Miss Marple’s Low Anthropology

Agatha Christie on Limitation, Doubleness, and Self-Centeredness.

This article was originally sent out as part of my regular Theology & a Recipe newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

“That old lady gives me the creeps.”

“So gentle — and so ruthless.”

“The most frightening woman I ever met.”

So goes the assessment of Men in High Places at the end of a successful investigation into murder. They speak not of the murderer, however. That terrifying old lady is, in fact, the one who cracked the case.

In the words of someone who knows her better, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering: “Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid spinsterish face, and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it as all in the day’s work. Her name’s Miss Marple.”

And in the judgment of her nephew Raymond West, not otherwise known for his distinguished insight into human nature: “Some commit murder, some get mixed-up in murders, others have murder thrust upon them. My Aunt Jane comes into the third category.”

The murderers don’t stand a chance against her.

The Unlikeliest Detective

Agatha Christie’s first great hero, the Belgian refugee Hercule Poirot, is a self-evident detective. Retired from the police force, trained in the art and science of investigation, and blessed with an unusual abundance of “little gray cells,” his genius is altogether obvious. Colleagues and criminals alike underestimate him because he is a foreigner, or because he sits and thinks more than doing legwork. But no one is surprised that Poirot gets there in the end and brings the culprit to justice.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, is no one’s idea of a detective. The adjective applied to her most often is “fluffy.” She can’t tell one kind of a cigar ash from another. Although she has friends in high places, she lacks the authority to bring juridical power to bear on her suspects. You are implicitly invited to dismiss the old spinster preoccupied with her garden, sheerly for the pleasure of having your prejudices exploded.

As if it wasn’t bad enough already being old and cute, Miss Marple has several more strikes against her.

For one thing, she’s pious. As with her literary creator, Miss Marple’s deep devotion is so muted you might not even know it’s there — except for the fact that it undergirds everything. Every so often the curtain is drawn back, allowing us to see how Miss Marple prays and trusts, invokes providence and justice, reads Thomas à Kempis and believes in eternal life. To an onlooker familiar with the form but not the content of her faith, it would be easy to mistake it as a comforting illusion, serving to buffer Miss Marple from reality. Nothing could be farther from the truth… but more of that later.

For another apparent handicap, she’s spent her whole life in the village of St Mary Mead somewhere deep in the English countryside. It’s the kind of place Americans pine for, complete with run-down estate, vicarage, and fishmonger, though by the second half of the twentieth century even St Mary Mead loses ground to soulless subdivisions.

Cosmopolitan types tend to believe the dreamy delusion about the innocence of village life, assuming residence there to have rendered Miss Marple an easily shocked, ready-to-faint, delicate blossom of a Victorian lady.

But if anything shocks Miss Marple, it’s how innocent the cityfolk are. “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life,” she observes early in her career. “I hope you dear young people will never realize how very wicked the world is.” Aforementioned nephew Raymond remarks on another occasion, “The cosmopolitan world seems a mild and peaceful place compared with St Mary Mead.” “Well, my dear,” she responds, “human nature is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at close quarters in a village.”

Yet in an unconscious irony, the moment the cityfolk cotton on to just how much Miss Marple actually knows about human nature, they impute to her corruption, not the simple power of observation. Miss Marple is not offended. If anything, bemused.

“Young people nowadays — they talk very freely about things that weren’t mentioned in my young days, but on the other hand their minds are terribly innocent. They believe in everyone and everything. And if one tries to warn them, ever so gently, they tell one that one has a Victorian mind — and that, they say, is like a sink.”

“After all,” said Sir Henry, “what is wrong with a sink?”

“Exactly,” said Miss Marple eagerly. “It’s the most necessary thing in any house; but, of course, not romantic.”

The innocent cityfolk also sniffily disapprove of gossip — the vice of bored old ladies, or so they assume. Even the vicar tries to snuff it out. To which the infinitely wiser Miss Marple replies, “Dear Vicar, you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that, observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?”

Village gossip isn’t just (often) true; it’s Miss Marple’s treasure trove, the raw material she works over to assemble an elaborate and detailed mosaic of human nature, ready at hand for consulting when the worst of crimes are committed. Where Poirot looks for tells, slip-ups, and inconsistencies, Miss Marple scans for similarities: “I always find one thing very like another in this world.” What is mistakenly called woman’s intuition is simply her long experience of noting parallels.

