Like many of her other novels, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is a story that focuses almost exclusively on middle- to upper-class characters, including some of the wealthiest people in the world. Though mentioned on the periphery, characters like the employees of the Nile steamer boat the Karnak or the local residents of Egypt and Nubia are seldom named or given significant roles. One of the few supposedly working-class characters, who goes by the pseudonym Ferguson, ends up actually being a wealthy aristocrat in disguise. Partly, Christie’s focus on well-to-do characters is related to the novel’s escapism—while murder may be a grim subject, many parts of the Nile journey are described in lavish detail, perhaps for the benefit of readers who couldn’t themselves afford an expensive vacation in Egypt. But there’s a darker side to wealth too, and Christie skillfully exposes the hypocrisy, violence, greed, and snobbishness that often lie behind great fortunes. Death on the Nile deftly satirizes people who care too much about class and manners while at the same time acknowledging the seductive benefits of wealth and prestige.
One of Christie’s favorite satirical targets in all of her novels is the upper class’s vanity, with Mrs. Otterbourne, Miss Van Schuyler, and Ferguson serving as examples of such satire in Death on the Nile. Many critics speculate that Mrs. Otterbourne is based on the real-life romance novelist Elinor Glyn, whose work was popular, though reviled by some critics. Though Mrs. Otterbourne tries to appear glamorous and important, she is a secret alcoholic who causes her daughter misery. Her most notable characteristic is the turban she wears—a clear case of cultural appropriation (although that phrase wouldn’t have been used in Christie’s time). Ultimately, Mrs. Otterbourne’s flaws lead to her death—she witnesses something she shouldn’t have while procuring alcohol, then she spends so long trying to dramatically reveal what she saw that the murderer has time to shoot her. Miss Van Schuyler is another fussy, vain older woman who lies to hide her partial deafness, treats her young cousin Cornelia as a kind of servant, and often demands support from a nurse despite not actually needing any medical care. While she doesn’t die, she, too, is punished in the novel when Cornelia ceases to serve her every whim and instead marries Dr. Bessner.
The character of Ferguson furthers the novel’s skewering of the upper class. Ferguson at first appears in the novel as a firebrand socialist who rails endlessly against the “parasites” of the upper class. However, it turns out that Ferguson is in fact the very wealthy lord Dawlish. Dawlish did become a socialist in college, but it soon becomes clear that despite these political beliefs he remains steeped in his own privilege. As such, he is a ludicrous, silly figure in the novel: he doesn’t realize that poor people can’t just hire a bunch of lawyers when they have a problem. Moreover, the Colonel never takes him seriously as a real suspect for the political agitator he’s after, and he is left sputtering about his superiority when Cornelia rejects him in favor of the more reliable Dr. Bessner.
Christie’s disdain for upper-class vanity, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into sympathy for the lower-class or disdain for the whole idea of class—in fact, sometimes quite the opposite is true. As Ferguson demonstrates, characters in Death on the Nile have a hard time escaping their class. His efforts to be a communist are consistently depicted as ridiculous, suggesting that he can’t avoid his fate as a wealthy heir. Though most characters in the novel are punished according to their flaws, a modern reader might be surprised by the servant Louise’s fate. Even Poirot calls her a woman of “insensate greed.” It is hard to see why, however, Poirot would condemn Louise as greedy but not Tim (who has stolen far more than Louise, but who Poirot is sympathetic toward). One way to explain the different fates of Tim and Louise is to consider class. Though the Allertons weren’t rich, Tim was a member of respectable society, whereas Louise was “a miserable little femme de chambre” (as Dr. Bessner calls her after her death). Though Christie ably identifies the classism of characters like Miss Van Schuyler and Mrs. Otterbourne, she may be showing her own bias through the novel’s treatment of Louise, portraying the lower-class Louise as less worthy of redemption than the comparatively upper-class Tim.
While not an intended theme of the novel, it is worth noting that, especially to modern readers, some of Christie’s satires of classism and racism may come across as hypocritical, given that her own novel portrays Egyptians and Nubians in a way that reads as racist today. While some aspects of the novel, such as the use of the word “Negros,” can be attributed to the time when it was written, more concerning are scenes such as the one where Christie portrays street vendors as a swarm of buzzing flies. Comparing people to animals or insects is a common racist trope that makes those targeted seem less than human, and the novel has many such descriptions of the people of Egypt. Arguably, the whole concept of writing a novel about European and American characters vacationing in Egypt is problematic. Though Egypt formally became independent in 1922, it was scarred by years of violent colonial rule by Britain, and this occupation continued in some form through the 1950s. Christie’s negative (or nonexistent) portrayals of local Egyptians and Nubians reinforce the same racist, colonialist ideas that fueled the colonization of Egypt in the first place.
Death on the Nile is a novel about all the hypocrisies involved with class—and Christie herself is arguably guilty of many of these hypocrisies. For better and for worse, the novel conveys attitudes that were prevalent in Britain during the time when the nation was waning as a major colonial power. Though much of the material in the novel is dated, the same issues of class and colonialism continue to reverberate today.
