Ray Dubberke: Dickens, Drood and Redemption

In his Postscript to Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens remarked that "it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom."

This metaphor of a storyteller weaving many threads at his loom is singularly apt when one explores the themes in a Dickens novel, for even when he starts out with the intention of concentrating on a particular theme (for example, selfishness in Martin Chuzzlewit), he tends in the course of his narrative to introduce many other ideas or notions or motifs—call them what you will—thereby enriching it immeasurably beyond the often simplistic concept he took as his point of departure. Yet these many themes are seldom discordant; they reinforce each other and form a "whole pattern" that becomes apparent to the reader when the novel has been read in its entirety.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is no exception to this rule; in fact his last novel if anything exemplifies the rule. What I hope to do here is identify the most important of Drood's many interlocking themes, and show how each of them contributes to the central message (or dominant theme) of the work.

Before proceeding to the themes that Dickens himself put into his novel, however, I'm going to try to dispose of a couple that in my opinion are solely the invention of others. The first of these is Howard Duffield's theory that John Jasper is a Thug or Phansigar, a member of the sect of Indian murderers who strangled their victims as a ritual sacrifice to Kali, the goddess of destruction.1 In an essay published in 1956, Cecil Day Lewis effectively destroyed Duffield's argument,2 but because his rebuttal has been overlooked (perhaps deliberately) by later writers, here it is again with a supplement from Dickens's notes.

When Mr. Grewgious tells John Jasper, after Drood's disappearance, that Rosa and Edwin have broken their engagement, Jasper's face turns "lead-colored" and drops of cold sweat start to its surface, he rises open-mouthed from his chair clutching his hands to his head, and emitting a terrible shriek he keels over in a dead faint. As Day Lewis says, in something of an understatement, "one cannot quite envisage any convinced Thug being thrown into a fit by the discovery that his murder has been unnecessary."

In his notes for this installment Dickens himself comments, "Jasper's failure in the one great object made known by Mr. Grewgious." To a devout Thug, his religious ritual can be a "failure" only when his prey escapes. If there were any truth at all in Dr. Duffield's theory that Jasper is a remorseless Thug murderer, he would not have swooned when informed that the engagement had been broken; instead he would have said to himself, "Too bad I chose Ned as my victim, but Kali has her offering and that's all that really matters."3

The second specious theme, which unfortunately has gained a great many adherents over the years, is that John Jasper has a "divided personality" and that his good self doesn't know what his bad self is up to.4 The problem is, this theory makes Jasper insane: Victorian medical men would have called him a monomaniac; modern psychiatrists, a schizophrenic. Whichever term you prefer, Jasper's lawyers at his trial would have raised the insanity defense, he would have been acquitted "by reason of insanity" (barring a gross miscarriage of justice), and thus his career could not have ended in the condemned cell, as Dickens is said to have told both John Forster and Luke Fildes.5 Instead he would have been locked up in a lunatic asylum. What kind of moral could be drawn from that?

During Dickens's lifetime there were many celebrated cases where the defendant pleaded insanity (those of John Bellingham, Edward Oxford, John Francis, John Ovenston, et al.), but the best known by far is that of Daniel McNaughtan,6 since it gave rise to the famous "M'Naghten Rules"7 for determining insanity. In January 1843, McNaughtan, a young Scotsman from Glasgow who meant to kill the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, instead shot and mortally wounded Edward Drummond, Peel's private secretary. Today, medical opinion holds that McNaughtan suffered from paranoid schizophrenia,8 the same disease (if the divided-personality theory is correct) that John Jasper labored under. At McNaughtan's trial in March 1843 the jury returned the verdict of "not guilty on the grounds of insanity";9 and because Dickens was home in London at the time, and all the major London newspapers printed verbatim reports of the trial, we can be sure our author was thoroughly familiar with the insanity defense.10