She describes her method:

In a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so and so, genus this, species that. Sometimes, of course, one makes mistakes, but less and less as time goes on. And then, too, one tests oneself … It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgment and find that one is right … And normal people do such astonishing things sometimes, and abnormal people are sometimes so very sane and ordinary. In fact, the only way is to compare people with other people you have known or come across. You’d be surprised if you knew how very few distinct types there are in all.

Human nature being much the same everywhere, sinning in familiar and repetitious ways, and abundantly capable of evil: these are the driving convictions of Miss Marple’s deceptively quiet little life.

Or, to put it another way, Miss Marple cleaves to a low anthropology.

Low Anthropology

In his newest book, Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself), David Zahl reintroduces us to the tried-and-true modest estimation of human nature from a wiser time, not to make us give up on people but to help us love them again.

“High anthropology” is optimistic, demanding, and utopian. It expects the best of people, assumes infinite capacity for self-development, and operates on a straightforward input-output model of human personality, like an adding machine or an algorithm. It sounds all very nice and inspiring until, as inevitably happens, it comes crashing down. High anthropology doesn’t just set you up for disappointment; it guarantees that you will come to despise everyone around you.

All the more reason, Zahl argues, to adopt a low anthropology again. He explains:

On the “low” end of the spectrum sit the more sober estimations [of human potential]. We find understandings of the human spirit as something that veers, by default, in a malign direction and, as a result, cannot flourish without assistance or constraint. We find descriptions of people as finite, blind, and, in many cases, quite weak. This lower end does not discount our noble and good impulses but suggests that we are underdogs in the struggle to heed them. Our humanity contains an ineluctable dark side, whatever we say to the contrary. This does not mean that we’re incapable of sacrificial love and charity. It just means that the moments we demonstrate those ideals are the exception, not the rule.

As the book unfolds, Zahl identifies three pillars of low anthropology. The first is limitation — that humans are not, in fact, infinitely capable, but definitively constrained by everything from the accident of birth to the larger forces of history to their own sinful hearts. The second pillar is doubleness, the internal self-contradiction so beautifully expressed by St. Paul in Romans 7 (and so alarming to high-anthropologists that they use every strategy of scholarship to dodge the obvious). And third, self-centeredness, seeing ourselves always as the hero — or villain — of our own story, the quality Augustine saw alarmingly at work already in babies and running like a red thread through human life forever after.

Limitation, doubleness, and self-centeredness? Sounds like the key ingredients in a murder mystery to me!

Which may explain why mild-mannered souls (limited, doubled, and self-centered to be sure, but disinclined toward murder) love murder mysteries so much. There is something refreshingly honest about them, even when the clues and hijinks strain credulity. It’s long been surmised that detective fiction comes into its own during periods of social and political upheaval, because the genre delivers a clear resolution and the reordering of a morally disordered universe.

But I bet it’s also because these stories allow us to stop pretending we’re so great. In a good murder mystery, far more people have cause to murder than the actual murderer, and usually the false suspects turn out to be guilty of something else anyway. Looking at their manifold sins invites us to the relief, not of being innocent, but of not having to lie anymore.

And that is how you can hope for something more than human potentiality. As Zahl observes, “Low anthropology lights a pathway of sustaining faith. After all, news about God is of little interest to those who feel they don’t need God. The gospel message rings hollow to ears muffled by seductive myths about human perfectibility and potential.”

There’s good reason to think that Miss Marple’s low anthropology reflects that of her creator. Agatha Christie biographer Laura Thompson sees inspiration for the fluffy old spinster of St Mary Mead in Agatha’s grandmothers: “Like Miss Marple, both Margaret Miller and Mary Ann Boehmer managed to hold a Christian faith in human nature with a realistic knowledge of its dire capabilities. Expect the worst, because the worst is so often true, but have belief, have faith, have compassion.”

Surely this is why Dame Agatha continues to be read and loved nearly fifty years after her death and more than a century after the publication of her first novel, her entire oeuvre falling third in sales only to the Bible and Shakespeare. In her deceptively plain prose, Agatha whispers the hard truths that the brutally optimistic high anthropology of our age rules out of court. In Thompson’s words:

Here was where Agatha and the modern sensibility parted company… in her willingness to see the truth about human nature. She had always known the wretchedness of which people are capable. She knew that the selfishness of apparently decent men and women knows no bounds, that the desire to be safe or rich or happy can override all but the strongest moral sense. She knew that murderers sometimes deserve compassion, but it is the effect of this compassion that has to be considered. She understood — none better — that adultery may cause incalculable distress, but that it is committed by nice people as well as rats. She understood that although children may appear sweet and innocent, they are capable of evil, and adults are capable of evil towards them. This was the kind of thing that she wrote, without comment and without the need for comment. It was her subject matter. And in her old age she saw a link between the naivety of the modern world — its politicized belief in the perfectibility of human beings — and its love of ideology, anarchy, and violence.

