Hidden Truths in Agatha Christie's Unfinished Portrait


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Even though a book may be written decades ago, its themes and ideas can still apply to current times. Reading can exponentially teach you about the world and the people in it. Writers often pull from their experiences when writing and it is by reading that we can learn ways to navigate or rethink our own experiences. It was by reading Rabindranath Tagore's The Home and The World that I learned the dangerous, violent, and corrupt roads that extreme nationalism and blind loyalty to leadership can take a society. While reading Agatha Christie's semi-autobiographical Unfinished Portrait (a book I came across while shopping at the Printer's Row Lit Fest in Chicago last year), I found myself called to rethink society's unquestioning idolization of people, things, and ideas.

Unfinished Portrait follows the life of a woman named Celia who at the start of the novel, is contemplating suicide. This negative course of mind is however interrupted by a man named J.L. or Larrabay, who catches the tell-tale signs of depression and a suicidal determination in Celia's disposition. This leads to Larraby vowing to stop Celia from committing suicide and asking her what life events led her to such a dark place. She begins to paint the picture of her life for Larraby, starting with her earliest years.

I'm so used to Christie's murder mysteries that I found this novel refreshing in its lack of nosy detectives and murdered parties. There are still whisperings of the elements of mystery in that the novel calls the reader to ponder what events in Celia's life could have led to the misery encompassing her at the novel's start. We also have the mystery of the Gun Man, an elusive figure used to symbolize Celia's fear, that haunts Celia's dreams as a child and, in its mystery, continues to haunt her in adulthood. But what was most interesting about Unfinished Portrait was a monologue near the end of the book that felt so applicable to current times.

Celia's monologue follows an explanation of her life to Larraby including events such as her husband Dermot (of whom she was deeply and foolishly in love with) leaving Celia and her child, Judy, for a mistress.

And indeed, Celia was stupid.

Christie outlines a very important and ugly truth–that trust should not be doled out easily. That we should not be too arrogant in our beliefs or perceptions of other people, ideas, things. That we should stray from behavior shown by Celia and not be blinded by our arrogance. No one or nothing should be idolized or exempt from questioning.

It seems Christie is conducting self-reflection, venting even, through Celia's character as events in Celia's life coincide with events in Christie's. Agatha Christie married Archibald Christie, an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps, however their marriage ended in divorce in 1928 as Archibald began an affair–very similar to Dermot, a war general with straying sights. Agatha Christie also disappeared for 11 days in 1926 which sounds comparable to Celia during her isolated and reflective time with Larraby. Even the Queen of Mystery is not exempt from these very cruel aspects of life.

And unfortunately I see so many examples of people behaving as Celia and Agatha Christie in so many aspects of society. I see this behavior in music, movie, and sport fandoms. I see this behavior in religious organizations. I see this behavior when it comes to politics in various countries.

As humans we put people or ideas on pedestals and assume their perfection but this can lead to followers feeling duped and betrayed, as Celia did, when evidence shows us we've been wrong the whole time.

I don't know about anyone else, but I don't want ever want to feel that way if I can avoid it–betrayed and fooled by a trusted source. Unfortunately this leads to a path of constant uncertainty but this idea that it's unfair to trust people too much, to try them too high, to put them on pedestals just because you like them there is will ensure that you are never handing your trust out blindly to people, ideas, or things who may not deserve it.

Even the books I read must be measured and assessed alongside other books and my own experiences to see where their ideas fit in my worldview. In learning, it's important to consult a variety of sources as in doing so, truth will emerge. Consulting one source for truth, for example those who consume news from one source such as FOX or CNN, will leave you with glaring blindspots.

When I was on a hair product kick, buying any kind of hair product that promised hair growth and deep moisturizing, I wish I had known about Celia's character arc. I could have saved a lot of money and a lot of time by questioning my sources before opening my wallet. Was there a time where you felt you could have used Celia's advice? Comment down below and share your experiences!

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