Book Review, British Literature, Charles Dickens, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

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4 thoughts on “The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

  1. neeru says:

    Nice review of my favourite Dickens’ novel. I love John Jasper and feel that the opening scene in the opium den is one of the finest in literature. Unlike many others, I like Edwin Drood and his relationship with his uncle. The person I can’t stand is Rosa. just so irritating.

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  2. Ive not yet read this one but am delighted to find he ratchets down the level of caricature which I find the least appealing aspect of his work. I know the theory put forward by Raymond Williams that he was merely reflecting what he saw on the streets of London as the product of urbanisation etc, but I still find those characters deeply irritating.

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