The Problem with Evildoers

For those of us who would like to reclaim a low anthropology, Miss Marple is our guide.

First off, she asks us to stop being so shocked at what people are capable of. Possessed of a magnificent mind like a sink, Miss Marple isn’t shocked by anything. Including sex, spinster though she is. Ruminating once on the depressing state of the modern novel:

So difficult — all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, even enjoying them. “Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it — not talked about so much — but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her. Though usually labeled Sin, she couldn’t help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays — a kind of Duty.

Not that Duty exhausts the range of sexual disorder.

Jane Marple had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life. She had no urge to talk about them, far less to write about them — but she knew them. Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural. Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds. (Some kinds, indeed, that even the clever young men from Oxford who wrote books didn’t seem to have heard about.)

But while lust drives some of the murders in the wider Christie canon, it isn’t the primary culprit. In fact, what Miss Marple identifies as the most dangerous of human properties would no doubt shock cosmopolitans in this century just as much as it did in the last.

The first dangerous property is silliness. “So many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly.” Yet silly doesn’t mean lacking in culpability. Silliness of the sort Miss Marple has in mind courts danger and even incites it. She reflects with regret on a maid she once trained: “Life is cruel, I’m afraid. One doesn’t really know what to do with the Gladyses. They enjoy going to the pictures and all that, but they’re always thinking of impossible things that can’t possibly happen to them. Perhaps that’s happiness of a kind. But they get disappointed.” And that disappointment can lead to terrible things. Miss Marple does not exonerate the wicked who take advantage of the silly and disappointed. But she holds the latter responsible, too, for their part in creating a cesspool of a situation.

Stupidity is another chief vice — silliness ratcheted up to a still more dangerous degree. Miss Marple pays one figure in an investigation the sideways compliment of dismissing him as suspect because, “Well, really, I think just because you have got brains. Having brains, you can get most things you want without having recourse to murder. Murder is stupid.”

Murder is stupid — but a lot of people are stupid, and that’s why murders happen, and that’s why murderers get caught. “A mediocre amount of intelligence is sometimes most dangerous. It does not take one far enough.” Not that brains are any guarantee, either: “There are quite a number of people who aren’t stupid, and one shudders to think of what they might accomplish unless they had very strongly rooted principles.” But in the detective genre there’s a tendency to attribute the worst of crimes to the brightest of brains, shoving murder off into the far reaches of human possibility. Miss Marple gives considerably more credence to the potential for murder in the ordinary, silly, and stupid.

Also the weak. Here again Miss Marple treads on the delicate toes of enlightened cosmopolitan types, who assume that violence is the preserve of the powerful, strong, and arrogant. Miss Marple is far more catholic in her distribution of sin than that. “Weak and kindly people are often very treacherous. And if they’ve got a grudge against life it saps the little moral strength that they may possess.” Then, “once a weak person gets really frightened, they get quite savage with terror and they’ve no self-control at all.” Agatha Christie’s most unsettling murderers are precisely those weak and resentful types nurturing a deep grudge against the world.

Miss Marple therefore knows what a mistake it is to confine moral accountability to outside circumstances alone. As Zahl puts it, “A low anthropology also recognizes that evil and suffering and injustice cannot be reduced to external systems. Their spark lies within the sinful human heart, not outside it.” Each soul finally has to come to terms with its own condition, whether at the top of the food chain or the bottom or somewhere in between. So our unshockable detective concludes, “It’s what’s in yourself that makes you happy or unhappy.”

For all these reasons, Miss Marple is notoriously harsh toward murderers. In that respect she and Poirot are cut from the same cloth: “I do not approve of murder!” But not because murderers are by definition beyond mercy. The problem for her is how often hope for the reformation of the evildoer proves to be a moral distraction from the suffering of the innocent. You pursue and expose the murderer not for his sake, but for the sake of the truly innocent — both the falsely accused and the victim. “If you expect me to feel sympathy, regret, urge an unhappy childhood, blame bad environment; if you expect me in fact to weep over him, this young murderer of yours, I do not feel inclined so to do. I do not like evil beings who do evil things,” Miss Marple declares.

