Study Guide

Justice Lawrence Wargrave in And Then There Were None

By Agatha Christie

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Justice Lawrence Wargrave

When we first meet Justice Wargrave, he comes across as a staid government employee, a judge who believes in upholding the law to the fullest.

Well, we’re right about the judgment part—and wrong about pretty much everything else. Wargrave may be all about judgment and making sure that people get what they deserve, but he’s no Chief Justice Roberts. Check out this little glimpse of Wargrave’s inner self, right after he heads back to his room:

Carefully, Mr. Justice Wargrave removed his false teeth and dropped them into a glass of water. The shrunken lips fell in. It was a cruel mouth now, cruel and predatory. (5.81)

No offense to the toothless, but this is Signo Number Uno that Wargrave isn’t the cuddly retired judge he seems to be. Once the lights are out (or the door is closed) he’s predatory, evil, and cruel—just the sort of man who would secretly be killing off everyone on Soldier Island.

A Setter of Traps

Imagine Lawrence Wargrave like a big, freaky spider sitting in the middle of a web, just waiting for all the dumb flies to blunder into his trap, and you’ve got the picture. But he’s not just devious—he’s also smart, which is why he’s so good at setting traps. Take this example: when he comes to the island, he acts just as surprised as everyone else, even creating a letter from an old acquaintance inviting him out to Soldier Island:

Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself, was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (1.7)

But if Wargrave is a spider, Christie is an even bigger one. Do you see the trick here? We get a look into Wargrave’s head, but we don’t get to look all the way in. He says that Culmington is “exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island”—because he invented her to sound that way. And he “approves his logic”—i.e., pats himself on the back for coming up with such a good story.

Tricky. Very tricky. (Just so you know, we totally didn’t pick up on that the first time, either.)

This passages also tells us that Wargrave has everything planned out from the very beginning. Let’s look at exactly what he foresees:

  • He knows that he will be using the nursery rhyme in order to engineer the deaths, and even knows what order people are going to die in. 
  • He makes sure that he has a reason for being at the island and brings all the necessary supplies—including a live bumblebee for Miss Brent’s murder. 
  • He fakes his own death with the help of the unsuspecting Dr. Armstrong. 
  • In the end, he even sets a trap for the detectives. He’s not content with letting them think that as the last person to die, Vera, killed everyone, and so he tucks the chair away after she hangs herself.

Wargrave does all this planning because he—just like Christie—wants everything to be a mystery. He doesn’t just wants to toy with his victims; he even wants to toy with the detectives at the end. He wants everything to be as mind-boggling as possible, which is the mark of a true mystery lover—or a true mystery writer.

So who’s the real psychopath here, Christie? Hmmmm.

Playing God

The other similarity between maniacal murders and writers is that they all have a little something of a god-complex. In one scene, Justice Wargrave says:

“Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman—probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (3.270)

Ouch. That irony is as a sharp as a knife. (Or maybe just 10,000 spoons.) Justice Wargrave, after all, is a egomaniacal murderer who believes that he can fully control all the people around him. On Soldier Island, he’s created his own version of the world where everyone gets the justice that they deserve. Justice Wargrave isn’t just content with punishing people based on the word of the law. He wants to make sure that every single person who does what he deems “wrong” gets his or her just desserts. Sound like any writers you know?

On Soldier Island, Justice Wargrave gets to play God. They are all at his mercy: he gets to pick exactly how each person dies and how they suffer beforehand. Because he believes that Vera committed the most egregious crime, he makes her remember it by planting seaweed in her bedroom and forcing her to live the longest and then commit suicide. Lombard even picks up on Wargrave’s power-tripping and correctly deduces that he’s the killer:

“But to begin with, he’s an old man and he’s been presiding over courts of law for years. That is to say, he’s played God Almighty for a good many months every year. That must go to a man’s head eventually. He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and earth - and it’s possible that his brain might snap and he might want to go one step farther and be Executioner and Judge Extraordinary.” (10.32)

Too bad no one actually does anything about it—but hey, at least he was right?

Murder Most Foul

So, Wargrave is a controlling, murderous, egotistical jerk slash murderer, right? Yes. But he’s also—at least in his own mind—an artist.

It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve. But no artist, I now realize, can be satisfied with art alone. There is a natural craving for recognition which cannot be gainsaid. (E.193-194)

Okay, sure. Being an “artist” who manipulates human life is totally sick if you’re a judge murdering people to fit your own sense of how the world should work and who wants everyone to know how clever you are. But what if you’re a writer doing the exact same thing? Could Christie be saying that writers—especially murder mystery writers—are their own special kind of psychopaths?

Now that would be clever.

Justice Lawrence Wargrave in And Then There Were None Study Group

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