to Vera that when Beatrice Taylor, her servant, got pregnant, Emily fired her and she committed suicide. Emily, though, reiterates her own innocence.
Vera Claythorne is an attractive young woman who comes to Indian Island expecting employment as a secretary after receiving a letter from Una Nancy Owen. Lombard describes her as “a cool customer … one who could hold her own—in love or war,” an ironic foreshadowing of her composure as she fatally shoots him. She shows an ambitious nature when she hopes that this temporary job will lead to a more desirable permanent position and so allow her to leave the “third-class school” where she has been teaching.
Throughout the novel, she appears troubled about an incident in her past, which we later learn is the drowning of Cyril Hamilton, a young boy in her care. Her first thoughts reveal her love for and sorrow over her dissolved relationship with Hugo Hamilton, the boy’s uncle. She also appears to feel guilt over the boy’s death. Soon though we learn of her cruel and selfish nature when she finally acknowledges her part in Cyril’s death. She admits that she encouraged the “whiny spoilt little brat” to swim out too far into the water, knowing he would not be able to make it back to shore. Trying to justify her actions, she notes, “if it weren’t for him, Hugo would be rich” and able to marry her.
Wargrave finds her to be an “interesting psychological experiment” after all the other guests have been murdered. He wondered, “would the consciousness of her own guilt, the state of nervous tension consequent on having just shot a man, be sufficient, together with the hypnotic suggestion of the surroundings, to cause her to take her own life.” Vera proves Wargrave’s hypothesis when she hangs herself. He deems her crime to be the most heinous, because he plots her demise only after she experiences the murders of all...
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