Yet so far as I've been able to discover, Dickens never wrote one word about the McNaughtan affair—this in spite of his great relish for sensational criminal cases. In his writings he mentioned such murderers as John Thurtell, the Mannings, John White Webster, William Palmer, and many more, but not once the assassin McNaughtan. Why was that? My guess is that Dickens I was simply not interested in psychotics; the murderers who fired his imagination were brutal and wicked men without a conscience—what we now call sociopaths—and when someone truly deranged came along he promptly lost interest.11

Turning at last to the novel's genuine themes, the first of these is so obvious that to state it is almost embarrassing. It is that old standby "crime does not pay"—in a Dickens novel no evildoer goes unpunished (and he does not beat the rap by pleading insanity). At least one critic believed that this was one of the story's main themes; in his book Keys to the Drood Mystery, Edwin Charles writes: "Dickens always preaches the great human lesson that crime and wrong-doing are necessarily and inevitably followed by punishment... and there is every reason for thinking that Dickens intended to force the same great truth home, had he lived to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood"12

Why does the lawbreaker always come to grief? According to Dickens's daughter Kate, her father often said "that the most clever criminals were constantly detected through some small defect in their calculations." This was "the pet theory that he so frequently mentioned whenever a murder case was brought to trial. . .the weak spot my father insisted upon, as being inseparable from the commission of a great crime, however skilfully planned."13 In Book IV, Chapter 7, of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens himself says something to the same effect: "And this is another spell against which the shedder of blood for ever strives in vain. There are fifty doors by which discovery may enter. With infinite pains and cunning, he double locks and bars forty-nine of them, and cannot see the fiftieth standing wide open."

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood the one weak spot, the fiftieth door, is the ring with its rose of diamonds and rubies that Hiram Grewgious gives to Edwin in the novel's eleventh chapter. Because John Jasper knows nothing of this ring, his failure to take account of it in his plans does not represent a mistake on his part—until he neglects to search Edwin's clothing thoroughly when he disposes of his nephew's body. In other words, Dickens intended to illustrate his "pet theory" by allowing Jasper to commit an almost perfect crime save for the existence of this one small flaw.

But there is a second reason why murderers fail. They are "a horrible wonder apart," Dickens tells us (in MED, Ch. 20), who goad themselves to commit their crimes. "If great criminals told the truth ... they would very rarely tell of their struggles against the crime. Their struggles are towards it. They buffet with opposing waves, to gain the bloody shore, not to recede from it" (OMF, Bk. Ill, Ch. 11). Because of this lack of self-restraint, they almost invariably overreach themselves, they rush headlong into acts which bring about their own destruction. And Jasper was to embody this theme by his relentless pursuit of Neville Landless for the crime he himself had committed. As stated above, his murder of Edwin Drood was virtually flawless; if he had stopped there his first crime would never have been brought home to him. But in pursuing Neville, Jasper brings into play forces that were in the end to crush him.

Dickens found a particularly apt way to make this point. When Jasper writes in his diary (at the end of Chapter 16) "That I will fasten the crime of the murder of my dear dead boy upon the murderer. And, That I devote myself to his destruction," he is stating the literal truth. By his pursuit of Neville he will fasten the crime upon the real murderer—himself—and thus bring about his own destruction. This reading was first proposed by Montagu Saunders in 1914,14 and it was confirmed by the belated publication in 1917 of Charles Allston Collins's May 1871 letter to Augustin Daly, in which Collins wrote: "It was intended that Jasper himself should urge on the search after Edwin Drood and the pursuit of his murderer, thus endeavoring to direct suspicion from himself, the real murderer. This is indicated in the design on the right side of the cover of the figures hurrying up the spiral staircase, emblematical of a pursuit. They are led on by Jasper, who points unconsciously to his own figure in the drawing at the head of the title."15

More recently, another important (and interrelated) theme has been suggested by John Thacker. The choirmaster's slaying of his nephew is no ordinary crime; his act is a conscious defiance of God and a deliberate sacrilege. "Jasper's hatred of the Cathedral and of everything connected with it shall tempt him to the revenge of offering to the Christian Church of England the greatest possible insult and desecration he can conceive, in committing one of the oldest and foulest crimes, murder of a kinsman by his host, in one of that Church's major shrines in the early hours of its major festival of joy and on its weekly Sabbath."16

