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The psychology of a masculinity in crisis in agatha christie’s the murder of roger ackroyd

The early 20th century was an era of rapid societal change, including a shift from the stable, unitary model of masculinity to more fluid notions of gender construction. The erosion of social and economic control and the growth of feminism have challenged the male ‘breadwinner ideal’, pressuring men to redefine ‘manliness’. As the recent ‘#MeToo’ movement demonstrates, the fight to dismantle patriarchal structures and diminish male cultural dominance continues. These cultural shifts have threatened some men, leading to the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and various men’s rights groups that strive to maintain previous notions of “ideal” masculinity. The tension between possible male responses to these crises of masculinity can be found in the writings of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Psychoanalytic theory, specifically, is helpful in demonstrating how Hammett presents a hypermasculine rejection of femininity, in contrast to Christie’s more nuanced hybrid masculine construction.

Published in the 1920s, Red Harvest (RH; 1929) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (MoRA; 1926) were written during the social upheaval after WWI that included the peak of the women’s suffragette movement, the rise of ‘radical’ political ideologies, and mass consumption of new technologies such as automobiles and film (Holmes 18; Tosh 337). Despite differences in the author’s cultural paradigms (i.e. American and British), men in both countries were expected to live up to a stoic, assertive, and rational masculine ideal (Roper 347). Post-war “shell shock”, skepticism towards heroic imagery of men, and rising feminism led to a reassessment of traditional masculine traits (Roper 344, 351; Tosh, 337). Men were increasingly isolated from the ideal archetype, leading to a “crisis of masculinity” where they struggled to define themselves.

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During this time, Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming popular, partly through its use to treat WWI soldiers suffering from “shell shock” (Roper 348). Psychoanalysis challenged the belief that masculine qualities, such as “physical vigor, energy and resolution, courage” and independence (or the ability to “be one’s own master”) (Tosh 335), were personality traits that could be perfected through development (Roper 350). Instead, Freud viewed gender identity as a deeply unstable, non-unitary process that began with the male recognizing his penis (that was always vulnerable to castration), then disidentifying with the mother and identifying with the father due to an Oedipal complex (Flanagan 66; Roper 350). A Lacanian interpretation posits that masculine identity is formed when the father (culture and language) imposes harsh restrictions on the male, forcing him away from the mother (emotion and desire) and causing feelings of ‘psychological castration’ (Hook 68; Tyson 30). With the loss of definite male societal norms, males can feel ‘fatherless’ and a crisis in masculinity may occur (Erickson 39).

RH and MoRA display two opposing identities that men may adopt in response to a poorly defined manhood: they can further emulate stereotypically masculine traits to become a hypermasculine rendition of the archetypal male, or they can embrace a nuanced gender identity that does not adhere to cultural norms of ‘masculine versus feminine’. In this way, Hammett and Christie describe either a reactionary or a more adaptive type of masculinity, respectively.

Hammett’s RH introduces readers to the hypermasculine Continental Op, a gritty, action-hero detective tasked with ridding Poisonville of corruption. The Op’s stoic nature reveals a ‘castrated’ man who is cut-off from expressing ‘feminine’ emotion (Blazina 153). Repressing emotion is a defence that protects the Op against ‘unacceptable’ femininity, so that his masculinity can become “tough enough to survive” the masculinity crisis that is unconsciously “stirring things up” (Hammett 85). This defense allows the Op to “see what [he] want[s] when it comes to the top” (Hamett 85) and consciously perceive himself as an ideal male figure. The inability of hypermasculine males to express emotions, particularly anger, causes them to behave ‘passive-aggressively’ by manipulating those around them (Vaillant 45). This tactic is observed throughout RH as the Op’s primary method. As an experiment, the Op blackmails Ike Bush into not throwing the boxing match, passive-aggressively claiming that he would “hate to have to ship [Bush] back to Philly” (Hammett 73). This results in Bush’s death, symbolizing the loss of feeling within an emotionally castrated male due to their inability to connect emotionally with others. The Op also uses this method to turn the warring factions (e.g. Noonan, Whisper) against each other during a ‘peace conference’ that he organizes. During the meeting, Reno’s face “was as stolidly dull as his eyes” (Hammett 146) and Thaler “went away without… showing what he had thought” (150). By juxtaposing emotional repression with the Op’s manipulation, Hammett further underscores the relationship between these two male characteristics.

