Study Guide

Murder on the Orient Express Themes

  • Justice and Judgment

    A jury is made up of twelve citizens who walk into a courtroom and decide whether a defendant is guilty or innocent. <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em> plays with the same idea. There are twelve people on the train who act as jury and executioner of a criminal. Justice is served in a way that it wasn't guaranteed in the courts. Justice is often juxtaposed with revenge in this novel, forcing us to think about the ways in which the two are similar and different.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How many stab wounds does Dr. Constantine find on Mr. Ratchett? What is the significance of this number?
    2. Why doesn't Ratchett serve any jail time for the murder of Daisy Armstrong?
    3. Why does Princess Dragomiroff say that "strict justice" has been done in Ratchett's murder? Do you agree with her?
    4. What is the difference between justice and revenge? Which feeling motivates the twelve passengers on the Orient Express?
    5. Are the twelve passengers on the Orient Express a fair replacement for an actual jury? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    When it comes to justice, an eye should be given for an eye.

    It was wrong of Poirot, at the beginning of the novel, to refuse to help Ratchett solely on the basis of Ratchett's appearance.

    Dr. Constantine and M. Bouc made the right decision when they decided not to tell the truth to the police.

  • Reason and Logic

    Reason and logic are detective Hercule Poirot's weapons of choice. Poirot relies upon his insight into human nature, his powers of observation, and the deductive method in order to get to the truth of things. As you will notice, he is always careful in advancing his points and never makes false assumptions. In this way, the novel offers us an example of incredibly sound judgment. Poirot, after all, does unravel the complicated plot in the end. We might also say that though the novel is about a murder, it is optimistic in that it has great faith in the power of orderly reason to resolve complicated problems – and to see through to the truth of things.

    Questions About Reason and Logic

    1. What sort of reputation does Poirot have as a detective?
    2. What are "little grey cells"?
    3. Do you think Poirot's strict reliance on logic and observation could ever be a disadvantage for him?
    4. Did you ever notice any holes in Poirot's logic? If so, when?
    5. How does Poirot compare to other famous literary detectives, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin, Nancy Drew, or even John Grisham's Theodore Boone? How does Poirot compare to modern TV detectives?

    Chew on This

    Reason and logic don't come naturally to any of the characters in the novel, except for Poirot.

    While we can think our way through some things, life is not lived solely in the head.

  • Visions of America

    Though <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em> is set on a train hurtling across Europe, America plays a central role in the novel. The Armstrong household, which existed in America, is temporarily recreated on the Orient Express. Additionally, we're constantly getting different views of the country from its cast of characters, including stereotypes galore. The Europeans have strong opinions about the Americans, and the Americans have strong opinions about the Europeans. At least, that's how they present their views to Poirot as he's working on the Ratchett murder case.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Who are the Americans on board the train? How is this significant?
    2. What preconceived notions do the other passengers on the train have about Americans?
    3. Does the fact that Ratchett managed to walk free after murdering Daisy Armstrong damage the reputation of the United States in this book?

    Chew on This

    America, as portrayed in <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>, is a land of opportunity and freedom.

    Although the plot of this story has to do with America, it could not have been effective if it were set in America.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    The cast of characters riding the Orient Express is incredibly diverse – and nearly every passenger has a pretty firm opinion about everyone else. The French suspect the Italians, the British are at odds with the Americans, and so forth. Many of the views are bigoted or prejudiced, but remember that most of the passengers are putting on an act in an attempt to cover up the murder that they <em>all</em> participate in. In this sense, they are adopting stereotypes about other countries in order to play their parts more effectively.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'the Other'

    1. Do any of the characters seem aware of or embarrassed about their prejudices?
    2. What does Poirot mean by an "Anglo-Saxon brain"?
    3. Though the train runs through Syria, Turkey, and Yugo-Slavia, we never meet any passengers who are Syrian, Turkish, or Czech. Why do you think that is?
    4. Why do the passengers pretend to be so prejudiced against people from other countries? How do those attitudes help cover the truth of the murder?
    5. Does the novel endorse or reject stereotypes based on country of origin?

    Chew on This

    Poirot would have solved the mystery [more/less] easily if he had not relied on stereotypes about different cultures.

    Your home country says quite a bit about your values and your character.