The final strand in the pattern is to my mind the most important of all. In his notes for the first installment of the novel, Dickens wrote, "Touch the Key note / 'When the Wicked Man'—," and he repeated the latter phrase at the end of the book's first chapter: "... and then the intoned words, 'WHEN THE WICKED MAN—' rise among groins of arches and beams of roof, awakening muttered thunder." The phrase he quotes is from the Biblical verse Ezekiel 18:27, "Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." These are also the opening words of the Morning and Evening Prayers in the liturgy of the Anglican Church. Back in 1911 Prof. Henry Jackson asked, concerning the novelist's intention here, "is Dickens thinking of these four words only, or has he in mind the whole text? In other words, does he wish to suggest to us that Jasper is 'a wicked man,' or are we to expect his repentance at the end of the story? I have no answer to propose."17

My own answer to Prof. Jackson's question is that Dickens did plan to have Jasper repent, and to raise the possibility that, if his repentance was sincere, God would forgive him for "his wickedness that he hath committed." In other words, the moral of the story, the deep underlying message that the author intended to present in his final chapters, is simply that God can forgive what man cannot.18

Now when Dickens says "God" what he means is Jesus Christ the Redeemer. It's no secret that he was a New Testament Christian; he had little use for what he thought of as the stern and vengeful God of the Old Testament. When his children were little, he wrote The Life of Our Lord in order that they "should know something about the history of Jesus Christ."19 Later, when his boys grew up and left home, he gave each of them a copy of the New Testament (not, significantly, of the complete Bible) and a letter in which he "entreated them all to guide themselves by this book, putting aside the interpretations and inventions of Man,.. I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian religion, as it came from Christ himself, and the impossi-bility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it."20 Near the end of his life, he returned again in his will (dated 12 May 1869) to the same theme: "I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here or there."21

As Dickens read it, the whole message of the New Testament is one of love, compassion, hope, forgiveness, and redemption. It is not a message of damnation and eternal torment, as some of the pious in his own day and in ours would have it. In fact Dickens often said as much, and he particularly resented those who used the Lord as a kind of nit-picking bogeyman to keep children in line. Thus he wrote to a Mrs. Godfrey in 1839: "I think it monstrous to hold the source of inconceivable mercy and goodness perpetually up to them as an avenging and wrathful God who—making them in His wisdom children before they are men and women—is to punish them awfully for every little venial offence ..."22

On several occasions in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens clearly expresses what he believes is the central message of Christianity. In Chapter 10 he twice uses Mr. Crisparkle as his mouthpiece. When Neville begs the Minor Canon's forgiveness for one of his passionate outbursts, Crisparkle replies: "Not mine, Neville, not mine. You know with whom forgiveness lies, as the highest attribute conceivable." And when Helena exclaims, "What is my influence, or my weak wisdom, compared with yours!" Crisparkle responds, "You have the wisdom of Love, .., and it was the highest wisdom ever known upon this earth, remember."

And the Christian message is suggested again in the oft-quoted passage from the final chapter where the sights, scents, and sounds of a lovely summer's day "pene-trate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthly odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life." As I wrote earlier, "This is an odd comment to make just as Drood's avengers begin to close in on the killer—for moments later the Opium Woman gives Dick Datchery his first glimpse behind Jasper's cloak of respectability. Thus we are reminded of the Resurrection and the Life precisely when Jasper's defeat and death are first foreshadowed."23

Moreover, Dickens sets his story in a Cathedral town and in the very precincts of its ancient Cathedral. He makes his leading character, John Jasper, and several of the lesser figures—Crisparkle, Tope, the Dean, and even Durdles—employees of the Cathedral. And finally, he places the eponymous character's disappearance early on Christmas morning (a Sunday, no less!); he has Durdles hear "ghost sounds" on Christmas Eve of the previous year; and (if Richard Proctor is correct) he intended Neville's death and Jasper's arrest to occur on the following Christmas.24 It's hard to see what more Dickens could have done to tell us that this is a Christian novel with a Christian theme.

