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The book of Jasper.

Robert Tracy's brilliant essay "Jasper's Plot: Investing The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (Dickens Quarterly 23: 2006) is the source of this essay. Tracy's argument about John Jasper's book--the "book about a murder" which Jasper calls a "Diary" of his own life, and "a Diary of Ned's life too"--has made me re-think my reading of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and enlarged my understanding of the work in relation to the fourteen novels which precede it.

Only two of Dickens's fifteen novels--David Copperfield and Great Expectations--are full-blown first-person narratives. But The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club is based on the "transactions" of the Club, and our narrator is their "editor" (ch. 1). Mr. Pickwick fancies himself a scholar, and is an author; Augustus Snodgrass, supposedly a poet, frequently takes notes. In Oliver Twist, Mr. Brownlow suggests, facetiously, that Oliver might grow up "a clever man, and write books" (ch. 14). Nicholas Nickleby writes plays for Mr. Crummles' acting troupe. The Old Curiosity Shop begins as a first-person narrative. Martin Chuzzlewit is not a first-person narrative at all, except for Dickens's ubiquitous editorial intrusions. Dombey and Son has two brief Wade-like confessions, but nothing more. Then David sets out to discover for himself whether he will be "the hero of [his] own life" (ch. 1). Esther narrates half of Bleak House, and Miss Wade contributes her written "History of a Self-Tormentor" in Little Dorrit (bk. 2, ch. 21). Charles Darnay is a translator in A Tale of Two Cities. Pip tells his own story in Great Expectations. In Our Mutual Friend, not only is Mortimer Lightwood famous for his "story of the man from somewhere" (bk. 1. ch. 2)--he has "a reputation for his manner of relating a story, and [has] made the story quite his own" (bk. 2, ch. 14)--Lizzie (who must learn to read letters) tells stories from what she sees in the fire, Silas Wegg reads history books to Noddy Boffin, who hears their stories as current events; and Mr. Sloppy reads court reports to Mrs. Higden, "do[ing] the police in different voices" (bk. 1, ch. 16). In the end, as Tracy proposes, John Jasper's first-person diary is also "a detailed biography of his nephew" and "in part a work of fiction, about an uncle's devotion to his nephew." For Tracy, Jasper writes "a diary of Ned's death, and a fiction about the identity of his alleged murderer"--which Jasper proposes as "evidence" against Neville.

Dickens had a natural inclination to first-person narrative because of the way he created his characters: from the inside. We should have been thinking about Jasper as The Mystery of Edwin Drood's first-person narrator all along. Doing so helps us to understand the novel better.

The man who stood in front of the mirror creating characters, the actor who performed his novels on stage, was always engaged in a great first-person narrative as he spoke to the world. Charles Mathews' "monopologues" were nothing compared to Dickens's performance. He played all the parts--dozens of them, in each novel--presenting his "experience and observation" of the world through his characters.

Dickens was at his best with obsessed characters. In Edwin Drood he plays Jasper, as Tracy points out, just as he played Bill Sikes and Jonas Chuzzlewit. He plays the other parts in Edwin Drood as well, but Jasper's is the central role; he is the focus of the narrator's attention, and almost everybody else's, and must be the focus of ours. We won't have proof of his crime at the end of the novel, proof of what he has done; but we will--must--know who he is.

Jasper is an "observer" from the first paragraph of the novel on. As he comes to consciousness he starts to question what he sees. He "looks around," and "looks about him." He "looks" and "notices," "muses" and "stands looking." The "watcher" makes a "watchful pause" (37-9; ch. 1). He watches Neville, as though his "eye were at the trigger" (152; ch. 12): if looks could kill, Jasper's would. And in his diary he writes of what he has "seen."

Jasper has another observer--another story-teller--behind him, overseeing him; and that narrator both shows us Jasper's actions and lets us observe other characters' responses to him. Though Dickens's narrator directs our observation, particularly of Jasper himself, who must be watched ever so closely, it is Jasper who creates Jasper for us, not the narrator.

