Poison in the Stock: Comparing the Problematic Elements of Agatha Christie and J.K. Rowling
As you may have noticed, I have been slowly working my way through the works of Agatha Christie. At the time of writing, I have read some thirty-eight of her books – less than half her total output, but arguably enough to get a reasonable handle on it. It is what it is, of course – the product of a woman born in 1890, and in the case of her earlier work, occasionally prone to… Values Dissonance… that jolts one out of the story now and again. The key with Christie is to remember that her writing career spanned over half a century, and she was not the same author in 1925 as she was in 1945 or 1965. She was also self-aware, and had the ability to learn from past mistakes.
What mistakes, exactly?
Well, a look at her older stuff shows an unfortunate tendency to use certain stock characters. Stock characters are those whom everyone knows as a matter of course, the basic tropey-ingredients of the soup of story. The wise old mentor. The naïve Everyman. The Casanova. The religious fanatic. They’re not bad in themselves. Far from it. Stock characters are a staple of any writing, especially in the sort of 220-page, plot-driven mystery novel Christie specialised in. You don’t have time or space to devote to an intricate character-study, so you throw in a character the audience already knows, and get on with it.
The problem is that Christie’s stock characters of her earlier career include certain ones that have aged really, really badly. The malevolent Chinaman. The assumption that a man with an Irish surname might not be completely trustworthy in a First World War situation. And, most ickily to modern eyes, the greedy or antagonistic Jew.
Now, to be fair to Early Christie, I have yet to find an example of her making Jewish characters overt villains. But the implication is that she’s happy to use them as a sort of unpleasant, untrustworthy Other. The low-point for such a treatment is The Secret of Chimneys (1925), where the author presents us with a certain Herman Isaacstein, a financier, who is a calculating participant in political schemes… and whose physical description (complexion, cobra-like eyes…) is arguably enough to raise eyebrows in a modern reader. Even a later work like Sad Cypress (1940) has casual references to the “Jewish nose” of Sir Samuel, the prosecution lawyer in a setting where we are supposed to be sympathetic to the court-room defendant. One gets the point immediately, of course – there is nothing villainous about Sir Samuel, but he’s not Good. He’s the stock amoral lawyer.
We rarely see such things in post-1945 material, of course. For very, very understandable reasons, certain twentieth century events had a significant effect on stock characters in popular literature. And Christie had sense enough to adapt – indeed, the major reason one can focus on her is that people still actually read her stuff in 2022, whereas other literary figures from the era have faded into obscurity. Since we are talking stock characters – re-usable personifications of tropes – this was not something limited to Christie, but rather something that afflicted wider Western Culture to some degree. I have also been reading the novels of Charles Williams, the “third Inkling”, associated with Tolkien and Lewis, and he too has his occasional issues in this department.
That is not to say, however, that we in 2022 are some sort of beacon of moral enlightenment, or that we are incapable of making our own distinctive errors. A bit of humility is always in order, and as C.S. Lewis would elsewhere write, one of the advantages of reading older books is that it is much easier to spot their mistaken messages than the mistaken messages of our own time.
Which brings me to J.K. Rowling. Current uncrowned Queen of mistaken and unfortunate messages.
Now, as I have mentioned before, I do not think Rowling is fundamentally malevolent. She is what she is, a woman with a fixed-in-the-1990s worldview who happens to obsess about certain issues, and who if anything is a victim of modern celebrity culture. Her opinions on the major issues of the day are no more important or more worthy than yours or mine, and frankly, the world would be better off if everyone straight-out ignored her Twitter rants. Or Twitter in general.
No, my issues with Rowling pertain less to her media outbursts, and more to her actual literary work. The comparison with Christie is significant, I think, in that whereas Christie showed an ability to learn from her mistakes (all one really can ask of someone, I think), Rowling’s handling of stock characters betrays far less self-awareness. 1920s Christie might be dealing in some ugly stereotypes, but 1990s Rowling does much the same, only in an era where there is less authorial excuse. Christie writes about cobra-eyed Jewish financiers in an age where the poison ran deep through popular culture – but Rowling writes about goblin bankers – with the associated stand-in stereotypes – in an age where such poison ought to have been drained. A standard stock character of the 1920s is not a standard stock character of later decades, and certainly not by the 1990s and 2000s. Christie learned better, why not Rowling? Why not at least think about what you are putting on the page?
Alas, the unsavory implications of what Rowling is putting on the page is rarely examined in the actual narrative of Harry Potter. Long ago, I cited the consent issues surrounding Rowling’s Love Potions. Though that is strictly outside the present subject of stock characters, I think that very much feeds into a general point, namely that there is a tendency for Rowling to dress something ugly up in fantasy robes, and ignore the ugliness because the fantasy robes somehow make all the difference. As though she’s so in love with her own Wizarding World, she cannot see what lurks behind the magic. Christie, working in the mystery and thriller genres, rather than fantasy, did not have that luxury, of course.
Indeed, if one peers behind the curtain of fantasy, Rowling actually goes places even Christie never went, so far as regurgitating unexamined tropes go. Harry Potter is itself a strange sort of literary necromancy, a revival of the near-extinct British Boarding School genre, but Rowling’s House Elves revive something that was dead and buried by the time Christie was even born. Specifically, a species happy in the slavery to which they are naturally suited – a trope from the infamous Anti-Tom literature of the antebellum American South (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Tom_literature).
Rowling’s House Elves could have been an interesting thematic study of oppression and potential liberation in the Wizarding World, or they could have been an unexamined and unnoted bit of world-building – something to be papered over rather than emphasised. Either solution would have worked. The problem is that Rowling makes House Elf slavery a major plot point in the form of Dobby, and then tries to emphasise that Dobby is actually an isolated example, presumably because she has little genuine interest in writing about the House Elves as a collective getting their freedom. Hermione’s efforts are famously disparaged, which is an example of Rowling trying to make a real-world point (“try to actually understand the people you’re advocating for”)… only to run into the problem that Hermione fails precisely because the House Elves are happy in slavery. And that is one hell of an ugly problem.
As one presumes Rowling was not intending to write an Anti-Tom novel 140 years after the genre died, the conclusion must be that she was simply incapable of thinking about what she was writing. And rather than acknowledging the faults in her work – all writers have faults, especially me – and improving for next time, she chooses to reinvent her past efforts in accordance with the social Zeitgeist, and impose her increasingly strained interpretations on her readers. One gets the feeling that whereas Agatha Christie developed and changed as a writer, Rowling will not grow, precisely because she cannot learn from her mistakes. An authorial sin if ever there was.