Class Quotes in Death on the Nile
“That’s her!” said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns.
He nudged his companion.
The two men stared with round bucolic eyes and slightly open mouths.
A big scarlet Rolls-Royce had just stopped in front of the local post office.
“She cares too much, that little one,” he said to himself. It is not safe. No, it is not safe.”
Hercule Poirot made vague gestures to rid himself of this human cluster of flies. Rosalie stalked through them like a sleepwalker. “It’s best to pretend to be deaf and blind,” she remarked.
The infantile riff-raff ran alongside murmuring plaintively:
“Bakshish? Bakshish? Hip hip hurrah-very good, very nice. . . .”
Poirot signalled to a passing waiter.
“A liqueur, Madame? A chartreuse? A creme de menthe?” Mrs. Otterbourne shook her head vigorously.
“No, no. I am practically a teetotaller. You may have noticed I never drink anything but water-or perhaps lemonade. I cannot bear the taste of spirits.”
“No, Madame.” His tone was firm. “I will not accept a commission from you. I will do what I can in the interests of humanity.”
“My dear Monsieur Poirot—how can I put it? It’s like the moon when the sun comes out. You don’t know it’s there anymore. When once I’d met Linnet—Jackie didn’t exist.”
“Monsieur Poirot, I’m afraid—I’m afraid of everything. I’ve never felt like this before. All these wild rocks and the awful grimness and starkness. Where are we going? What’s going to happen? I’m afraid, I tell you. Everyone hates me. I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve always been nice to people—I’ve done things for them—and they hate me—lots of people hate me. Except for Simon, I’m surrounded by enemies . . . It’s terrible to feel—that there are people who hate you. . . .”
Simon’s eyes were open. They too held contentment. What a fool he’d been to be rattled that first night . . . There was nothing to be rattled about. . . Everything was all right . . . After all, one could trust Jackie—
There was a shout-people running towards him waving their arms-shouting. . . .
Simon stared stupidly for a moment. Then he sprang to his feet and dragged Linnet with him.
Not a minute too soon. A big boulder hurtling down the cliff crashed past them. If Linnet had remained where she was she would have been crushed to atoms.
“A telegram for me.”
She snatched it off the board and tore it open.
“Why—I don’t understand—potatoes, beetroots—what does it mean, Simon?"
Simon was just coming to look over her shoulder when a furious voice said: “Excuse me, that telegram is for me,” and Signor Richetti snatched it rudely from her hand, fixing her with a furious glare as he did so.
Jacqueline hummed a little tune to herself. When the drink came, she picked it up, said: “Well, here’s to crime,” drank it off and ordered another.
Hercule Poirot nodded his head.
“You did not look. But I, I have the eyes which notice, and there were no pearls on the table beside the bed this morning.”
Poirot picked up the handkerchief and examined it.
“A man’s handkerchief-but not a gentleman’s handkerchief. Ce cher Woolworth, I imagine. Threepence at most.”
The body of the dead woman, who in life had been Louise Bourget, lay on the floor of her cabin. The two men bent over it.
Race straightened himself first.
“Been dead close on an hour, I should say. We’ll get Bessner on to it. Stabbed to the heart. Death pretty well instantaneous, I should imagine. She doesn’t look pretty, does she?”
Poirot shook his head with a slight shudder.
The dark feline face was convulsed, as though with surprise and fury, the lips drawn back from the teeth.
Poirot bent again gently and picked up the right hand. Something just showed within the fingers. He detached it and held it out to Race, a little sliver of flimsy paper coloured a pale mauvish pink.
“You see what it is?”
“Money,” said Race.
“The corner of a thousand-franc note, I fancy.”
“Perhaps not, but the custom, it still remains. The Old School Tie is the Old School Tie, and there are certain things (I know this from experience) that the Old School Tie does not do! One of those things, Monsieur Fanthorp, is to butt into a private conversation unasked when one does not know the people who are conducting it.”
“That was an accident. I swear it was an accident!” The man leant forward, his face working, his eyes terrified. “I stumbled and fell against it. I swear it was an accident. . . .”
The two men said nothing.
Pennington suddenly pulled himself together. He was still a wreck of a man, but his fighting spirit had returned in a certain measure. He moved towards the door.
“You can’t pin that on me, gentlemen. It was an accident. And it wasn’t I who shot her. D’you hear? You can’t pin that on me either—and you never will.”
He went out.
“Well, sir, where do we go from here? I admit taking the pearls from Linnet’s cabin and you’ll find them just where you say they are. I’m guilty all right. But as far as Miss Southwood is concerned, I’m not admitting anything. You’ve no evidence whatever against her. How I got hold of the fake necklace is my own business.”
Poirot murmured: “A very correct attitude.”
Lastly the body of Linnet Doyle was brought ashore, and all over the world wires began to hum, telling the public that Linnet Doyle, who had been Linnet Ridgeway, the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy Linnet Doyle was dead.
Sir George Wode read about it in his London club, and Sterndale Rockford in New York, and Joanna Southwood in Switzerland, and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed instead who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.