While Dickens meant to suggest the possibility that Christ the Redeemer might forgive Jasper, he had no intention of allowing the murderer to escape human justice. Both John Forster and Luke Fildes tell us that Jasper's career brought him to the condemned cell,25 and there is no doubt in my mind that the choirmaster's earthly life was to end on the gallows. Nor did Dickens expect his readers to forgive Jasper, for his crimes were too heinous for mere mortals to pardon. First he had murdered his trusting nephew, Edwin Drood, and later he was to kill another innocent young man, Neville Landless. Though Edwin and Neville have their faults—the former is arrogant and self-absorbed, the latter hot-headed and prone to violence—both at heart are decent young men who certainly do not deserve to be murdered. Yet the very atrocity of Jasper's crimes was essential to what Dickens was trying to say. If the criminal's offenses were minor, if he had some justification to mitigate his guilt, then there would be nothing divine about forgiving him.

Is someone as wicked as John Jasper beyond redemption? There is evidence to the contrary from Dickens himself. In his preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, he included Bill Sikes among those "insensible and callous natures that do become, at last, utterly and irredeemably bad." But in the revised preface for the Charles Dickens edition of 1867, as J. Hillis Miller notes, "this became 'utterly and incurably bad,' evidently to remove the theological implication of 'irredeemably.' Dickens did not want to deny God's power to redeem even those who are apparently hopelessly evil."26

Curiously, there was another novel with a remarkably similar theme that came out at almost exactly the same time: Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment Published in Russia in 1866, it was not translated into English until long after Dickens had died;27 while The Mystery of Edwin Drood was issued, unfinished, in 1870. Therefore Dostoyevsky could not have been influenced by Dickens's tale, nor could Dickens have borrowed any ideas from Crime and Punishment Yet in some ways the two novelists shared very similar views about the meaning of Christianity.

In Dostoyevsky's story, the student Raskolnikov plans to kill a greedy old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and steal her money. The pawnbroker has a simple- minded younger sister, Lizaveta, whom Raskolnikov has no intention of harming. Accordingly he arranges to murder Alyona when her sister is away from home. To his horror, however, Lizaveta unexpectedly returns, walks into the flat (because Raskolnikov has neglected to lock the door), and sees Alyona's bloody corpse. Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill her too.

But of course Dostoyevsky had a choice. Why did the author spoil the murderer's plan and force him to kill the good sister? I believe that Dostoyevsky, like Dickens after him, wanted his protagonist to commit a truly reprehensible offense. The crime of killing an avaricious old pawnbroker might not seem like such a bad idea to those readers who had been squeezed by moneylenders themselves.28 But Lizaveta was a childlike innocent; there could be no justification whatever for killing her. To atone for that murder, Raskolnikov would have to endure intense suffering, just as Jasper has to suffer on the scaffold for destroying two well-meaning youngsters. Yet for both sinners there exists the possibility of repentance and salvation.

In his great epic Paradise Lost, Milton says that his purpose is to "assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."29 I maintain that this was also Dickens's aim in Edwin Drood, though his God was not, like Milton's, the Old Testament Jehovah of brimstone and thunderbolts, but instead the New Testament Messiah of love and redemption; and that in his last novel he intended to present a story that would provide the ultimate expression of his Christian faith.

