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Reader Reaction To Christie'S The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd

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Pleasure or Bliss: Reader Reaction to Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

In The Pleasure of the Text printed in 1975, Roland Barthes defines two kinds of text. According to Barthes, the "text of pleasure" is "text that contents . . . that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading" (14). The "text of bliss" is text "that discomforts . . . unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes . . . ." (14). These distinctions are useful in discussing Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for at the time of its publication, many fans, who had settled into the "comfortable practice of reading" the sterile, formulaic detective stories popular up to 1926, found themselves "unsettled" by Christie's latest work.

Considering common perceptions of bliss and the fact that, in 1926, Barthes had not yet presented his theories on these types of texts, the earliest readers of Christie's novel may have objected to the term being used in connection with their experience of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In her biography of Agatha Christie, Mary S. Wagoner writes that "the tricky surprise" of the narrative even incited "public furor" (Wagoner 41). Why were some people upset? Douglas R. McManis explains, "Writers of mystery fiction were expected to use a format of prescribed traditions . . ." (319). Christie, however, "broke with many of the early format restrictions" (320). Consequently, some readers at the time objected to the story and accused her of having "violated one of the cardinal rules of fair play" by "deceiving the reader with respect to the identity of the murderer" (Gerald 234 n1).

Their reaction indicates a distinction in types of readers that correlates with Barthes types of texts. These "pleasure readers" preferred "a comfortable practice of reading" that entertained and conformed to their previously held beliefs. Christie's construction of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd deviated from this by requiring readers to reconstruct old assumptions. By doing so, it created a "text of bliss" for readers willing to have their expectations challenged by the narrative manipulation. First, this essay will show what methods Christie uses to unsettle readers' assumptions. Then, it will discuss readers' expectations when they come to a text and how these affect their reactions to it. In conclusion, it will show how the narrative devices that created "a text of bliss" could no longer carry the same effect in Christie's subsequent novels, and how, nonetheless, readers are able to entertain a different kind of bliss.

In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie uses several devices that manipulate readers in order to throw them off the path to guessing who the real killer is. The method that caused the uproar, however, was the construction of a narrator that turns out to be the murderer. Russell Fitzgibbon writes that "its critics, both those pro and those con, at once jumped into the battle over the author's fairness" (18). According to Michael Gerald, critics accused Christie "of deceiving the reader" (234 n1). Why does this narrative trick unsettle readers to the point where they reacted as they did? The answer is partially discovered by considering why her method was so successful in diverting readers from recognizing the real murderer.

The reader is thrown off course for several reasons. First, in many respects, Christie follows the formulas, methods, and construction of typical detective stories that readers had become familiarized with by reading other similar works. Pierre Bayard, in his book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery, lists some of the "rules of the genre" which Christie follows including not having the criminal play a secondary role in the novel, pitting a "doltish police inspector against a brilliant detective" and, thereby, presenting two different explanations of the crime, and setting up "a gathering of the various suspects" where the case is laid out and the solution proposed" (9-13). Standard devices such as these are seen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The murderer clearly has a primary role, Poirot disagrees with Inspector Raglan and, near the end, Poirot gathers all the main players and suspects to discuss some of his conclusions. In The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie, Michael Gerald notes, "In its simplest form, although containing an excellent plot and the false leads that are typical of a Christie novel, it is a rather conventional mystery set in a conventional English village, with the conventional assortment of murder suspects" (234 n1). In many ways, then, this new novel fills the expectations readers have based on their previous experience with the genre. The unexpected construction of a first-person narrator as the criminal, therefore, would throw readers off purely because they were not accustomed to it.

Second, readers accustomed to Christie's typical narrator, Hastings, naturally tend to transfer their previously learned expectations of Hastings over to the new narrator, Dr. Sheppard. Sheppard's character portrayal seems similar to Hastings in several ways. He acts as Poirot's sidekick. Poirot emphasizes this connection by telling Dr. Sheppard, "You must have indeed been sent from the good God to replace my friend Hastings" (83). Like Hastings, he doesn't seem to be very good at figuring things out. He assumes that Poirot is a retired hairdresser by the look of his mustache (16), and he presents himself as unable to see what Poirot considers obvious. For example, Poirot repeatedly chastises Dr. Sheppard for not using his "little gray cells" (128). At one point, Poirot even tells him, "Ah! But it is that you are a little stupid tonight, my friend" (126). With these kinds of similarities, readers are more inclined to see Dr. Sheppard as another Hastings who is an innocent, neutral, and even a bit of a bumbling narrator.

Third, as they become accustomed to the narrator's views and slant on the story, readers begin to feel a connection to him and see him as a sympathetic character. In A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard states, "In Roger Ackroyd we exclude a character from our suspicions because we see the action through his eyes; in this strategy we exclude him because we are placed in a position of sympathy with him from the beginning" (64). There are several ways in which readers are led to feel Dr. Sheppard

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