Warning: The following article contains spoilers regarding Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None
Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
|General Macarthur in 1987's Desyat Negrityat|
Macarthur’s crime was a simple one. The voice of U. N. Owen accuses him that “on the 4th of January, 1917, you deliberately sent your wife’s lover, Arthur Richmond, to his death.” Macarthur cries out that the accusation is preposterous, and later feebly (and unconvincingly) attempts exonerating himself:
“Best really to leave this sort of thing unanswered. However, I feel I ought to say—no truth—no truth whatever in what he said about—er—young Arthur Richmond. Richmond was one of my officers. I sent him on a reconnaissance. He was killed. Natural course of events in war time. Wish to say resent very much—slur on my wife. Best woman in the world. Absolutely—Caesar’s wife!”
When he sits down, Christie informs us that “the effort to speak had cost him a good deal.”
Macarthur spends a sleepless night, reminiscing about his wife Leslie and Arthur Richmond. He liked Arthur, and he’d been pleased that Leslie had taken such a “motherly interest” in him. Motherly indeed, it turned out, especially if you’re Sigmund Freud. Behind his back, Leslie and Arthur began having an affair, and Macarthur found out “in the way things happened in books”: Leslie was writing to them both and accidentally placed the wrong letter in the wrong envelope. “Even now, all these years after, he could feel the shock of it—the pain… God, it had hurt!”
|General Mackenzie in the video game adaptation|
But what happened after Arthur Richmond died? Leslie shed tears, but Macarthur now knew what kind of tears these were: she was mourning her lover. But the question that haunts Macarthur most after all this time: did Leslie ever suspect the truth? “He’d never told her that he’d found her out. They’d gone on together—only, somehow, she hadn’t seemed very real anymore.”
Here, for me, is the greatest tragedy in And Then There Were None. There are other married couples and lovers that get separated, but here is a man who committed his crime out of love. He was convinced that everything would be OK after this obstacle to his happiness would be removed. Instead, his wife retreated into herself, became a mere ghost of a woman and died a few years later. Macarthur has spent the last few years terribly, terribly alone. He doesn’t so much regret the death of Arthur—he didn’t go to church on the day the lesson was read about David sending Uriah to his death in the battlefield. What he does regret bitterly is what he did by proxy to his beloved Leslie. She loved Arthur and he killed him, and the grief ended up killing her. Perhaps she did suspect, and she couldn’t bear living with a husband who was capable of something so horrifying. But whether she suspected or not, she certainly lost her will to live: “I don’t know if Leslie ever guessed . . . I don’t think so. But you see, I didn’t know about her any more. She’d gone far away where I couldn’t reach her. And then she died—and I was alone. . . .”
|General Macarthur's final chat with Vera Claythorne|
“Funny, just this minute he didn’t want much to get away from this island… To go back to the mainland, back to his little house, back to all the troubles and worries. … He thought: Best of an island is once you get there—you can’t go any further . . . you’ve come to the end of things. . . . He knew, suddenly, that he didn’t want to leave the island.”
It seems like such a horrible thing, to give up on life, surrender your will to live. But that’s what Macarthur does, and his final scene serves a dual purpose. It is his last farewell to the world, and he ominously declares that “None of us are going to leave the island.” He sits on the horizon and awaits death to come and claim him and bring him back to his beloved Leslie: “What, perhaps, you can’t understand is the relief! … Of course, you’re very young . . . you haven’t got to that yet. But it does come! The blessed relief when you know that you’ve done with it all—that you haven’t got to carry the burden any longer.” It is a beautiful and tragic portrait of a man who has suffered from guilt and now awaits redemption. It’s what always stuck with me most about the book.
But the scene serves a dual purpose, a far sneakier one: in his final scenes, Christie subtly suggests to her readers that Vera Claythorne is the killer. When she approached, the General turns and she thinks to herself: “How queer. It’s almost as though he knew…” Is she thinking about her crime, or the rock she may be holding in her hands? When Macarthur delivers his ominous prediction, he immediately follows it up with “That’s the plan. You know it of course, perfectly.”
|General André Salvé in the 1974 film adaptation|
Curt: When I read And Then There Were None as a kid General Macarthur impressed me as a sad old man waiting to die. Christie is well-known for her portrayal of stereotyped “pompous ass,” martinetish military men, but here this same character type--despite some moments of pomposity, to be sure--takes on a real element of pathos. His embrace of death is moving, but frightening too, to those who still want to embrace life. In this case, Mr. Owen’s murder seems something like euthanasia.
|One said he'd stay there...|
Another point I would like to add is how with General Macarthur Christie once again undermines a pillar of the British establishment. Anthony Marston, representative of the British moneyed leisure class, is a sociopath who probably would have run down someone else with his motor car had he not been murdered. Now General Macarthur, we learn, abused his authority as a military officer to carry out a private vengeance. In the original 1945 American film version of And Then there Were None, General MacArthur’s name was changed to Mandrake, there having arisen a world famous “General Macarthur” by that time. Christie’s General MacArthur is no shining war hero.