The novel opens inside Jasper's consciousness as he comes out of an opium dream. We should perhaps add these strange musings to what we are calling Jasper's diary. The next we see of him he is playing a different role--and beginning to tell a story as he intones, "WHEN THE WICKED MAN--" (40; ch. 1). But that story, as its continuation would tell us if Dickens had let Jasper's choir continue, is not Jasper's own story; Ezekiel 18: 27--the "keynote" of the novel in Dickens's notes--goes on to tell of the wicked man's repentance. Jasper's story--as Dickens tells it, and as Jasper tells it--is not one of repentance.

In Jasper's first scene with Edwin, Dickens plays what Jasper says against his actions, exposing again and again his duplicity and hypocrisy. Then Jasper confesses to Ned that he "hate[s]" his work, and that he is "troubled with some stray sort of ambition, aspiration, restlessness, dissatisfaction, what can we call it?" (4-9; ch. 2). The "steadiness of face and figure" is so "marvelous" as he says these words "that his breathing seems to have stopped." But he recovers, "becoming a breathing man again without the smallest stage of transition between the two extreme states" (49; ch. 2).

Such quick "transition" is the sign, perhaps, of a psychological problem--or simply of hypocrisy. Miss Twinkleton also has "two distinct and separate phases of being," and Mrs. Tisher pretends quite easily to be searching for tweezers or a paper-knife when she looks in on Edwin and Rosa; these ladies are not psychotic, however; just minor hypocrites.

At the end of the first scene between Jasper and Edwin, Dickens describes Jasper as he sits "with his hand to his chin, and with an expression of musing benevolence on his face." He "has attentively watched every animated look and gesture" of Ned's as Ned speaks about himself and Rosa, and "remains in that attitude after" Ned has spoken, "as if in a kind of fascination attendant on his strong interest in the youthful spirit that he loves so well." Because we know Jasper's hypocrisy, and know his ability to move so easily between "extreme states," we are careful how we read his "fascination."

After his excursion with Durdles to the cathedral crypt, Jasper fills his pipe, goes to Edwin's room and looks down on him, "asleep, calm and untroubled"; then he goes to his own room, "lights his pipe, and delivers himself to the Spectres it invokes at midnight." We don't read what Jasper dreams; we don't have his diary entry for this. But we do remember the novel's first paragraph, and we should recall it--and its specters--here.

Jasper reads from his diary to Mr. Crisparkle about his fear for his "dear boy," and Neville's "demoniacal passion" and "savage rage for the destruction of its object." Tracy argues convincingly that the Neville whom Jasper creates is "a projection of himself," and takes us from Dickens creating and manipulating characters to Jasper doing something similar, in his creation of the "demoniacal" and "savage" Neville. He also reminds us that Dickens has dramatized obsessive characters before, and in 1869, had been performing "Sikes and Nancy" over and over, obsessed with becoming Sikes. Tracy notes that Dolby, Dickens's tour manager for the readings, complained of Dickens's "craving" after a performance "to do the work over again."

I find all of this more than informative. It invites me to think differently about this final novel. When I do so, I find it even more brilliant than I had previously judged it to be, even more complete than I had thought. Complete: it all folds together to make a coherent whole. (For those who want to call it "unfinished," I note that since Bleak House, none of Dickens's novels has been "finished" in the usual way, "even supposing--").

I have argued elsewhere that Edwin Drood is a novel about observation, about our needing to see things well and thus know them. Mr. Crisparkle starts out not observant, whereas Jasper is insistently so; though Crisparkle is a good man--and finds Edwin's watch and pin-he seems to see only Neville well. Rosa is observant, as are Helena and Neville. Miss Twinkleton's school is full of girls who want to see something, and Miss Twinkleton has her chaperonic ruses for watching Edwin and Rosa together. Deputy watches Durdles, and then Jasper; the Princess Puffer watches Jasper. But Mr. Grewgious is the best, most imaginative observer, especially when, after he explains Edwin and Rosa's decision not to marry, he sees Jasper as "nothing but a heap of torn and miry clothes upon the floor" (192; ch. 15). Mr. Grewgious knows that he is seeing what the lime of Jasper's guilt does to him.

