As with many Agatha Christie novels, the characters in Death on the Nile come from a variety of backgrounds, and many have personalities shaped by their backgrounds. From the careful, reserved Englishman James Fanthorp to the fiery Italian Signor Richetti, each character embodies characteristics (or, in some cases, stereotypes) of their home country. The Karnak—the steamer boat that they all take up the Nile—becomes both a melting pot, where these characters from around the world temporarily become part of a shared environment, and a pressure cooker, where the characters’ different personalities come into (sometimes violent) conflict. Even before boarding the steamer, many of the characters were well-traveled and cosmopolitan, with some of them being multilingual, suggesting that borders between national identities can be blurred. Christie’s multinational cast of characters emphasizes the role that environment plays in shaping people’s personality and also shows that people can subvert expectations associated with their nationalities or take on elements of other cultures.
The first chapter of the book emphasizes the international character of the story by showing all the characters in different settings. Some characters, like Linnet and Pennington, are shown in their home environment. Linnet’s introduction in her English country village emphasizes how she was shaped by her role in high society—and by English ideas of class. By contrast, Pennington is given a brief scene in a New York City office to emphasize how his job as an international man of business shapes him. Other characters like Tim and Mrs. Allerton, as well as Rosalie and Mrs. Otterbourne, are already abroad when they’re introduced. These characters reveal their personality through the ways that they behave while out of their element: Tim’s complaint that Majorca is cold reveals him to be spoiled, whereas Mrs. Otterbourne’s turban in Jerusalem reveals her to be dramatic. Poirot’s own introduction emphasizes his cosmopolitan character: he is a Belgian man eating at a French restaurant in England. His multiculturalism is important because it allows him to find common ground with, and understand, a wide variety of characters.
By contrast, subsequent chapters emphasize the isolation of the characters on the Karnak, showing how circumstances can force people together and create new, blended cultures. The settings of the novel are notably limited, as the characters are usually confined to small spaces: the patio of the hotel and the boat on the Nile. The smaller settings of various parts of the boat—the deck rail, the smoking room, and Dr. Bessner’s cabin, for instance—and the way they continually reappear emphasize how the characters have been pushed together into a small space where they are forced to interact with one another. The dining saloon in particular is a place where all the characters come together, and much of the most important action in the story takes place there. The room represents how the Karnak has created a new, shared culture for its passengers, without fully overriding their old identities.
Even as the novel functions as a kind of melting pot of different nationalities—and celebrates Poirot for being able to navigate these differences—some of the novel’s portrayals fall back on stereotypes or even racism. The dancing Nubian boys outside Abu Simbel who appear to be decapitated are one such example. They are presented as an exotic curiosity, echoing racist and colonialist attitudes. Other examples are less explicit but still significant. Christie strongly suggests, for example, that Signor Richetti’s crimes can be at least partly attributed to his being a “hot-tempered” Italian, that Jacqueline looks “Latin” when she’s violent, and that Louise is considered nefarious because of her “Latin” side.
As with her treatment of class, Christie’s treatment of different nationalities is a mixed bag for modern readers. Alongside a curiosity for other cultures, Christie frequently resorts to stereotypes that modern readers may find outdated and offensive. Though the novel may inspire her audience to wonder at all the different kinds of people in the world, it is also a time capsule of racist attitudes that have persisted in some form into the present day.
National Identity and International Connections ThemeTracker
National Identity and International Connections 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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Poirot was silent. But it was not a modest silence. His eyes seemed to be saying: “You are wrong. They didn’t allow for Hercule Poirot.”
Aloud he said, “And now, Doctor we will go and have a word with your patient.”
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.