The Mystery of Edwin Drood: An Analysis of Charles Dickens' Unfinished Novel


Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a novel shrouded in mystery, both within the text itself and regarding its unresolved ending. Serially published between April and September 1870, the novel was left incomplete due to Dickens' sudden death in June of that year. As a result, readers are left without a definite resolution to the titular mystery. In this article, we will explore the plot and characters of the novel, as well as the various theories and interpretations surrounding its ending. We will also examine the impact of the unresolved mystery on the novel's reputation and critical reception and consider the role of serialized novels in the 19th century publishing industry.

The Plot and Characters

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is set in the fictional English cathedral town of Cloisterham and centers around the disappearance of its titular character, Edwin Drood. The novel's primary narrator is John Jasper, Edwin's uncle and a music teacher who is secretly in love with Edwin's fiancée, Rosa Bud. Other prominent characters include Rosa Bud herself, Edwin's betrothed, and her guardian, the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. Also featured are Neville Landless, a hot-headed and often violent young man who arrives in Cloisterham with his twin sister Helena, and their guardian, the opium-addicted and mysterious Mr. Tartar.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Edwin Drood has been murdered, though the identity of his killer is unknown. Suspicion falls first on Neville Landless, with whom Edwin had had a quarrel, and then on John Jasper, who becomes increasingly unstable and menacing as the investigation continues. Meanwhile, Rosa Bud is revealed to have other suitors, including Mr. Grewgious, her deceased father's lawyer, and the affable Mr. Tartar, who seems enamored of her despite his mysterious past. Throughout the novel, the characters' motivations and secrets are gradually revealed, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue.

The Controversial Mystery

Perhaps the most famous aspect of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is its unresolved ending. Dickens' death left his readers without a definitive answer to the question of who killed Edwin Drood, and various theories and interpretations have been proposed in the years since the novel's publication. Some critics have argued that Dickens intended to leave the question unanswered, while others believe that he had a definite solution in mind and simply never had the opportunity to reveal it.

One theory, put forth by Dickens' friend and biographer John Forster, suggests that Jasper is the culprit but that he ultimately confesses and is punished for his crime. Another theory, proposed by literary critic G.K. Chesterton, posits that Neville Landless is innocent and that the murderer is in fact Mr. Datchery, a mysterious stranger who arrives in Cloisterham midway through the novel. Other theories have implicated various other characters, including Rosa Bud and her guardian Mr. Grewgious.

Theories and Interpretations

The unresolved ending of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has led to a wide range of theories and interpretations, and the debate continues to this day. Some critics see the novel as a reflection of Dickens' own anxieties about unfinished business and the fleeting nature of life. Others argue that the mystery itself is less important than the novel's exploration of human psychology and the nature of evil.

One particularly intriguing interpretation has been suggested by literary scholar Garrett Stewart, who proposes that the novel is "about" its own unfinished status. According to Stewart, the novel's self-reflexive elements, including its emphasis on theatricality and its use of various metafictional techniques, serve to "foreground the status of an unfinished text as a particular kind of master plot in the nineteenth-century novel." In this way, the novel's unfinished state becomes not a flaw but a deliberate and meaningful aspect of its design.

Impact on Critical Reception

The unresolved ending of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has had a significant impact on the novel's critical reception. While many readers have found the lack of resolution frustrating, others have seen it as an opportunity for creative interpretation and speculation. In general, critical responses to the novel have been mixed. Some critics see it as a masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling, while others have criticized its uneven pacing and unsatisfying ending.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the unresolved ending has been on the perception of Dickens himself. The fact that he was unable to complete his final work has lent a romanticized aura to his legacy, and has been seen by some as evidence of his artistic genius.

The Role of Serialized Novels

To fully understand the impact of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," it is important to consider the role of serialized novels in the 19th century publishing industry. Serialized novels, which were released in installments over a period of weeks or months, were a popular form of entertainment in the Victorian era. They allowed readers to engage with a story over an extended period of time, and created a sense of community around the shared experience of reading.

At the same time, however, serialized novels were subject to the pressures of commercial success. They had to be popular enough to keep readers engaged, but not so popular that they were over too quickly. This tension is evident in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which some critics have argued was designed to be intentionally ambiguous in order to extend the story's lifespan and appeal.


In conclusion, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a fascinating and complex work, characterized by its intricate plot and controversial ending. The novel's exploration of human psychology and the nature of evil has made it a subject of enduring interest and debate, while its unresolved mystery has sparked countless theories and interpretations. By considering the role of serialized novels in the 19th century publishing industry, we can gain a deeper understanding of the novel's impact on its original audience and its enduring legacy. Ultimately, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" remains a testament to Dickens' skill as a storyteller and his enduring influence on the literary world.