In the end of the novel, Mr. Grewgious disappears, and is replaced by Dick Datchery, "a single buffer" (but not an old Dickensian benevolent gentleman) whose only purposes in the novel are to watch Jasper and to die. But in watching Jasper, Dick Datchery also watches others watching Jasper, and the final score he strikes is for them: for Deputy and for the Princess Puffer. And maybe for us, if we have been good readers, good observers.

Where do Jasper's dreams, his "Diary"--his narrative--fit into my understanding of the novel? "But seeming may be false or true," Dickens writes (272; ch. 22). In a novel full of "warnings" (and Deputy as the chorus) that line about "seeming" should be a warning to us of Jasper's hypocrisy, and the literal falseness of his diary.

If I argue that Edwin Drood tries to teach us that we must observe carefully in order to know anything, to understand anything, I must acknowledge that Jasper--the evil creature--is one of the best observers in the story. His diary, however, exposes his falsification of what he sees. Is he simply hypocritical in his affection for Edwin, and in what he writes? Or is he delusional, self-delusional when he sets pen to paper?

Though Jasper is obsessed with Rosa and wants Edwin murdered, I find no evidence to support the assumption that he is psychotic, schizophrenic, or otherwise delusional (except in his opium dreams), so I opt--at least for now--for the first explanation: he is a hypocrite, a dishonest man who knows what he wants to do. Dickens has been exposing hypocrisy since The Pickwick Papers. Here it seems that Dickens has rolled all the forms of selfishness that he has written about in earlier novels into the character of Jasper, the choirmaster of a cathedral.

Dickens gives him a "beautiful voice," intelligence, and an observant nature. His beautiful voice is "attained through a grand composition of the spirits" (180; ch. 14), though what that composition is made of will not be exposed until we understand what he has either done or intended to do.

Dickens creates numerous somewhat caricaturish figures in Edwin Drood, among them two very important watchers, Hiram Grewgious and Dick Datchery. Since The Pickwick Papers Dickens has been unfailingly interested in powers of observation. Mr. Grewgious and Dick Datchery are both--like Jasper--remarkable observers. But they are not selfish, as Jasper is, and they do not lie about what they see, or try to pervert it artistically into truth.

By the time Dickens gets to Edwin Drood, he is himself finished with lies about happily ever after, pie in the sky, religion, and gentlemanly benevolence. (2) In this last novel he combines an obsessed man (not unlike Bradley Headstone) who feels terrible guilt (as Bill Sikes did for a murder, and Jonas Chuzzlewit for a murder he did not commit) with the careful observer and a hypocrite much worse--and more importantly complex--than Pecksniff or Uriah Heep or Mr. Casby or Pumblechook. And as he usually does, Dickens has provided "the antidote" to Jasper in several other characters.

In Oliver Twist he tried to make Fagin's den the counterpart to the parish workhouse--a Jew, not a Christian, and a criminal rather than "the law"--but he could not manage it: at age twenty-six he was still too attached to the stereotypical socio-economic prejudices among which he lived. In Dombey and Son he provided a counterpart to presumptuous commercial morality in the cast of seeming caricatures who are not wealthy, but whose dreams are the socially redemptive version of Mr. Dombey's selfish dreams. In the opening chapters of Great Expectations, Dickens plays Pip's Christmas dinner with Magwitch, out on the lonely marshes, against the excruciating Christmas dinner Pip experiences at home with friends of the family.

