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Drood, Drugs, and Mesmeric Darkness

January 22, 2012

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ again returns to the shadows of Victorian England. What most intrigues me thus far (and honestly it took me awhile to get into this one) is the link between opium abuse and preternatural happenings and how they converge in the Dickensian netherworld. Throughout the first 16 chapters, the idea of mesmerism is as prevalent as Jasper’s opium problem. Jasper’s dark side is shown forth in eerie glare from the get go: “a look of intentness and intensity – a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection [. . .] it is always concentrated” (15). So Dickens describes the way Jasper looks at his young nephew, yet this is only the first inkling of the power that lies in Jasper’s eyes.

Jasper can even drive his nephew’s fiance to tears with his glare; in fact, he speaks and creeps through his eyes. Rosa even claims “he has made a slave of me with his looks” and believes that “he could pass in through the wall” (70). The footnote here, in the Penguin Classics edition, explains that “Mesmerists claimed that neither walls nor distance were obstacles to their experiments” (343).

However, it is not only in regards to Jasper that mesmerism is referred or ascribed. Rosa hauntingly foreshadows Edwin’s fate when she asks “I thought you Egyptian boys could look into a hand and see all sorts of phantoms? Can’t you see a happy future?” (35). Even the Neville twins claim to have mesmeric powers between themselves in which “no word is spoken” yet communication takes place (65). Mrs. Crisparkle is also said to possess the “divining” powers generally possessed by her sex, yet none of these characters can see what is coming, meaning they could never make full use of such preternatural gifts.

When watching Crisparkle and Neville, while on his adventure with Durdles, Jasper aims his eyes upon them like “a loaded rifle” ready to fire (133). In that moment, I think Jasper could very well fire if he so chose. Of course, all of this could merely be a psychotic reaction to the opium. But it seems that Jasper has crossed over and onto another plane of being, a darker world in which only those given over to the shadows can realize their preternatural potential. I believe this to further be seen in Durdle’s drunken awakening once down in the crypt. As Durdle comes to in a haze “he is once more conscious that he is very narrowly observed” and begins to recognize what lies behind Jasper’s eyes, yet his suspicions are dispelled by the other’s wiles (139). It is no coincidence that the drunken crypt crawler catches a glimpse of Jasper’s darker nature, for Durdle himself partly lives in those shadows.

Finally, it is only the other opium addict that truly possess control over these preternatural abilities. The woman who comes from London looking for Jasper is of course the person who predicts Edwin’s end in his presence: Ned being “A threatened name. A dangerous name” (161). Jasper has enetered this poor woman’s world in more ways than one. His hunger for opium has lead him into the shadows in the sense that he mingles with the dregs of society and in the sense that he has tapped into the connection between drugs, dark arts, and the pursuit of pure evil. There is more than a slight touch of Aleister Crowley here (a man I assume to have been well acquainted with both de Quincy and Victorian spiritualism). I think both the Victorian opium problem and interest in mesmerism and spiritualism would make for a fascinating pursuit of further study.

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.


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  1. Mesmerism and all forms of the preternatural and supernatural continue to fascinate audiences, seemingly more so now than ever – again proving that Dickens and his topics are not of an age, but for the ages.

  2. I was stricken by the openness of drug abuse in Edwin Drood. It seems as if Dickens’ characters openly use drugs and there are no consequences. This would be an interesting presentation topic.

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