Agatha Christie on the Paradox of Choice

While we’re on the subject of free will and its attendant burdens: not having slept for the last two nights, I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography. Here’s what she has to say about choice and potential, and how things changed since she was that terribly Victorian thing, a girl who couldn’t be a lady.

It was my first brush with the inevitable. There are things that cannot be achieved. it is important to realize this early in life, and very good for you. There are some things that you just cannot have—a natural curl in your hair, black eyes (if yours happen to be blue) or the title of Lady Agatha.

She goes on:

On the whole I think the snobbery of my childhood, the snobbery of birth, that is, is more palatable than the other snobberies: the snobbery of wealth, and today’s intellectual snobbery.

Intellectual snobbery seems today to breed a particular form of envy and venom. Parents are determined that their offspring shall shine. “We’ve made great sacrifices for you to have a good education,” they say. The child is burdened with guilt if he does not fulfill their hopes. Everyone is so sure that it is all a matter of opportunity—not of natural aptitude.

I think late Victorian parents were more realistic and had really more consideration for their children and for what would make a happy and successful life for them. There was much less keeping up with the Joneses. Nowadays I often feel that it is for one’s own prestige that one wants one’s children to succeed. The Victorians looked dispassionately at their offspring and made up their minds about their capacities. A. was obviously going to be “the pretty one.” B. was “the clever one.” C. was going to be plain and was definitely not intellectual. Good works would be C.’s best chance. And so on. Sometimes, of course, they were wrong, but on the whole it worked. There is an enormous relief in not being expected to produce something that you haven’t got.

(By the way, Agatha, in her family, was “the slow one.”)




3 Responses to Agatha Christie on the Paradox of Choice

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Choice « Millicent and Carla Fran

  2. ssvmedicine says:

    Good post, Millicent. My life has been relatively free of anxiety about choice or responsibility for choice. Perhaps i have been anachronistic regarding, but i consider that most fortunate. While i like to try to keep my choices open, and as unlimited as possible, i don’t even number them or think about them in any given situation, choosing the most convenient yet interesting and ethical one. Yes, quite arrogant and selfish of course, but i feel certain that the outcome of that choice will be to find and develop another new person within myself, whatever the difficulties may be. There is no agonizing, because i have never had a fixed goal or purpose, other than to Discover my life which is a Gift from Fate rather than a Construction of my own. That was something my father hated, because he saw that clearly, and thought it was shameful, or shamed him, because it was too easy, too passive, too wimpy. And perhaps he was right; but i maintain there is more than one truth, enough for us all, in fact.

  3. Millicent says:

    Hallo SSVMedicine! Welcome to the blog!

    Yes indeed… a resignation or submission to fate is deeply satisfying, much or most of the time. It’s certainly where I go in moments of grief. It’s undeniably a burden (although sometimes an empowering one) to believe that we are the pilots of our own lives. Personal responsibility: heavy stuff.

    I don’t know if you read the post before this one or watched the embedded video, but what interested me most about that talk was the surprising parallel that emerged between Communism and a (potentially quite religious) belief in fate or Providence. Both extremes absolve the subject of the burden of choice. Isn’t that interesting?

    And isn’t it fascinating to think about capitalism—which provides at least the illusion of endless choice—as the destroyer of Fate as a poetic idea? I never thought of it that way, but of course it’s true that early modern literature (my pet subject) is chock-full of Fate, and that references to fate drop off significantly with the rise of capitalism. This astonishes me, though I don’t know why it should—the dream that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps contains within it the assumption that your fate is unwritten, and that you are the sole author. Still, I’d never thought to put it in those terms.

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