Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie

by contributor

Jack Shields

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Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
The Justice of a Jury

The jury system is interpreted in quite an unusual way in Murder on the Orient Express. In Murder on the Orient Express, a self-appointed group of twelve people, the same number of individuals that are on a jury, sentence Ratchett to death and kill him. The concept of a “jury” or the idea of the justness of a jury is of thematic significance in the novel. The jury symbolizes justness. The Armstrong family justifies killing a person because they did so in a group of twelve people who decided that Ratchett must die. Yet their conception of the jury has nothing in common with the jury as intended by the state and legal system. Like Poirot, this group of people didn’t base their actions on any kind of law. Their system of a “jury” is based only on consensus. It causes responsibility for the death of one man to be on the shoulders of several people rather than just one. This is what happens in the state legal system: the state puts together a jury who must make a decision on the fate of one person. However, in the case of juries in the legal system, there is control exerted over the people chosen to be on the jury.  If juries in the legal system were comprised of family members of victims, juries wouldn’t be able to avoid bias. Yet we are unable to know for certain that Ratchett didn’t carry out the crime. The novel makes clear that Ratchett, or Cassetti, did “give the law the slip.” However, it’s possible that he wasn’t the man who killed Daisy Armstrong.

The questions of what a jury is and how “just” the system of justice is are constantly asked in this novel. A question that is especially focused on is whether a self-appointed jury can be just. The novel’s final argument is that the murder of Ratchett was “just.” This is consistent with Poirot and the other characters. The jury that they came together and formed caused there to be a consensus of twelve, and this was fair and just.

The Insufficiency of Law

In Murder on the Orient Express, law is exposed to be entirely inadequate. This is clear in discussions about Prohibition and murder laws. It is when Poirot carries out his search of Hardman’s suitcase that there is discussion of Prohibition laws in the United States. It is found that the suitcase contains many bottles of liquor, and Hardman says that Prohibition has never “worried me any.” M. Bouc and Hardman even talk about the speakeasy (the illegal, hidden bars that existed during Prohibition). Hardman has plans of hiding his alcohol by the time he reaches Paris. He says, “what’s left over of this little lot will go into a bottle labeled hairwash.” Hardman’s drinking habits have not been affected by Prohibition.

The inadequacy of United States law is shown in the fact that Ratchett is able to give cops “the slip.” He uses his wealth and the “secret hold he had over various persons” to get acquitted of the crime. After he was allowed to go free, Ratchett (formerly called Cassetti) chose a new name and went traveling. The novel makes the suggestion that in America, it is possible for a murderer to go free as long as they have wealth and connections.

The Morality of Murder

When Ratchett escapes facing justice in the United States, the Armstrong family decides to kill him themselves so he is prevented from attacking any more children. One of the novel’s most prominent themes in this novel is The morality of murder. The question is asked: is it morally acceptable to kill a man, even when the law has acquitted him? Is it ever morally acceptable to kill someone? The novel makes the suggestion, at least by the standards of the Poirot and passengers, that murder can be acceptable under specific circumstances. If a terrible crime has been committed, and there are twelve people who agree on the guilty party and that party is still on the loose, it can be acceptable to kill the guilty man. Clearly, there are emotional coasts. We see that most of the servants are overwhelmed with tears all through the novel. Overall, however, the Armstrongs are successful in their plan and they are unlikely to be punished for what they’ve done.

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