And also because human nature that gets a taste of evildoing rarely quits. “A man who does a wicked thing like this and gets away with it the first time, is, alas, encouraged. He thinks it’s easy, he thinks he’s clever. And so he repeats it.”

Miss Marple’s lowest of low anthropologies is what makes her such an extraordinary detective. She is not boondoggled by apparently lesser sins like stupidity, nor by optimism about the evil, nor by false hopes that want to look the other way.

Unfortunately, as far as Miss Marple is concerned, most investigators are far too optimistic and sweet-tempered for the job.

The Problem with Investigators

If there is one quality Miss Marple rues about the populace at large, it’s naïveté. In her book it’s not a virtue, but a vice. A grave vice indeed.

“One is so inclined to be trusting and take people at their own valuation,” she laments. Another time she observes, “The trouble in this case is that everybody has been much too credulous and believing. You simply cannot afford to believe everything that people tell you.” Naïveté is actively dangerous, possibly even deadly.

If Miss Marple has a mantra, this is it, as evidenced by her remarks across the decades:

  • “In this wicked world I’m afraid the most uncharitable assumptions are often justified.”
  • “I’m afraid, you know, Inspector, that I don’t believe in paragons.”
  • “One never can be quite sure about anyone, can one? At least that’s what I’ve found.”
  • “I always find it prudent to suspect everybody just a little. What I say is, you really never know, do you?”
  • “It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.”
  • “The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.”
  • “Most people — and I don’t exclude policemen — are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”
  • “People, I find, are apt to be far too trustful. I’m afraid that I have a tendency always to believe the worst. Not a nice trait, but so often justified by subsequent events.”
  • “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.”
  • “The depravity of human nature is unbelievable.”

Which means everything has the potential to be corrupted — even love. After one particularly dark case (even by Miss Marple’s standards), she concludes, “Love is a very terrible thing. It is alive to evil, it can be one of the most evil things there can be.” Only a woolly old lady entirely shorn of her naïveté can say a thing like that.

But it might be a relief to us all to stop pretending. One admirer of the old lady exclaims, “It’s rather refreshing after having had too much of the other thing… So much high-thinking — idealization of an unworthy object!”

Zahl thinks so, too:

Most calls for unity appeal to our better angels. We assume that what binds me to you is a common desire for peace, or success, or happiness, or beauty. Maybe we believe that we share a uniquely human capacity for altruism and that the right leader with the right vision could leverage that capacity, galvanize disparate groups, and heal our fractures. Or perhaps we appeal to a shared value or trait to bring us together … These strategies can be effective in the short run. But I wonder if they run out of gas over time because they ignore something fundamental about how people actually connect. They ignore that the most lasting and transformative bonds are almost always sealed through weakness rather than strength, suffering rather than flourishing, vulnerability rather than nobility. If high anthropology alienates us from one another, maybe low anthropology can bring us together again.

Hope grounded in reality, as opposed to optimism grounded in utopianism, is the promise that low anthropology holds for us.

I suspect that even this would be a little too upbeat for our relentless Miss Marple, though. She’d agree that it’s a mistake to appeal to our better angels. But rather than extending credulity, vulnerability, and sober mercy to the other tribe, I think she’d urge us to imbibe a large dose of skepticism and distrust toward our own.

Then again … ought we not feel a certain skepticism and distrust toward Miss Marple herself?

Dark Marple

“There is nothing that you can tell me about people’s minds that would astonish or surprise me,” Miss Marple avers. So at this point it’s worth asking: isn’t it dangerous to be so post-naïve, so incredulous, so alive to the human potential for evil? Are Miss Marple’s prayers enough to protect her from temptations of her own?

You wonder, sometimes. Like here:

“No, dear, not quite,” said Miss Marple. “You see, if I were going to kill anyone — which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of doing for a minute, because it would be very wicked, and besides I don’t like killing …”

Or here:

Miss Marple: “When anyone has committed one murder, they don’t shrink from another, do they? Nor even from a third.”

Sir Henry Clithering: “A third? You don’t think there will be a third murder?”

Miss Marple: “I think it’s just possible… Yes, I think it’s highly possible.” Sir Henry Clithering: “Miss Marple, you frighten me. Do you know who is going to be murdered?”

