Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ten Little Indians: Mr. Rogers

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Mr Thomas Rogers in Desyat Negrityat
Curt: I've always thought the most memorable thing about the butler Thomas Rogers in And Then There Were None is the way he is taken out: struck in the head with the wood chopper. More than any of the deaths that had taken place in the book up to this point, this one is scary, particularly when considered in the light of those ghoulish words ("one chopped himself in halves") from the supposed children's rhyme.

Notice how Rogers meets his death while performing a menial task for the others survivors (for the moment). Even after three deaths--all murders, including that of his wife--and the obvious fact that there's a maniac killer running loose on the island, English social order in this microcosm does not falter. On the contrary, Rogers goes about performing his anointed tasks like the perfect servant that he is ("Will you take cold tongue or cold ham, madam").*

Yet there are moments when Rogers' carefully maintained butler facade cracks. When his wife dies, Rogers is white-faced when he yells for Doctor Armstrong, his lips are dry and he starts to drop his "aitches" (or should I say "haitches"): "Was it--was it-'er 'eart, doctor?"

The Rogers couple in the 1974 adaptation,
renamed Otto and Elsa Martino. Because
it’s so much more fashionable to have foreign servants!
This is the time-honored way for the English Golden Age detective novelist to remind us that no matter what hoity-toity manners and airs servants adopt, they are still very much from the lower drawer (a maid almost always upon discovering a dead body--as she will be bound to someday in the course of her duties--will scream and drop the tray she invariably is carrying and break into hysterics).

Rogers makes yet another slip when he starts to call the bathroom the "lavatory." Thankfully, he corrects himself before more than one syllable is uttered.

Then there are those convulsive swallows when Rogers--now "grayish green" in color and with shaking hands--imparts some dire information to Dr. Armstrong (Rogers seems repeatedly drawn to the doctor):

"It's those little figures, sir. In the middle of the table. Ten of them, there were. I'll swear to that, ten of them."

....

"There's only eight, sir! Only eight!"

Rogers is described here as "frenzied," which tells the reader something serious is occurring. Frenzied butlers are always fearful portents.

Christie never really gets into the head of Rogers as she does with her non-servant characters, but at these moments, in her restrained English way, she makes terror palpable.

The 1989 film decided to turn Mr. Rogers into
Elmo Rogers. If you are one for alternative classics,
you absolutely must see this laughable movie!
*Though by the way, if Rogers and his wife brought about the death of their prior mistress for considerable financial benefit, why are they still in service? One might have thought they might have bought a pub or something.

***

Patrick: I think there’s little doubt that Mr. Rogers is the least interesting character of the book. There’s far more speculation to be had even with Mrs. Rogers, who spends most of her time on Indian Island unconscious. But for me, what always stood out about Rogers is that he’s the first to lose his sanity.

After all, let’s take a look at the previous victims. Anthony Martson was amoral and wiped out first, without even imagining that Mr. Owen might be serious about this murder business, what? Mrs. Rogers is also bumped off very quickly, without suffering much. Did General Macarthur go crazy? No; he decided to embrace death and in fact spends his last hours on the island quite happy. Rogers is the first victim who marks the shift— characters from here on end will slowly deteriorate mentally before being picked off by Mr. Owen.

Several things contribute to this breakdown, I think. First and foremost, as the butler, he has to perform the domestic duties even though there’s a madman on the island (as you have pointed out). And so he’s the first to notice that there’s nine little Indian boys… eight… seven… Desperate, he decides to lock up the statues so that Mr. Owen cannot strike again. The slowly diminishing number of figurines is the second part of Mr. Owen’s two-pronged psychological attack. The 1987 Russian adaptation, Desyat Negrityat, captures this perfectly. The film is essentially split into two halves, and General Macarthur’s murder marks the end of the first half. After Vera discovers Macarthur’s murder, she runs into the dining room and starts counting. Rogers turns up in the room behind her, and the screenshot I took of him at this moment opens this article. The actor just perfectly captures the fear and paranoia in Rogers’ face when Vera tells him that his suspicions are right and that there are now only seven Indian boys. The façade of the perfect butler begins to crack… and the film breaks off to end Part One.

The 1974 adaptation needed to be a lot worse to be
entertaining. Just look at Otto’s disapproving frown!
But what is the first prong of Mr. Owen’s attack? Well, it’s the same attack everyone is subjected to: memories of the past. Although Christie never gets into Rogers’ head (as she does with General Macarthur or Vera Claythorne) we can easily fill in these blanks ourselves. We can imagine Rogers sitting up at night, restless, sweating it out, remembering just what took place between him and his wife when they decided to commit murder. You can almost picture him resignedly getting out of bed, unrefreshed but conscientiously going about his duties nevertheless… And as he chops wood for the guests, Mr. Owen sneaks up behind him and delivers a blow that takes Rogers out of his misery.

I haven’t got any specific quote in the text to support this theory, but Rogers always impressed me as a cowardly man who abused his wife to give himself a feeling of superiority. Once she was gone, his outlet for asserting himself was gone as well. And maybe that contributed just as much to his madness.

4 comments:

  1. I never caught Rogers's lapses into a cockney accent before– thanks for pointing that out to me!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Actually, Curt, that is a good point: why are the Rogerses still in service?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Because they got away with it!

    ReplyDelete

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