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The emotional repression exemplified by “the purging of affect from the Op’s narration” (Breu 53) leads the Op to project his emotions onto females in the novel. As the Op approaches Helen Albury, for instance, he recounts her panic where “her eyes were crazy” and her responses had “no truthfulness in [them]” (Hammett 184). However, this actually describes the Op’s own “frantic search for a [murder] suspect”, his penchant for lying, and how Dinah earlier described him as “crazy” (Breu 70). In this manner, the Op projects the ‘feminine’ emotions upon the females in RH, enabling him to assume the role of a purely rational and objective observer.

Op’s detached traits along with his proclivity for violence, may also be due to his ‘fatherless’ status (Sugarman 236). Identification with the father (superego) teaches men that they can coexist with other individuals without resorting to violence or sexual urges (the ‘Id’) (Blos 306; Flanagan 69). Lacking a ‘father’ leads the Op to disregard fatherly authority figures (Elihu and the Old Man) in the novel, with Elihu claiming that “it wouldn’t hurt to take a nicer tone to a man old enough to be [his] father” (Hammett 151). Being ‘fatherless’ also provokes troubled relationships with women (e.g. Dinah Brand) through the introduction of breast and womb envy. Dinah, when asking the Op to “take mama’s advice and nail him quick” (Hammett 132), draws parallels between herself and a mother, who the Op wants to both distance himself from and destroy (Blazina 155; Greenberg 129). The breast represents food and nurturance for the male, who, in his envy, both desires and “wants to destroy the breast” (Greenberg 129). We see this fantasy played out through Dinah Brand’s murder when an “[ice] pick’s six inch needle-sharp blade was buried in Dinah Brand’s left breast” (Hammett 164), thus destroying the breast both symbolically (the ice pick is a phallic symbol denoting the patriarchy) and literally. The womb is also a source of male envy because of its ability to create life (Jaffe 523). This envy drives men to focus on cultural domination (represented by the phallus) and restrict women’s access to the cultural domain (Stockard and Johnson 204). This envy is highlighted when the blond kid “whisked a blackjack from his hip” (a phallic symbol; Hammett 105) to suppress Dinah Brand’s transgressive femininity. Whisper’s response in killing the blond kid symbolizes the contradiction underlying masculinity – the need to distance oneself from the feminine while at the same time desiring relationships with women (Blazina 156).

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RH ultimately describes the triumph of the hypermasculine male. Dan Rolff, representing a weaker form of masculinity, is incapacitated when the Op “socked his jaw” (Hammett 83) during a confrontation. Dinah Brand, representing transgressive femininity, is murdered. Lastly, the Op’s method succeeds in its objective of ‘cleaning up’ Poisonville. By claiming victory over the effeminate man, the transgressive female, and institutional corruption, the hypermasculine reaction to the masculinity crisis can triumph against social forces acting against it.

Agatha Christie’s MoRA, on the other hand, presents readers with Hercule Poirot, an evolved, feminized version of the masculine detective who defeats the hypermasculine ego of Sheppard. Poirot engages in stereotypically ‘feminine’ behaviour such as grooming himself while “inspecting his appearance in a tiny pocket glass” (Christie 110), gardening, and “prostrat[ing]” (19) himself before other men. At other times, he produces a “ruthless power” (Christie 202), or an assertive, “challenging and accusing” (146) demeanor. Poirot thus demonstrates the ability to use both feminine and masculine qualities depending on the circumstance. He represents a solution for men seeking to redefine themselves in the wake of a masculinity crisis. “Cutting off” from the mother and solely identifying with the father is not necessary to create a masculine identity (Blazina 154). Instead, a male can retain stereotypically feminine traits “without negating… [a] cohesive sense of maleness” (Blazina 154).

