Classical Allusions and Miss Marple

Miss MarpleI thought I would take a stab at writing a post on Agatha Christie for The Tuesday Night Bloggers, so hopefully it won’t be too bad, though the posts other bloggers have written on Christie have set a high standard to follow. I decided to write about some of the classical allusions Christie makes in her work, specifically in her Miss Marple novels, which I came across in my own research on Miss Marple and I found it interesting how the allusions spoke a lot about her as a character and about her role in the stories. So here it goes…

 

Classical Allusion 1: Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey

Penelope at her loom

Penelope at her loom

Original Context:

Penelope was the faithful wife of Odysseus, while he was off having his epic adventures. She keeps her suitors at bay by saying she can’t marry another man until she has finished Odysseus’ funeral shroud. Of course what the suitors don’t know is that every night she unpicks the needle work she has done. It is a little worrying how long this ruse holds, as it is many years later that Penelope is finally reunited with her husband.

Examples from the Miss Marple Novels:

‘If you can’t knit, what about unravelling for a change. Penelope did…unravelling’s rather in your line’ The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962)

What does this allusion say about Miss Marple?

In this example given above, Doctor Haydock suggests to Miss Marple that while she is recovering, she may not be able to knit but she is able to solve or unravel mysteries. Detection here is being linked to domestic knowledge and practices such as weaving and implies that domestic skills can be applied beyond the domestic sphere. Moreover, as I mentioned above, Penelope deceived her suitors by unravelling her work during the night so they would not realise and in a way Miss Marple parallels this as she unravels parts of the mysteries which the male police detectives are not able to and she does this often without them even realising using seemingly innocuous activities as a cover.

Classical Allusion 2: The Furies

Furies, otherwise known as things you don't want to meet on a dark night, are on the left.

Furies, otherwise known as things you don’t want to meet on a dark night, are on the left.

Original Context:

Also known as the Erinyes in Greek mythology, they were female deities, who were strongly associated with vengeance and who had the job of bringing justice to humans by mercilessly pursuing the guilty until they were punished. They are described in different ways in literature depending on your source, but images range from them having bat’s wings, coal black bodies and blood shot eyes to having snakes as hair and having dog’s heads.

How on earth does this fit with Miss Marple?

The Furies aren’t mentioned by name in the novels but especially in later stories, Miss Marple is repeatedly likened to an ‘avenger’ (Nemesis (1971)). Furthermore, aside from the obvious that Miss Marple and the Furies (sounds like a 60s or 70s pop group) are both female, Christie’s descriptions of Miss Marple also frequently resemble how the Furies were depicted in Greek Tragedy. For example, Miss Marple’s determination to re-establish order and discover the killer is similar to the Furies in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King where they ‘punish crime, and never fail’. In addition, in Aeschylus’ Eumenides (c.458) the Furies are called ‘the dogs of vengeance,’ who ‘hunt the criminals down’ and this corresponds with Miss Marple who in a tamer example is also likened to a dog, being characterised as ‘looking… much as a fox terrier might look at a waiting rat-hole’ (The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962)). With both groups, there is a commonality of purpose as both Miss Marple and the Furies are resolute in their commitment to punishing the guilty and the canine vignettes illustrate a predatory tone to this mission.

Classical Allusion 3: Nemesis

Nemesis and Tyche

Nemesis and Tyche

Original Context:

Nemesis was a Greek goddess whose role was that of delivering justice and retribution and an alternative name for her was Adrasteia which means the inescapable, which was exactly what her justice was.

Examples from the Miss Marple Novels:

Miss Marple sees herself as an ‘emissary of justice’ (Nemesis (1971)) and in Nemesis she is likened to the goddess: ‘Nemesis… that’s what Rafiel called her. Nemesis. Never seen anybody less like Nemesis…’ Additionally the inescapable nature of Nemesis is referred to in the same novel when it is said, ‘Nemesis is long delayed sometimes, but it comes in the end’.

