Why can’t I teach Agatha Christie?

June 2, 2010

Today’s post is a part of the Classics Circuit discussing the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

I had a great post planned for today about teaching an Agatha Christie novel to my grade twelve English class, almost completely made up of inner-city high school kids. The plan was for them to read And Then There Were None as part of their culminating assignment. I thought that they would enjoy it because of the whole murder-mystery aspect, sort of like Clue. Part of the plan was also for them to make up some sort of “mystery theatre” type thing, sort of like those dinner parties you always see on television where it’s supposed to be a show and then someone ends up getting killed for real.

All of these plans ended up coming to nothing, though. I was told that I couldn’t use that book in my course.

Because it’s “racist”.

Now, I already knew that And Then There Were None wasn’t the original title of the book. When I was a kid, my mother had a copy that was called Ten Little Indians. I remember reading it as a kid, and so even though I hadn’t read it recently, I decided that if I read it in elementary school and didn’t see any problems with it, I could read it with my grade twelves and it would be fine.

Apparently, Ten Little Indians wasn’t the original title, either. It was actually Ten Little Niggers.

This was the best-selling book of Agatha Christie’s; according to the Wikipedia entry, it has sold 100 million copies to date. Within that entry, there is also a section about literary significance and reception, including a bit about the racism inherent in the novel:

Other recent commentators, however, have been more critical of the work, finding that Christie’s original title and the setting on “Nigger Island” are integral to the work. These aspects of the novel, argues Alison Light, “could be relied upon automatically to conjure up a thrilling ‘otherness’, a place where revelations about the ‘dark side’ of the English would be appropriate.” Unlike novels such as Heart of Darkness, however, “Christie’s location is both more domesticated and privatised, taking for granted the construction of racial fears woven into psychic life as early as the nursery. If her story suggests how easy it is to play upon such fears, it is also a reminder of how intimately tied they are to sources of pleasure and enjoyment.”

This is a more academic way of putting what I was told at school. Essentially, I was told that I shouldn’t teach the book because of its racist overtones and because our kids wouldn’t be able to make the distinction between what Agatha Christie would have been historically able to say in her time period versus what we now know that people should or shouldn’t say.

I’ve taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings before, which also has racist language in it that was appropriate and historically accurate for the time period. But it’s written by Maya Angelou (a black person) rather than by a white woman. Is that what makes the difference? Or is it based on something else?

Through looking at the Wikipedia page for Agatha Christie herself, it appears that the language that she used in And Then There Were None wasn’t unique for her writing. The section on stereotyping says:

Christie occasionally inserted stereotyped descriptions of characters into her work, particularly before the end of the Second World War (when such attitudes were more commonly expressed publicly), and particularly in regard to Italians, Jews, and non-Europeans generally. For example, in the first editions of the collection The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), in the short story “The Soul of the Croupier,” she described “Hebraic men with hook-noses wearing rather flamboyant jewellery”; in later editions the passage was edited to describe “sallow men” wearing same. To contrast with the more stereotyped descriptions, Christie often characterized the “foreigners” in such a way as to make the reader understand and sympathize with them; this is particularly true of her Jewish characters, who are seldom actually criminals. (See, for example, the character of Oliver Manders in Three Act Tragedy.)

I get the concern that we don’t want to teach this stuff to our kids. And yes, I also get that I would normally want to teach something more modern to at-risk kids, to engage them (I ended up basing their culminating activity on Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper). But I originally wanted to teach them And Then There Were None because of the murder-mystery aspect, because I wanted to teach them a genre book, and because the book is famous and old enough that there was an audio-book that I could take out of the library to use with the students.

Now I’m sitting here questioning to what extent I agree with this decision, and to what extent I think they’re going overboard. The next generation of kids isn’t exactly going to be exempt from seeing and experiencing racism in their lives. Shouldn’t we be teaching them about the historical differences in attitudes towards racism?

More importantly, shouldn’t we be exposing them to these attitudes in a safe environment, where we can monitor their responses and help them to understand how to deal with these kinds of attitudes in their own lives?

5 Comments

  • Chris@bookarama June 2, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I read it about a year ago and had no idea it was re-named until I looked at the wikipedia page for my review. It is a very Clue-like book.

    Isn’t school for discussing those types of things? I think it has more to do with upsetting parents than the kids. They don’t give kids enough credit.

    • Carina June 2, 2010 at 11:31 pm

      I think that a lot of book banning/censorship/what-have-you has more to do with upsetting parents than anything else. Partly it’s that they don’t give kids enough credit, and partly it’s that they’re trying to control what their kids can see or have access to – which is dangerous if we’re trying to turn them into well-informed adults.

  • Amy June 3, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Interesting, I had no idea that was the original title, or that she stereotyped like that so frequently. I would agree that a school would be the best place to read something like that. Would lead to a natural discussion about the evolution of our ideas and how stereotyping used to be more common, etc etc. Too bad that you couldn’t!

  • Teresa June 4, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Interesting. I knew about the original title, but I’d never heard of the book, with its new title, being contested for it. In fact, my high school in the late 80s put on a production of the play my senior year. (I was Dr. Armstrong–there weren’t enough boys who could act and too many girls who could so we rewrote a few parts.)

    As I recall, the book itself doesn’t contain any of the stereotyping that does appear in some of Christie’s other novels. The significance of the island’s name would make for an interesting discussion though. I always assumed it was because of the rhyme used in the book, and not to convey some sinister meaning.

  • Donna July 11, 2010 at 4:50 am

    I recently reviewed And Then There Were None, briefly touching on the fact that there even is an original title. I’ve also referenced it in a couple of other entries. Being a newbie to the blogosphere, I thought it best to concentrate my efforts on reviewing the book. As I read more Christie, I will be in a better position to write more direct posts about her style of writing, including the original title of ATTWN.

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