Miss Marple: “I’ve a very good idea.”

Or here, when Colonel Melchett expostulates, “Confound the woman, she couldn’t know more about it if she had committed the murder herself.”

Catherine Brobeck, may she rest in peace, of the All About Agatha podcast propounded the Dark Marple theory: playing with the notion that Miss Marple might actually in some way be causing all these murders she runs across, not just solving them. Detective-as-secret-serial-killer is a popular fan theory (especially regarding Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote”), but you don’t have to go anywhere near that far to get an uncanny frisson from Miss Marple on the case.

The pursuit of justice takes you into murky waters, after all. “Miss Marple had been brought up to have a proper regard for truth and was indeed by nature a very truthful person. But on certain occasions, when she considered it her duty so to do, she could tell lies with a really astonishing verisimilitude.” Where and how exactly did she learn to lie so well?

Then there’s the issue of how so many of the Miss Marple novels reach their resolution. Poirot can ring up Inspector Japp to have armed policemen standing by at the dénouement of his brilliant exposé of the murder. But dear Aunt Jane of St Mary Mead, even with all her connections, can’t do that. So she employs a different strategy: “A little trap might be permissible.” She sets people up to betray themselves — as inevitably they do.

It’s only in the very last two novels that Agatha Christie wrote about Miss Marple, A Caribbean Mystery and Nemesis, that her heroine comes fully into her terrifying own. In the first, another admirer recalls with pleasure: “If you knew what you looked like that night with that fluffy pink wool all around your head, standing there and saying you were Nemesis! I’ll never forget it!’”

And indeed he doesn’t, for in the second book he leaves in his will an exhortation for Miss Marple to uncover the truth of a murder buried in the past, precisely because of her embodiment of the Greek god Nemesis. (Hard to imagine Thomas à Kempis would approve of this.) The summons from beyond the grave, as it were, imposes uncomfortable self-knowledge on the pink wool-shrouded lady:

“Surely,” said Miss Marple, aghast at an idea that had come into her mind, “there can’t be a bond of ruthlessness between us?” Was she, Jane Marple — could she ever be — ruthless? “D’you know,” said Miss Marple to herself, “it’s extraordinary, I never thought about it before. I believe, you know, I could be ruthless …”

“What, you?” said Cherry. “Never! You’re kindness itself.”

“All the same,” said Miss Marple, “I believe I could be ruthless if there was due cause.”

“What would you call due cause?”

“In the cause of justice,” said Miss Marple.

The admirer summoning her services concurs in his posthumous letter: “You, my dear, if I may call you that, have a natural flair for justice, and that has led to your having a natural flair for crime.” The gift is the danger, and the danger is the gift. He caps off his appeal with a quote from the prophet Amos. Miss Marple can’t resist.

Which leads to a final startling fact about our adorable old lady detective: her advocacy, even whole-hearted endorsement, of capital punishment. “I have never regretted my part in bringing that man to justice. I have no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment,” she says on one occasion. On another, she says of the murderer, “I feel quite pleased to think of him being hanged…” Over the course of Agatha Christie’s career Britain repealed capital punishment, and Miss Marple did not approve. “‘I am really very, very sorry,’ finished Miss Marple, looking as fierce as a fluffy old lady can look, ‘that they have abolished capital punishment because I do feel that if there is anyone who ought to hang, it’s [the culprit].’”

As one of the many inspectors in her life concludes, “‘You’re a righteous woman, Jane Marple, and right must prevail.’ A tear rose in Miss Marple’s eyes. Succeeding pity, there came anger — anger against a heartless killer.”

A fallen world needs its Miss Marples.

But, maybe, not too many of them.

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3 responses to “Miss Marple’s Low Anthropology”

  1. Jon Anderson says:

    Love Miss Marple. This was an excellent foray not only into the character but into what it might teach us about humanity. Similar to an article Alan Jacobs wrote about Miss Marple a couple of years ago. Bravo! Well-done!

  2. Alice says:

    I was so entertained and delighted by this article. Being an old lady myself and in the “helping profession” for decades. I have listened to many stories over these many years and couldn’t agree more with Miss Marple’s and David Zahl’s low anthropology and wisdom. Bravo!

  3. Julie Marino says:

    Deeply insightful essay – currently reading Low Anthropology and have for years continually cycled through the BBC Poirot and Marple series. Thank you for linking these to Low Anthropology – had no idea I could take even more pleasure in them. Fantastic writing

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