In Edwin Drood he gives Jasper three main counterparts: Edwin, Neville Landless, and Septimus Crisparkle. Edwin is innocent, silly, and unobservant; Jasper is the opposite--as is the aware, serious, and observant Neville. Tracy proposes that Jasper creates a fictional Neville--"demoniacal" and "savage"--who is much like his own hidden self. Neville is indeed dark, like Jasper; but otherwise they are opposites. Neville is a defensive, sometimes "fierce" and intemperate young man who wants to be good, and takes instruction willingly from Crisparkle; Jasper hides his murderous fierceness, and plans the murder of Edwin and the destruction of Neville. Jasper is dark, sullen, and secret, and he does not enjoy his music; Mr. Crisparkle is fair, cheerful, and open, and loves both his music and his work. Jasper is a hypocrite; Mr. Crisparkle is an honest man. We know all this because the characters reveal themselves, and as the narrator (whom we trust) tells us about them, what he says matches what they have revealed about themselves.

David Copperfield's narrative is as complex and potentially as difficult to read as the first paragraph of Edwin Drood. But David makes it possible for us to understand almost with ease the most psychologically encrypted signs, even though he is writing this book for himself, not for an audience: David Copperfield "was never meant to be published on any account"; "this manuscript," David writes, "is intended for no eyes but mine" (ch. 42). Jasper's narrative is more difficult to read, because he is hiding its truth. And whereas it was David's job to understand the world of David Copperfield, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood that job belongs to several characters other than either Jasper or Edwin--and to us.

If John Jasper is in some way Dickens's first-person narrator in this last novel, his narrative is going to be impossible for us to read at a serious level, without assistance, because he lies. He is a dangerous, murderous hypocrite. If like most of the inhabitants of Cloisterham we believe Jasper's actions, his speech, his "Diary," we will think Jasper loves his nephew, and that Neville is "demoniacal" and "savage." Dickens, of course, offers us a different perspective, which insists that we observe small but revealing details in order to see Jasper and know him.

Rosa is a good observer, much more so than Edwin. Helena is observant, and Neville works hard at his books. Miss Twinkleton plays chaperone at the Nun's House. Deputy is a watcher. So is the Princess Puffer. So are Mr. Grewgious and Dick Datchery.

And so must we be, if we are not to misread, not just Dickens, but this world. Edwin Drood is Dickens's last test for us, the pay attention part of the only important intelligence quotient test. He gives us all sorts of assistance, as various characters--from Durdles to Rosa to Grewgious to the Princess Puffer to (somehow, and seemingly beyond the immediate scope of Dickens's novel) Dick Datchery--watch Jasper and understand him. And, perhaps most importantly, he insists that we must be in the proper frame of mind to find or find out or understand anything. That proper frame of mind involves, necessarily, Dickens says, our getting outside ourselves and what we simply see, and into the mind of the dangerous man.

Jasper's dark green sickness is self. Dickens does not ask us to sympathize with Jasper, nor does he punish him in the end. He asks that we understand him, and understand that his punishment is--as Uriah Heep's was--his self. Jasper is the "WICKED MAN"; his evensong performance in the cathedral is the beginning of his autobiography. And though in the novel's final chapter, Dickens does not quote Ezekiel again, those same words--"WHEN THE WICKED MAN--" are what Jasper will have sung at the beginning of the morning prayer in Cloisterham cathedral, just as he intoned them at the end of the first chapter.

David Copperfield was Dickens's most important novel because it taught him that the only way to deal with the world is to understand it. Oliver's still innocent retirement from the world came when he was eleven. Nicholas Nickleby had good intentions, but his attack on Dotheboys Hall was not a great victory by any means; a lot of those little boys had no place in this world but Squeers's school--and Nicholas did not think of that, at age nineteen. But he does want to learn the world, and work in it. Even as Martin Chuzzlewit ends, young Martin remains unable to see that there is serious work to be done in this world, and that he must be part of that work. The way Dickens concludes Dombey and Son might let some readers forget Walter Gay the worker, amidst all the happiness--and Old Sol's ships all coming in when nobody noticed.

