Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Book of Jasper

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Book of Jasper

Article excerpt

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. …

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