When Dickens breathed his last he left his final novel unfinished. The Mystery of Edwin Drood has haunted readers ever since, a story of desperation, madness and murderous obsession.
If nothing else, Dickens is known for his magnificent villains. There are thieves, scoundrels, thugs, abusers, seducers, manipulators, and madmen; from bureaucrats to convicted felons, he gives us a wide variety of evil-doers and no two are the same. There may be similarities in their actions but never in the motivation or the result. And there are as many villains as there are kinds of evil. Trying to decide who is the worst is difficult because not all sins are equal, and despite all the jealous, petty, brutal, and evil people in his books, none are inhuman and some, such as Miss Havisham, even invoke our sympathy. We cannot know what Dickens planned for the villainous John Jasper in Drood, but the recent small screen adaptation by the BBC takes a reasonable stab at it that does not seem terribly inconsistent with his usual style. He was a man of great imagination and never-ending twists, so simple yet complicated in unexpected ways that often the audience is left kicking themselves for not having foreseen the end.
Since I have no alternative but to explore the cinematic ending to Edwin Drood, as there is no literary one, all conclusions reached in this article will be based on that ending. Though it takes awhile to discover the truth about Jasper, his situation is much the same as Miss Havisham’s: a victim not of circumstance but his decision to embrace the anger in his heart. I have heard it said that anger grows up to be murder and while that is certainly true in the case of Jasper, the story also explores the full consequences of sin.
The novel revolves around an older man envious of his nephew’s beautiful fiancé. His obsession with her, and his laudanum-driven fantasy about killing Edwin and taking Rosa for himself, takes him down a dark path that results in his nephew vanishing without a word. Throughout, we see the result of one sin after another, some belonging to Jasper while others are the fault of those who have come before him.
Dickens’ villains all face the result of their actions, as do his heroes when foolish decisions are made. Some like David Copperfield marry the wrong person and are unhappy for a time while others like Steerforth pay a higher price for their passion. Some of his villains are full of remorse while others are defiant to the last. Whatever their crime or intention, the result of their actions always comes back to haunt them.
Jasper’s obsession with Rosa begins with envy over Edwin’s place in his father’s heart. For years he has fully resented Edwin for being loved, the result of a union of legitimacy rather than shame. His circumstances are the same as the Landless siblings but while he struggles with the anger that frequently is a problem for Neville Landless he permits it to consume him rather than rejecting it. It is this anger that makes him so unattractive and frightening to Rosa, much like the obsessive rage of Bradley Headstone terrifies Lizzie in Our Mutual Friend. It is their anger unchecked that grows up nearly (or in some cases, absolutely) into murder.
Contemporary readers had little trouble grasping the moral abyss in the hearts of these dark figures, for in their time a belief in the existence of evil was widely accepted. But many modern audiences struggle with this concept, because they are not content with the idea that evil just is; they must try to explain the cause of it. This is difficult, because in many instances there is no reason why these people are evil, they simply are. Even those in Dickens who are a result of a bad situation still make a choice to be evil; Jasper was not destined from an illegitimate birth to become a man of such anger; it was a decision he made to hold on to his resentment and let it grow. Furthermore, one cannot deny that his behavior (and that of many others in Dickens’ works) is evil, not misguided or the result of illiteracy. While we have as much compassion for him as Miss Havisham, we also find their fate satisfactory, for even though it is in us to show them mercy, their actions earn punishment.
Our society cannot accept that evil exists, because if there is evil there must be a higher power. In an attempt to deny the existence of God it scrambles to explain why some people are bad. Their conclusion is that evil is a result of a lack of love, of extreme poverty, illiteracy, or mistreatment, and if we could just eliminate all those things, there would be no more evil. Because of this, a few adaptations have either altered Dickens’ memorable villains or tried to explain away their behavior by convincing the audience their choices are not their fault.
Though a better example of an attempt to inflict such a modern day view on classic literature can be found in the recent Oliver Twist, in which the crimes of the villains are blamed on poverty and social prejudice against them, so too is John Jasper vindicated in pointing out his sad and loveless upbringing… but when contrasted not only with the other characters in the story but also Dickens’ other books, the argument is made invalid. If poverty drove Fagan and Bill Sykes to a life of crime how could it not corrupt Oliver Twist? If he was so poorly treated in the same circumstances as them, why did he not become bad? How is it that in spite of abuse, David Copperfield grows up to be wonderful? Why are the Landlesses so kind in the same situation that causes John Jasper to be evil? Dickens clearly saw no motivation for evil actions other than sin; otherwise, his books would not be full of villains both rich and poor, from bad upbringings and decent ones alike.
It is apparent in his novels that everyone, rich or poor, good or evil, hero or villain, victim or perpetrator, is responsible for their own actions and each faces the consequences of their decisions, for good or ill. Those who live a decent and moral life find happiness and those who give in to their darker intentions suffer. Uriah Heap is found out, Steerforth drowns, Eugene Wrayburn nearly dies, Ralph Nickleby gives in to despair, Miss Havisham goes up in flames, and Tulkinghorn is killed. (Just to name a few!) And none of them can claim their actions are not the result of their own sinful choices rather than their unfortunate circumstances. Dickens’ villains remind us that evil does exist and is a choice we make, either to resist or embrace it each day. Our lives are not influenced by our circumstances but how we choose to deal with them. It is up to us whether or not we abuse the life we are given and where we will spend eternity.