DR James Sheppard | Character Analysis in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

DR James Sheppard | Character Analysis in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Published in the year 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is considered to be the masterpiece of Agatha Christie. Apart from the plot, the novel projects a breaking down of the normal pattern of detective fiction and as a result the novel turns out to be a landmark text in the history of detective fiction. The experimentation lies in the fact that the narrator of the entire story, Dr. James Sheppard turns out to be the murderer of Roger Ackroyd in the end. This act of making the narrator as the murderer of the story makes Sheppard the unreliable narrator in the entire scheme of thing.

Like Hardy’s Wessex or R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi, the present story is set in the fictional English town of King’s Abbot. The entire story is told by Dr. James Sheppard and Christie has presented his character in such a way, that it seems whatever he said can be fully relied upon. What is significant in the narrative is that, if a reader goes for a second reading he or she will find that whatever Sheppard narrated was not false, rather he had just hidden some of the basic facts to veil his guilt. In this way he has actually been projected as a village doctor on whom everyone depended and who could hardly commit any crime. Such was his character that no one for once could guess that he had such criminal mindset hidden inside him.

The narrator’s positive traits are deliberately emphasized by Christie, probably to gain trust of the readers. Such positive traits of his character are almost found throughout the text except in the last chapter and apologia where the truth is revealed. The Doctor was such a trustworthy figure in the village that even Mr. Roger Ackroyd thought him to be his confidant and as a result revealed the truth about the entire business of blackmailing that we experienced by Mrs. Ferrars, without knowing that the doctor himself waste blackmailer. It has to be kept in mind that Doctor Sheppard was a medical practitioner and that too in a small village. Naturally, he was supposed to be respected by all and his social respectability placed him in a higher status compared to other characters in the novel but that obviously didn’t guarantee his economic status. Another aspect of the narrative is significantly important. Hercules Poirot is the detective of the story. Being the narrator, it is Sheppard who introduces him to us. So, it becomes almost impossible for the readers to caste any doubt on Doctor Sheppard even for once.

Apart from introducing us to all the characters in the novel, Sheppard like Holmes’s Watson has always been a constant companion to Hercules Poirot in their journey towards solving the mystery. It can be concluded that the novel projects two narratives simultaneously. Firstly, his narrative takes the readers towards the solution and at the same time, it is Sheppard’s narration which pulls the readers away from the solution of the mystery by deliberately hiding certain things from the readers. Sheppard, thus plays the dual role of the narrator as well as the character in the novel. Guthowski says that Doctor Sheppard

“takes the reader by hand from the first page and accompanied him through the confronting English environment, in which all people seem incapable of doing harm to others”.

In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, if we consider Rimnon-Knan’s concept then Doctor Sheppard will be seen as an intradiegetic narrator which means that throughout the text he does not occupy a position of ‘superiority’. But looking at him from a different perspective, he may seem to be a diegetic narrator implying he is the one who introduces and narrates other characters in the novel. Looking at him from the perspective of narration, he can even be called a homodigetic character since he is the narrator. According to Kenan. Doctor Sheppard can be called “intradiegetic-homo diegetic” narrator as he has tripartite role in the entire narrative. Firstly, he tells the tale; secondly, he actively takes part in the story and finally he can be called the protagonist in the story as he himself is the murderer. If we look at Doctor Sheppard’s character moving beyond theory, then he has a fourth role to play in the text. He is the omniscient narrator but he is detached from everything though he knows everything about the story and its happenings.

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Agatha Christie’s narrator in the Murder of Roger Ackroyd has the most potent tool to deceive his readers through the use of language. One of the significant utterances made by him that turns out to be the metaphor throughout the text is when he says. “I passed moment to choose my words carefully”.

Throughout the text it is evident that he has chosen his words carefully in order to deceive the readers and all the other characters in the text. Significantly enough whatever he narrates and says about other characters in the novel everything is almost truth. But his narrative needs to be analysed from two different angles-that of a narrator who turns out to be the murderer and the murderer who is the narrator.

The speech is a clear indication of the fact that he is worried and a sense of guilt has caught him at the same time. He is worried because he feels that his act of crime might be caught at any time. But this play with language can only be understood when as a reader we make a second reading of the novel. Hence the expressions ‘worried’, ‘pretend’ and ‘foresaw’ become important. He knows that he has to ‘pretend’ as he could foresee the ‘stirring times ahead that would keep him worried in the near future. That James is very careful in parting information is even stated by her sister Caroline who says. “You hate Speaking out, or parting with information yourself, and you think everybody else must be like you” (Murder 247). His language is baffling and further reinforced when Poirot mentions to him about the possible suspects and in that list the name was of Mr. Hector Blunt. At this point, Sheppard says, “His [Poirot) tone in uttering that name was so peculiar that I looked up puzzled”: These sort of expressions point to the fact that this man can only be a narrator of the tale and there is no possibility that he can be the one who will be the central character of the tale. Another instance of his play with language is reflected when after the murder of Ackroyd, he and Parker went to the study to have a look at the body, Sheppard said. “I did what little had to be done.” During our first reading we do not understand the ambiguity of the statement because as a reader we find that he was more concerned with the murder and the body itself. Later, during our second reading we can realize the expression suggested Sheppard’s little act of putting away the dictaphone which prerecorded the voice of Ackroyd and restoration of the arm chair to its proper place.

Throughout the novel Sheppard his systematically documented all the events related to the crime. The documentation carried within the suspects, their alibis and he also incorporated the statements of all the witnesses. Thus Poirot says.

“A very meticulous and accurate account. You have recorded all the facts faithfully and exactly- though you have seen yourself becomingly reticent as to your own share in them.”

A clear reading and understanding of the narrative voice would inevitably make the reader aware of the multifaceted clues and slippages that the author has left for the readers in order to identify the real culprit and the unreliability of the narrator. Dr. Sheppard blackmailed Mrs. Ferrars and out of fear of the revelation of truth he murdered Mr. Ackroyd. But at the end of the day it has to be kept in mind that he is a human being and there will always be a fear that will be lurking behind his mind as long as the process of investigation continues. One of the major instances of his slippage in the narration is experienced when James and Rover meet in the study after dinner. At that moment Roger was about to read a letter from Mrs. Ferrars which she wrote to him before committing suicide. It is evident from their conversation that the letter contained the name of the blackmailer.

There are other instances where the narrative has got some amount of slippages and that is not possible to decode for a first time reader of the particular text. At the first instance, it seems that the doctor is a normal helpful man. Being the narrator, it is obvious that Dr. Shepperd would have an idea about almost all the characters in the novel. And it becomes even more evident when he says.

“I was at Poirot’s elbow the whole time. I saw what he saw. I tried my best to read his mind. As I know now. I failed in this latter task”.

Thus Christie’s representation of the narrator in the novel is unique and it definitely helps the readers having a new experience as it is considered to be a marked departure from the way a narrator was traditionally portrayed in the contemporary detective fictions.

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