What does this allusion say about Miss Marple?

Nemesis is a key image Christie uses to firstly describe Miss Marple’s attitude towards justice, suggesting that it is relentless and ruthless, which is also reinforced in her own words in the short story ‘The Christmas Tragedy’ where she says, ‘I have never regretted my part in bringing that man to justice. I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.’ Nemesis as an allusion is also used in the novel Nemesis to provide a reassuring quality, which one does not necessarily get from other GA female sleuths such as Tey’s Miss Pym or Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley. This is shown in the last example above, which emphasises that despite obstacles and difficulties justice will be ensured. However, there is also a third usage for Nemesis and that is as part of Christie’s technique to undermine age and gender stereotypes as Miss Marple’s gentle and disarming appearance hides her inexorable rectitude. This duality is perceived by Professor Wanstead in Nemesis when he says she is ‘an actress… as well as an avenger’. Moreover, the second example given above also highlights the discrepancy between Miss Marple’s exterior and her role as a restorer and this discord actually provides an increased dramatic effect when Miss Marple fulfils her restoring justice role such as when she sprays insect spray in the killer’s eyes in Sleeping Murder (1976).

I’m sure there are many more classical allusions in Christie’s works, especially in her Poirot novels, as he takes a similar stance on justice as Miss Marple, so feel free to comment below with any which have stood out for you…

Incidentally on another Christie related note I have set up a Crime Fiction Quiz page on my blog (https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/crime-fiction-quizzes/) and quite a few of them feature Christie, so if you’re feeling brave check them out and let me know what you think.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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13 Responses to Classical Allusions and Miss Marple

  1. KerrieS says:

    This is a great post. Would you mind going over to the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival and adding the URL to this months carnival?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting discussion! There’s always something classical or spiritual about Miss Marple that you don’t find in Poirot, who sees things in terms of crime while Marple refers to it as “wickedness.” Mr. Rafael referred to her as Nemesis first in A Caribbean Mystery, but she had earned that epithet from the start. I’m thinking of her swooping down on the Fortescue household to avenge Gladys Martin’s cruel murder or vanquishing the evil spirits from Gwynda Reed’s house. Think of how she conjures up a ghost to capture a killer in A Murder Is Announced! There’s almost something supernatural about that little old lady!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah she does seem to work outside normal parameters, particularly social ones. Critics such as Shaw and Vanacker suggest this is because Miss Marple is a spinster and is therefore ‘outside the normal expectations of a woman’s life as it is lived in patriarchal society… [which] gives her power… to threaten, to judge, to undermine and to destroy’ (Shaw and Vanacker, 1991: 43). Make of that what you will. I liked how you picked up on Miss Marple’s role in A Pocket Full of Rye, as it reminded me of the ending of the novel where it is said a ‘tear rose in Miss Marple’s eye. Succeeding pity, there came anger – anger against a heartless killer. And then, displacing both these emotions, there came a surge of triumph.’ I felt this kind of captured Miss Marple role as an avenger, who swoops down (as you put it) on the killer.

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  3. Really nice post, Kate, you managed to find a new line on Marple which is hard to do! – I really enjoyed your analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    Kate: Terrific post for you debut at TNB. I’m always interested in how much GA writers like Christie and Sayers brought in the classics and quotations. Christie’s link-up with Poirot and the labors of Hercules made for a nice set of short stories as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, glad you liked it and yeah Christie and Sayers did like their literary allusions, although I think Christie used her more minimalistic-ally and therefore more powerfully, as Sayers did throw an awful lot of them in, many of which were quite obscure, meaning you stopped noticing them after a while. With Christie, because they were used less frequently they stood out more.

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  5. JJ says:

    Superb analysis once again, Kate, but I’m now in disarray at how poorly I did on those games!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes’: Agatha Christie and Jacobean Tragedy | crossexaminingcrime

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