Discussion Post: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

March 25, 2010 at 12:18 am 1 comment

Hello, Challengers! I hope you enjoyed this week’s book as much as I did — despite its unfinished state, it’s easy to see that Dickens was well on his way to a masterpiece with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This is the last week of March’s Classics Challenge, and we’ll be picking up the LT CC again in May. Remember, though, that if you participate this month or next you’ll be entered to win a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic when LT does a drawing at the end of May. I hope someone else read this book, because it’s the perfect novel for this type of discussion.

Onwards!

All right, let’s hear it. Who did it? What was the motivation behind the murder, and what clues do you feel Dickens left for you? In your mind, are there any other possibilities?

Dear Penguin Classics, thank you for ruining this for me in the footnotes. Apparently Dickens had already decided who the murderer was, and even revealed the criminal’s identity to the novel’s illustrator. (Warning — spoilers under the cut!)

It will come as no surprise to the reader that Jasper is the murderer, having strangled Edwin with his heavy black scarf when Edwin returned from his walk with Neville on Christmas Eve. Though Neville’s motive is said to be love of Rosa, that turns out to be Jasper’s likely motivation as well, as revealed in chapter 19. What is not clear is the reason for Jasper’s seemingly sincere dedication to revenge. Is it possible that he committed the murder in an opium-induced haze, possibly as a result of a wrongly-mixed dosage? Very likely.

One thing that struck me about this book was how many elements of the plot seemed recognizable from other (often later) stories. How is this novel intertextual, both in the sense that it influences and is influenced by other works from the 19th century?

For a while, I was convinced that Dickens influenced Wilkie Collins, but actually Edwin Drood seems like Dickens’ attempt to keep up with good old Wilkie, who had invented the mystery genre 15 years before with The Woman in White. Collins’ influence is mostly evident in genre, but also in the contrast between Helena and Rosa that echoes that of Laura and Miriam.

I also suspect Dickens of being influenced by Charlotte Bronte. Suggestions that Neville’s temper is only checked by Helena’s influence is reminiscent of the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff (in some ways, obviously. Not so much in others). Their wildness and almost gypsy-like nature is also suggestive of Wuthering Heights.

Whom did Dickens likely influence with Edwin Drood? George Du Maurier, almost certainly. Du Maurier could not have helped but be aware of this novel and the splash it created, and the mesmeric connection between Jasper and Rosa seems to anticipate that of Trilby and Svengali. Jasper is even Rosa’s singing teacher, and the drowning death of Rosa’s mother seems to be the origin of  Svengali’s threats that Trilby will drown and make a beautiful corpse.

I also credit Dickens with the origin of the awesome detective name. Dick Datchery? Amazing.

How does Dickens play with the notions of wildness and civilization in this novel? Why do you think he is constantly contrasting the two, and why is this contrast important to the novel?

I hate to tap into the whole ‘duality of man’ cliche here, but I’m going to. Dickens seems to be suggesting that no matter how respectable a person may seem (i.e., Jasper the upstanding choirmaster), there is a darker side (Jasper the opium eater). Edwin is outwardly blessed by circumstance, but shallow and ungrateful; Neville, on the other hand, is prone to violence but has a history of being abused and is deeply grateful for the friends and circumstances he has found in Cloisterham. This contrast is probably a hint at the ultimate solution to the mystery, which hinges on Jasper’s double life.

One problem with the sweeping ‘duality of man’ theory is that many of the characters don’t seem to have dark sides at all. Mr. Crisparkle, Mr. Tartar and Mr. Grewgious all seem to be genuinely good and exceedingly trustworthy, in the manner of Herbert Pocket and similar Dickens characters. Not that this is a problem for the story itself — quite the opposite, in fact.

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Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , , .

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