Deceptive and Deadly Numbers and Letters in Christie's Double Versions of Ten Little Indians and Witness for the Prosecution

By Ardolino, Frank | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Deceptive and Deadly Numbers and Letters in Christie's Double Versions of Ten Little Indians and Witness for the Prosecution


Ardolino, Frank, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Detective or mystery stories involve the solution of crimes through the meticulous sifting or details involving the time the crime was committed and the circumstances surrounding it. Numbers lie at the heart of the process of careful detection. As John Irwin has remarked, the archetypal patterm of the detective genre was established by Oedipus, whose search for Laius' murderer is represented as a numerical mystery "built upon the four numbers of the tetractys":

   The man who solved the Sphinx's numerical riddle about the identity of a
   creature that speaks with a single voice and walks on two, three, and four
   feet, also solves the numerical mystery of the identity of Laius's
   killer--the mystery of a single man named Oedipus who discovers that he has
   a dual identity ... by recognizing himself in Jocasta's account as the same
   person who, at a spot where three roads meet, slew four men. (225, 405)

The solution to the Oedipal mystery involves the recognition of the essential doubleness of human nature as personified by Oedipus, who is both detective and killer.

Agatha Christie wrote mystery stories in which the detective along with the reader must sort through a maze of such details to arrive at the solution to the crime. In this article, I would like to analyze Christie's use of numbers and alphabetic letters to symbolize doubleness and death in the novel and play versions of The Little Indians and the short story and play versions of Witness for the Prosecution.

Christie uses the numbers 8 and 0 and the letter o to signify death in these works. In her numerical system 8 counts as a double zero, one on top of the other, signifying the nothingness of death. (1) These letters and numbers occur in repeated patterns which provide the attentive reader with an awareness of the pervasiveness of death in various guises, create a game ambience as we trace their reappearances in many ways, and, finally, establish a sense of overriding order and destiny. The patterns are repeated too often and insistently to be coincidental. The methods she uses to insinuate these letters and numbers are proof that Christie intends them to be an integral part of her narratives which provide a counterpointing between form and content and furnish the reader with the aesthetic delight of detecting her ingenuity. (2)

The novel Ten Little Indians (aslo titled And Then There Were None) was published in 1939 and the play version in 1944. Except for their different endings, as we shall discuss, the two works are essentially the same. (3) After receiving mysterious invitations, eight people arrive on Indian island, having been preceded by the servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers. It soon becomes evident that all ten people are marked for death for crimes they have committed but have not been punished for. Instead of enjoying a weekend as guests of their mysterious benefactor Ulick Norman Owen, the visitors are stalked relentlessly by death. The means by which they are dispatched involve the metronomic working out of the nursery rhyme "The Little Indians." As each victim is killed in concert with the way the little Indian boys die, an Indian figure is stealthily removed from the collection of figurines in the living room of the house. Thus, the story consists of a seemingly inevitable countdown to zero or nothingness.

In both versions, the eight guests arrive on August 8 (novel, p. 3; play, I, p. 25). (4) August is the eighth month and on its eighth day we have eight people arriving. Dinner on the first evening is set for eight (p. 20; I, p.13) and the boatman, Fred Narracott, is expected to return the next morning shortly before eight" (II, p. 41) with "eight pints of milk" (I,p.5). Further, eight of the characters have o's in their last names. Thomas and Ethel Rogers, Fred Narracott, Vera Claythorne, Phillip Lombard, Anthony Marston, William Blore, and Dr. Edward Armstrong. Three characters lack o's in their last names, but if you take their full names they too have o's, which complete the circle of death surrounding the ten: John Gordon Mackenzie (Macarthur in the novel), Emily Caroline Brent, and Lawrence John Wargrave. …

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