Charles Dickens died before this novel was completed, and he left no notes among his papers to show how he intended to end the story. Undoubtedly, The Mystery of Edwin Drood owes some of its popular appeal to its being unfinished. Dickens had only completed half of the work at the time of his death, and this missing ending has spawned dozens of conclusions, the first four only months after his death, as well as a play in which the audience can choose Drood’s murderer. Nevertheless, the existent fragment stands on its own as a good example of Dickens’s style and literary technique. An indication of the narrative’s power is its invariable inclusion in lists of the best works of mystery and suspense.
Although the titular protagonist is Edwin Drood, the action and psychological drama center on his uncle, John Jasper. There are, in reality, two Jaspers, the seemingly devoted friend and quiet and dedicated choirmaster, and the resentful opium addict who is madly in love with Rosa. This duality does not, however, represent a split personality. Although some critics have seen in Dickens’s portrayal of Jasper a precursor to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Jasper the benevolent choirmaster is a conscious facade that enables him to indulge his drug habit in secret. John Jasper’s envy of Drood, his lust for Rosa, and his scorn for his job and environs are never hidden in the narrative. The clues to the choirmaster’s true personality, which is uniformly negative, gradually mount. Indeed, there is not much mystery about what happened to Drood; it is quite clear that he is murdered by Jasper. From Dickens’s notes and conversations with friends, family, and artistic collaborators, it is clear that for Dickens the important element of the novel is not the question of guilt but the manner of its disclosure. There is also substantial evidence to indicate that some of the final chapters would have contained Jasper’s confession in his prison cell as he awaited execution. In any case, even a superficial reading of the text points rather unmistakably to Jasper.
Although Jasper’s true nature is not an enigma to the reader, there are a number of other mysteries, plot intricacies, and personality quirks that fascinate and provide material for speculation. Indeed, the cast of characters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of Dickens’s finest. Jasper, as villain, stands alone, his portrait being that of a withdrawn, moody man who first releases his inhibitions in his opium dreams and then tries to convert fantasy to fact. The other principal figures can be roughly organized into two groups, the victims and their defenders and protectors, but, as in all of Dickens’s best work, there is an infinite variety and psychological detail in their very distinct personalities. The victims—Edwin Drood, Rosa Bud, and the falsely accused Neville Landless—are all orphans. Their protectors are Mr. Grewgious, Rosa’s guardian, and the Canon Crisparkle, Neville’s temporary guardian. The betrayal of Jack Jasper, who is Drood’s guardian and responsible for his happiness and well-being, is seen as doubly odious for being juxtaposed with the conduct of the other two guardians.
The betrayal and persecution of the innocent is, of course, a common Dickensian theme. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that theme is emphasized by the sense of fatality that hangs over the first part of the novel. Allusions to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623) are frequent (the chapter preceding Drood’s disappearance is explicitly entitled “When Shall These Three Meet Again”), and the cold, gray, dismal landscape positively...
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drips pessimism. Drood’s disappearance takes place on Christmas Eve; instead of this being a time of joyous celebration and reunion, Rosa and Drood break off their engagement and the opium dealer silently stalks Jack Jasper; instead of being a quiet, beautiful night of carols, a fierce shrieking wind scatters everything before it, forcing people inside and leaving the streets empty and echoing.
Much has been made of Dickens’s jealousy of Wilkie Collins’s success with The Moonstone (1868) and that he may have tried to outdo his former close friend on his own terrain, the novel of mystery and suspense (even going so far as to use the effects of opium as a central plot device). Dickens used suspense and mystery, but not in connection with the central action, the disappearance of Drood; any doubt concerning the identity of murderer and victim seems to be wishful thinking on the part of would-be literary detectives. The question of identity is, however, an important theme in the novel. Indeed, the real mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood concerns the identities of several of the other major characters.
Who are Neville and Helen Landless, and what is their past? Who was the Princess Puffer? Why does Jasper seem to be more than just a present client to her? Above all, who is Datchery, the mysterious, obviously disguised stranger, who takes up residence opposite Jasper’s lodgings and closely observes the choirmaster? Most close readers of the text believe that Datchery is one of the other characters, Mr. Grewgious, Bazzard, his clerk, Helen Landless, Tartar, or even Drood himself. In one ingenious suggestion, Datchery is none other than Dickens himself, who enters his own novel not just as omniscient narrator but as main character. In The Moonstone, Collins had introduced the figure of the great detective with Sergeant Cuff. Perhaps Dickens was again trying to best the younger man by explicitly introducing himself as the great “unraveler” of mystery, the better detective, just as implicitly he was trying to prove himself the better novelist. In any case, the appearance of Datchery, who has obviously come to find out the truth, marks a turning point in the novel. The exposition has ended and the denouement begins, but here the fragment ends.