Themes and Meanings
All mysteries are morality plays, in which evil does not usually go unpunished. Mrs. Stanning killed a child, and though she served time in prison, “prison wasn’t bad enough for her,” as Trotter says. Although he is insane, he echoes his creator’s sentiments. Agatha Christie believed that capital punishment was just, that only a life can pay for a life, unless the murderer is not morally responsible, as Trotter clearly is not. Therefore he will be placed in an insane asylum. She also recognized that misfortune can befall those who are technically innocent of wrongdoing, for, as in a Shakespearean tragedy, once evil is unleashed, it cannot be controlled—thus the need for justice.
One sees in this play, too, one of the worst effects of crime: its creation of suspicion. The Ralstons love each other enough to brave a blizzard to go to London for anniversary presents, and they are working together to make their guest house succeed. Yet by the second act each suspects the other of infidelity, even of murder, and none of the guests trusts either fellow guests or the hosts.
Though the primary cause of this unease is the murder, social change also plays a role. Trotter points out that in the postwar world “there aren’t any backgrounds nowadays and young people settle their own affairs.” Mollie knew Giles only three weeks before she married him. Although the traditional mystery posits a well-ordered world in which crime is a temporary aberration, Christie suggests that in the modern era this assumption may be losing its validity.
In At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), Christie accepts the need for change, yet that novel is suffused with a deep nostalgia for a more elegant age. Similarly, Mrs. Boyle comments on the lack of amenities at Monkswell Manor, which as been converted to a guest house because the Ralstons cannot afford to maintain it any other way. Even with paying visitors they have trouble heating the place. Giles must be his own sign painter, Mollie her own cook, and her culinary skills seem largely confined to opening tins. Mysteries partake of the novel of manners, and The Mousetrap reveals an England of ration books and cold radiators, where the worm is in the oak and dry rot waits to claim stately homes. The portrait is not exaggerated; between 1945 and 1975, almost twenty stately homes disappeared in England each year, for a total of 595, and another 132 survived only because of the National Trust. Christie’s play evokes the England of John Piper’s pictures, Evelyn Waugh’s lament for a bygone age in Brideshead Revisited (1945), and the acceleration of the process that D.H. Lawrence notes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928):The Georgian halls are going. Fritchley, a perfect old Georgian mansion was even now, as Connie passed in the car, being demolished. It was in perfect repair; till the war the Wetherleys always lived in style there. But now it was too big, too expensive, and the country was becoming too uncongenial.
The Mousetrap begins with the murder of a mysterious woman in London. The action takes place in a guest house thirty miles from London where a house full of suspects have gathered and where a second murder is about to be committed.
Appearances and Reality
At the heart of any mystery lies the question of what is real and what is not. This is particularly true of The Mousetrap, which relies on disguise to confuse the audience. The detective in the mystery genre is suppose to be the outsider, the member of the cast with whom the audience can most closely identify. But in this play, the appearance of the detective does not fulfill the audience's expectations, since the reality is that the detective is the murderer. Christie is playing with a genre which the audience thinks is predictable in its basic form, forcing them to employ analytical skills beyond the accustomed.
Death provides both the opening of this play and the transition between acts. And yet, in one sense, death is almost the least important aspect...
(The entire section is 1,588 words.)