Intoxication, Provocation, and Derangement: Interrogating the Nature of Criminal Responsibility in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

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Abstract:

This article argues that Dickens's unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), contains phantom trajectories of an unborn commentary on the triangulation of the Victorians' developing understanding of the unconscious mind, the law, and the medical/legal turf war then being fought over criminal responsibility. Contrary to legal critics' claims that Dickens's novels are backward glances at near-extinct issues of law, I argue that studying the Drood case alongside real-life court cases reveals Dickens's engagement with a current, emerging medico-legal discourse that he foresaw would change the structure of future criminal defenses. This article moots the cases a prosecutor might bring against the two most likely suspects, Neville Landless and John Jasper, and centers both their defenses on the exculpatory potential of both characters' having episodes of altered consciousness. Ultimately, I argue that Dickens is exploring the way in which a legal acknowledgement of altered states and dual personalities might produce the moral vacuum of crimes without a criminally responsible perpetrator.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7756/dsa.040.010.215-230

Publication date: June 1, 2009

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  • Founded in 1970, the centennial anniversary of Dickens's death, DSA has been published since 1980 by AMS Press in cooperation with the Ph.D. program in English of the City University of New York and in association with the Graduate Center, CUNY and Queens College, CUNY. Besides presenting articles exploring the wide range of Dickens''s interests and talents, DSA also includes essays on other mid- and late- nineteenth-century authors and on the history and aesthetics of the period's fiction. In addition, each volume contains a substantial review article examining a prior year's scholarship on Dickens, and DSA occasionally publishes surveys of work on other Victorian writers, as well as review essays considering specialized studies of subjects in Victorian fiction. The editors seek to offer essays of "the most diverse kinds," those employing innovative as well as traditional approaches.
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