  1. Howard Duffield, "John Jasper—Strangler," The Bookman (New York), February 1930, pp. 581-88.
  2. C. Day Lewis, "Introduction" to Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (London: Collins, 1956), pp. 14-15.
  3. For more flaws in the Thug theory, see Anthony J. Auditore's unpublished M.A. thesis, This Unclean Spirit of Imitation—A Study of Dickens' Mystery of Edwin Drood (New York: Columbia University, 1957), pp. 42-47.
  4. Many writers have advanced this theory, but perhaps the two most notable are Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 83-104; and Charles Forsyte in The Decoding of Edwin Drood (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980), passim.
  5. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (London: Chapman & Hall, 1874), vol. Ill, p. 426; and Alice Meynell, "How Edwin Drood Was Illustrated," Century Magazine, February 1884, p. 526.
  6. McNaughtan's surname has been spelled at least twelve different ways, but some recently discovered signatures of Daniel and his father indicate that "McNaughtan" is correct. See Richard Moran, Knowing Right from Wrong / The Insanity Defense of Daniel McNaughtan (New York: Free Press, 1981), pp. xi-xiii.
  7. "M'Naghten is the customary spelling in both English and American law reports ... Of all possible spellings, it is probably the least correct." Bernard L. Diamond, M.D., "On the Spelling of Daniel M'Naghten's Name," in Daniel McNaughton / His Trial and the Aftermath, edited by Donald J. West and Alexander Walk (London: Gaskell Books, 1977), p. 86.
       Note that West and Walk opt for "McNaughton," which is also the preferred spelling on WorldCat.
  8. Ibid., p. 89. Also in West and Walk, see Henry R. Rollin, "McNaughton's Madness," pp. 91-99.
  9. For more on the McNaughtan case and its implications for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, see John Thacker, Edwin Drood: Antichrist in the Cathedral (London: Vision Press, 1990), pp. 66-67.
  10. Richard Moran claims that Dickens attended McNaughtan's trial (op. cit., p. 14), but I have not been able to find any contemporary account that confirms this allegation.
  11. Significantly, when John White Webster's character did not conform to the type Dickens preferred in his murderers, he forced Prof. Webster into the mold anyway: "I find there is of course no rational doubt that the Professor was always a secretly cruel man," he wrote to Lord Lytton in January 1868. Graham Storey, Margaret Brown, and Kathleen Tillotson, eds., The Letters of Charles Dickens / Vol XII / 1868-1870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), p. 12.
  12. Edwin Charles, Keys to the Drood Mystery (London: Collier, 1908), pp. 155, 157.
  13. Kate Perugini, "Edwin Drood and the Last Days of Charles Dickens," Pall Mall Magazine, June 1906. Reprinted in William Robertson Nicoll's The Problem of'Edwin Drood' (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912), pp. 36-7.
  14. Montagu Saunders, The Mystery in the Drood Family (Cambridge: University Press, 1914), p. 7.
  15. Joseph Francis Daly, The Life of Augustin Daly (New York: Macmillan, 1917), pp. 107-8. To corroborate Collins's statement, turn to the facsimile of the cover illustration in your own copy of Edwin Drood; then take a straightedge and follow the direction of the pointing man's index finger. Just as Collins says, he is pointing directly at the man above whose hand touches his chin; that is, Jasper points straight at himself.
  16. Thacker, p. 91.
  17. Henry Jackson, About Edwin Drood (Cambridge: University Press, 1911), p. 90.
  18. Over the years critics have found scores of themes in Edwin Drood, far too many to work them all in here, even though several of those omitted have some validity. Containing multitudes, I can live with any of them so long as they do not contradict this last, decisive theme.
  19. Charles Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, ed. Neil Philip (Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1987), p. 15.
  20. Quoted from a letter to Edward "Plorn" Dickens dated 26 September 1868. Ibid., p. 88.
  21. Ibid., p. 87.
  22. Ibid., p. 91.
  23. Ray Dubberke, Dickens, Drood, and the Detectives (New York: Vantage Press, 1992), p. 130.
  24. Richard A. Proctor, Watched by the Dead: A Loving Study of Dickens'Half-Told Tale (London: W. H. Allen, 1887), pp. 52 and 135.
  25. See note 5 above.
  26. H Hillis Miller, Charles DickensH The World of HisNovels (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 67. Also see Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), p. lxiv.
  27. The first English-language edition of Crime and Punishment, translated by Frederick Whishaw, was published by Vizetelly of London in 1886.
  28. As a compulsive gambler, Dostoyevsky himself was often hounded by moneylenders and other creditors.
  29. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. I, lines 21-22.