From David Copperfield on, Dickens is engaged with the double theme of who will save this world and how that is to be done. (1) Dickens provides multiple answers to the first question, both singular and comprehensive; the answer to the second is to be observant--and honest in and with our observations.

Had Dickens stuck to his "curious new idea" for Edwin Drood of having the murderer write a confession of his crime, he would have faced the same problem Dostoyevsky faced when he began Crime and Punishment a few years earlier. Dostoyevsky had started--several times, and perhaps under the influence of Great Expectations--with Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov as his narrator. But Raskolnikov does not understand what he has done, or why, until nearly the end of the novel, so Dostoyevsky abandoned the first-person. In Edwin Drood Jasper does narrate his story, "over and over" to himself, cryptically, in his dreams, and falsely, in his diary. But Dickens oversees Jasper's narrations, and enables us to observe what he calls the truth. Such observation takes imagination--on Mr. Grewgious' part, on Rosa's, on the Princess Puffer's, on Deputy's, and on ours. What our imaginations tell us all is that Jasper is a murderer, whether a murder has been committed or not.

And seeing him, "watching" him with Deputy and the Princess Puffer and Dick Datchery, we know the brutal, murderous selfishness of John Jasper. The hypocrisy that Dickens has insisted we see is exposed to the other characters, one after another. At the end, the Princess Puffer has "seen" him, and now "know[s]" him, "better far, than all the Reverend Parsons put together know him" (279; ch. 22).

Of course, reverend parsons in Dickens's novels are not known, as a class, to be very good observers of this world, and perhaps are less than reverent or to be reverenced than is commonly supposed. They aren't very "fresh and bright," any more than the jaded Jasper is. The reverend parsons of Cloisterham are not dressed in clerical garb; as Dickens sees them, their robes look like "nightgowns" and "bedgowns" (279; ch. 22). Jasper's surplice has been but a part of his disguise; and maybe the whole idea of religion was something similar for Dickens as he closed Edwin Drood. What he trusted, to the very end, was imaginative truth.

Imaginative truth is to be found through close observation. Dickens began to elaborate an explanation of how he thought it worked in the 1847 preface to The Pickwick Papers:
 in real life the peculiarities and oddities of a man who has
 anything whimsical about him, generally impress us first, and ...
 it is not until we are better acquainted with him that we usually
 begin to look below these superficial traits, and to know the
 better part of him.

In 1844 Dickens had written (to Forster) that he thought he "had a strong perception of character and oddity." In 1865 he wrote (to Bulwer-Lytton), "I work slowly and with great care, and never give way to my invention recklessly, but constantly restrain it; and I think it is my infirmity to fancy or perceive relations in things which are not apparent generally" (Letters 4: 244; 11: 113). He begins the 1867 preface to Dombey and Son with the assertion "that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing the characters of men, is a rare one."

"Strong perception of character and oddity" and the ability to "perceive relations in things" are among Dickens's faculties, and he uses them habitually. Like David Copperfield, his work is the "blending of experience and imagination" (ch. 46). It is that work which he recommends to us, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It is the kind of work we do, as readers and critics of Dickens's novels. The works are as rich and complex as life itself. By practicing our skills of careful observation in reading his novels seriously, perhaps we will learn better to read this world seriously.


Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

House, Madeline, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson, et al. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Pilgrim Edition. Vols. 2 and 11. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-2002.

Tracy, Robert. "Jasper's Plot: Inventing The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Dickens Quarterly 22 (2006): 29-39.


(1) I am grateful to Robert Heaman, who has made this point to me in numerous conversations.

(2) He first writes off religion in Dombey and Son. It took him until David Copperfield to get rid of pie in the sky and the idea of the benevolent gentleman as this world's saviour.
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Title Annotation:The Mystery of Edwin Drood, John Jasper
Author:Hornback, Bert
Publication:Dickens Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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