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 Jasper, as villain, stands alone, his portrait being that of a withdrawn, moody man who first releases his inhibitions in his opium dreams and then tries to convert fantasy to fact.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 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...
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