  • Lies and Deceit

    This novel is one big lie! Poirot eventually discovers that all of the characters in it are putting him on and acting out their parts to cover up the murder. But wait. Aren't all novels made up? Such is the nature of fiction. <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em> very interestingly aligns fiction writing with lies and deceit. Notice the many references to playacting and literature. It asks us to think about the differences between the two – and the similarities.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Who was the women in the red kimono?
    2. How does Poirot figure out Mary Debenham's connection to the Armstrong family?
    3. Which passengers involved in the plot have the most difficult time carrying out their assigned roles?
    4. Which characters true identities surprised you most?
    5. Why do the characters put on such elaborate acts? Why are their disguises so important?
    6. Why did Cassetti change his name to Ratchett?
    7. When would Poirot put on an act? What was the point of all of his acting?

    Chew on This

    In this book, lying, like murder, is justified if it's for a good cause.

    Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

  • Modernization and Technology

    One of the most fascinating aspects of Christie's novels is the period in which they are set: usually the years between the two World Wars. The world is changing rapidly during this time. There are new technologies, advances in science, and world-altering discoveries. Christie's novels give you a glimpse of this period, and new modern conveniences (and inconveniences) are important to the plot. In <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>, the modern train plays an important role. However, the lack of modern communication tools and contact with the outside as a result of a snowstorm actually helps Poirot solve the murder.

    Questions About Modernization and Technology

    1. In what ways do the characters rely on modern technology?
    2. By what method is Poirot suddenly called back to London?
    3. When does Poirot use technological (not psychological) methods to his advantage?
    4. If the Orient Express hadn't been cut off from the modern world because of the snowdrift, how would that have impacted Poirot's investigation?
    5. How do Poirot's investigative methods differ from those of today's fictional detectives?
    6. How and when is the scientific method used in Poirot's detective work?

    Chew on This

    If the Orient Express hadn't stopped moving, no one would have ever discovered the real plot to kill Ratchett.

    Though we live in an increasingly modern world, human nature remains the same.

  • Appearances

    That whole "things are not always what they seem" thing goes double for <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>. Since we know the murder was committed by someone on the train car, we know that someone must be lying. But, as we eventually find out, almost <em>everyone</em> on the train was lying. It's as though everything that happens on the train is a play being acted out by the conspirators. Of course, it's not really a play, as it involves a real-life murder. Fortunately, our detective, Hercule Poirot, judges appearances remarkably well. His keen eye for observation reveals the cracks in the surface of the conspirators' facade.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Which clues at the crime scene were red herrings?
    2. In which ways do the passengers involved in the plot modify their appearances to try to fool Poirot?
    3. Do you think it's possible to deceive Hercule Poirot? If you were on of the conspirators on the train, is there anything you would have done differently in order to fool him?

    Chew on This

    The passengers underestimate Hercule Poirot because of his appearance.

    The novel suggests that people should never judge based on appearances.

  • Good and Evil

    Let's get one thing straight: Ratchett, the villainous kidnapper and murderer, is an evil, <em>evil</em>, <em>EVIL</em> man. Like, <em>really</em> evil. Poirot sees it the first minute he lays eyes on Ratchett. Weirdly enough, the detective can tell just by looking at him. This tells us that, although the novel presents many confusing situations and riddles to be solved, Christie's tale is set in a world of unambiguous, black and white morality. While justice may be kind of hard to figure out, we know evil when we see it. Or at least, Poirot does. We should also note that Ratchett's evil is often contrasted with the innocence of his victim – the child he kidnapped, Daisy Armstrong.

    Questions About Good and Evil

    1. If Daisy Armstrong is pure good and Ratchett is pure evil, where do the other characters fall on the spectrum of good to evil?
    2. Does anyone in the novel think Ratchett should not have been killed?
    3. How does the fact that Ratchett is such a flat character influence our experience of the story? How might the story be different if he weren't <em>all</em> bad?

    Chew on This

    This novel expresses a lack of faith in the real-world criminal justice system.

    Understanding human nature means realizing that good and evil is not always a black and white affair.

  • Strength and Skill

    Poirot is world famous for the strength of his "little grey cells" and his skill of detection. In <em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>, though, Poirot is up against some pretty strong and skilled minds. There's the Russian Princess Dragomiroff, who has an iron will; Mary Debenham, who is cool, cold, and rational; and we can't forget the famous actress, Linda Arden, who plays the role of Mrs. Hubbard with great gusto. Who's mind is the best them all?

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Many of the "strong" characters in the novel are women. What stereotypes about women does the novel challenge or support?
    2. Why does Poirot say that the Princess's strength is in her "will," not her arm?
    3. Why does Linda Arden offer to take the blame for the murder?
    4. Which characters are the most skilled actors of the bunch? Who provides Poirot with the biggest challenge?

    Chew on This

    The passengers would have displayed greater strength if they had been able to resist taking revenge on Ratchett.

    Strength of mind is the supreme virtue.