If one's actions cannot be prosecuted under the normal proceedings of law, can one be considered innocent of any wrongdoings even though the actions in question are morally unjustified? In Agatha's Christie's And Then There Were None, the idea of justice is a major theme and is thoroughly explored through the context of the characters. Trapped on an island and distanced from society, the characters in the story are forced to come to terms with their past actions as they wait for their 'death sentence'.
Justice Wargrave is the administrator of the law and the killings on Indian Island are merely prosecutions where the guilty are brought down in the name of the law and thus, enforcing justice. The administration of justice is a common theme in many murder mysteries. An individual commits a crime, and it is only a matter of finding that individual and punishing them through the law. Agatha Christie, however, departs from this formulaic approach by introducing the characters to offenses which are not punishable through any normal means.
Wargrave's overwhelming desire to instil justice, therefore, leads him to deviate from the norm and punish those who he deemed guilty through his sick and gruesome way. He presents himself as the fighter of injustice and entrusts himself with the role of punishing those who had escaped the consequences of the law. The traditional sense of justice, however, remains the same. Wargrave, in his conventional role as a judge, enforces justice by sentencing the guilty to prison or execution in the court room.
Similarly, Indian Island serves as a court room for Wargrave, and the ten 'Indians' are the defendants who are waiting for Wargrave's pronouncement of their death sentence. It can also be argued that the murders of some of the characters are unjustified because their apparent 'crimes' are petty and insignificant, thus the punishment inflicted on those characters were undeservingly received. For example, Anthony Marston had ended the lives of two children in a car accident.
Similarly, Armstrong had killed one of his patients because he was operating while drunk. Surely, it can be argued that since these characters had caused the deaths unintentionally and had been legally allowed to continue operating in society, they are not guilty and should not be punishable through death. However, they are indeed guilty and this is reinforced by the characters' conscious awareness of their guilt. Guilt is a result of a wrongdoing or criminal behaviour, the absence of which would give no reason to feel guilt.
Vera Claythorne, who voluntarily hangs herself out of realization of her crime, is a striking example of how justice can take the form of one's own guilty consciousness. Dr. Armstrong, on the other hand often experiences dreams which recall the instance he had killed one of his patients. The inner conscience serves to remind the characters of their crimes. It also serves to instil justice by preoccupying the characters' thoughts with guilt and tormenting them until their death. In addition, Wargrave determined the severity of justice according to the seriousness of the crime.
Those who were less guilty, as in the case of Antony Marston, received a quick, painless death. They did not have to endure the long, harsh mental punishment from their guilt and from the anticipation of imminent death. Those who were undoubtedly guilty, however, were forced to carry the psychological burden of guilt as they await their doom. Very Claythorne, for example, was the last to die as she willingly hangs herself out of her traumatic experience on the island and her overwhelming sense of guilt.
In the same way, Wargrave, who associates himself with the enforcer of justice, does not exclude himself from punishment. Just as each of his victims had been murdered, Wargave himself commits suicide. His death represents the ultimate application of justice. The guilty cannot go unpunished and even though Wargrave has total control over his fate, he is no exception. Taking this into account, Agatha Christie again departs from the formula of the typical detective crime fiction.
In a traditional sense, justice is applied by putting the criminal behind bars. In And Then There Were None, the application of justice is represented through death. This may seem like a cruel form of punishment, since death is the ultimate sacrifice. However, in the context of justice, which deems equal treatment for all, it only seems fair that the characters themselves receive death since they had caused the deaths of others.
CHRISTIE, Agatha; 'And Then There Were None'; May 1995; Berkley Pub Group; Reissue edition (May 1995); 208 pages.