In contrast to the Op’s method, Poirot’s “obsessively neat and fastidious” approach (Aficici 6) combines ‘masculine’ science and ‘feminine’ intuition to correct the mistakes of the ‘manly-man’ inspectors. Poirot claims that feminine intuition arises when “women observe… little details, without knowing they are doing so” and subconsciously “[add] these little things together” (Christie 148). For instance, Poirot congratulates Caroline on her keen social detection skills, remarking that she has “the makings of a born detective… and wonderful psychological insight” (Christie 133). Similarly, Poirot utilizes ‘hybrid’ thinking (harkening back to previous sleuths) to empathize with “the passions of both victims and suspects” (Aficici 7) and glean insights into human nature. This enables Poirot to outwit Inspector Raglan, who “seems very sure of himself” (Christie 79) and exhibits the rational, confident masculine ideals, yet is unable to solve the case.

James Sheppard, the criminal of the novel, also displays characteristics of the hypermasculine male. ‘Fatherless’ males may view relationships with women as a source of conflict (Erickson 49); this conflict is observed as James competes with his sister Caroline. In this case, however, Caroline (the strong female) overpowers Sheppard (masculinity), describing him as “weak as water” (Christie 199). This demonstrates how women view the psychologically castrated male as ‘impotent’. By resorting to conflict and dismissing relationships, the hypermasculine male resorts to violence as a result of fear of abandonment (Blazina 159). Poirot summarizes these behaviours through his allegorical narrative of a man with a “strain of weakness” (Christie 201). Resulting from his repressed anger, Sheppard blackmails Mrs. Ferrars and murders Mr. Ackroyd, revealing his ‘weakness’ (castration). Christie further highlights Sheppard’s repression by the clinical way he describes Roger Ackroyd’s (a supposed friend’s) murder. Poirot even noticed that Sheppard “kept [his] personality in the background”, where “only once or twice” do his emotions “obtrude” through his repression (Christie 255).

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In contrast to RH, MoRA argues that a more fluid masculinity can overcome the psychological limitations imposed by hypermasculinity to arrive at the truth. This is illustrated when Blunt, with a “stick in his hand… thrust it into [goldfish] pond” (Christie 105) to uncover the gold object at the bottom. In doing so, he muddies the pond and obscures the gold object at the bottom. Investigating the water (which can represent Freud’s unconscious and repressed emotions) by ‘thrusting’ a stick (phallic symbol) to project his masculinity obscures the truth. Further, Sheppard only sees muddy water when Poirot retrieves the ring, indicating that when observed through a hypermasculine lens, one is unable to uncover the truth despite it being readily attainable. It is the combination of the masculine and feminine which makes Poirot an effective detective and enables him to prevail against Sheppard and hypermasculinity.

Finally, RH and MoRA differ in how they confront the morality of actions produced by the hypermasculine character. Freud believed that men had a stronger moral sense than women due to their fear of castration (Flanagan 68). This fear results in strict obedience to imposed paternal moral and social law (the superego). Additionally, disidentifying with the mother means that the male must look outside the family for a role model demonstrating a “mature, impersonal moral sense” (Flanagan 69). RH illustrates this concept by having the Op adhere to a consistent ethical mindset to legitimize his violent and manipulative actions. This includes not gambling on Ike Bush’s fight, even though the Op himself blackmailed Bush. Arguing against this notion is MoRA’s Poirot, who claims that women have “at heart a great desire to speak the truth”, whereas “one can press a man as far as one likes” morally (Christie 201). Poirot’s allegory of the man with a strain of weakness applies to the repressed, castrated natures of Sheppard and the Continental Op in contrast to Freud’s conception of a masculine moral sense.

In conclusion, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest describes a competent male action hero who adopts a hypermasculine reaction to threatening social forces. This character exerts its will on society to effect change. Alternatively, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd argues that an adaptive form of masculinity that combines feminine and masculine traits can triumph over reactionary masculinity. This evolved form of masculinity is more stable, flexible, and resilient in the long term (Cheng 666). However, cultural tensions remain between these two masculine models, especially considering the controversy that arose when the recent Gillette “The Best Men Can Be” commercials challenged older definitions of masculinity. The psychoanalytical implication is that two responses from recent masculinity crises may occur; in either case, the definition of manliness must change in order to survive.

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