The Mystery of Edwin Drood

by Charles Dickens

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Cloisterham. Fictional cathedral town in southern England in which the novel is primarily set. The orphaned young Edwin Drood’s work as an apprentice engineer takes him all over the world, but he returns to Cloisterham at every opportunity to see his fiancé, Rosa Bud, also an orphan, who is attending a finishing school in Cloisterham, and his guardian and uncle, Jasper, who is the novel’s central figure. Dark themes of death, violence, and obsession pervade the novel, and the town’s cathedral is a forbidding and relentless presence that foreshadows the end of life—just as Dickens was prematurely coming to the end of his own life as he was writing this book. Dickens contrasts the setting of a cathedral town with the vastly different setting of London’s East End opium dens to point up the moral lassitude of Uncle Jasper—a choirmaster who is addicted to opium, obsessed with Rosa, and the probable murderer of Edwin.

The past betrays the present: All the dead in the cathedral’s crypt are part of the chain tying the orphans to each other. The fact that the last wishes of Edwin’s and Rosa’s dead fathers was that their children should marry each other gives Jasper a motive to get rid of his nephew to clear the way for himself with Rosa. Ironically, however, he is unaware that Edwin and Rosa have secretly decided to stay friends but not to marry each other.

Even the sacred resting grounds of the monastic orders in the cathedral are used to evil purposes by Jasper, who tours the crypt with the stonemason to learn how bodies decay with quicklime. Nothing is as it seems: Even Christmas, a Dickens scene typically symbolizing new beginnings and great joy, is herein the time when Drood vanishes, in the middle of a Christmas Eve storm.

Dickens modeled Cloisterham on Rochester, near Chatham in Kent, where he lived for five years when he was a child. Cloisterham’s cathedral is based on that of Rochester, and its Nuns’ House is based on Rochester’s East Gate House.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city, in which the novel opens, is, for Dickens, often a place demonstrating the ravages of industrialism on the English people, as well as the indifference of societal structures such as the law. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s only full-length murder mystery, London shows its evil side by the prevalence of the Eastern curse of opium. However, London is too variegated a place to signify only one evil or one good.


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Baker, Richard M. The Drood Murder. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Particularly good for its discussion of possible influences on the novel as well as of antecedents in Dickens’ own work.

Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1965. Interesting attempt to relate Dickens’ writings about crime to events in his own life and times. A prime source for the many theories about the personality of Jack Jasper and his role as murderer.

Fruttero, Carlo, and Franco Lucentino. The D Case, Or, The Truth About the Mystery of Edwin Drood. Translated by Gregory Dowling. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1993. A tour de force, in which the world’s most famous fictional detectives try to finish Dickens’ novel. The first half contains a good edition of the work, while the second demonstrates an extremely close reading of the text with excellent and witty discussions of current and past theories.

Rowland, Peter. The Disappearance of Edwin Drood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. The most recent addition to the honorable scholarly pursuit of finishing the novel.

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Schocken Books, 1973. A history of the suspense genre. Compares and links Dickens’ work to that of Collins and Émile Gaboriau.

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