Comments on Dickens

Re: Mental illness / Re: masturbation (Charles Dickens)

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Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996 12:04:54 +0100
Reply-To: VICTORIA 19th-Century British Culture & Society

Sender: VICTORIA 19th-Century British Culture & Society

From: Mitsuharu Matsuoka
Subject: Re: Mental illness Re: masturbation (Charles Dickens)
To: Multiple recipients of list VICTORIA

Dear VICTORIAnists,

I do not mean to say Dickens resorted or referred to masturbation in his life or fiction. It is undeniable, however, though perhaps also unprovable, that he thought of something like masturbation in his characterization of John Jasper in _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_ (1970). Jasper is choirmaster at Cloisterham [Rochester] but a secret opium taker paying frequent visits to the East End of London.

Taking a hint from a wholesale dealer's Irish porter (II, ii) Wilkie Collins mentioned in _The Moonstone_ (1868), Dickens described "two states of consciousness which never clash" (II); one of the states is brought about by "drunkenness" or "animal magnetism [mesmerism]". This is of course a foreshadowing of Jasper's double consciousness and two lives. In order to set free his evil repressed by hypocrisy in the real world, Jasper enters the illusionary world of his unconscious by taking opium. The suggestion of the novel is that he strangles his niece Edwin Drood to death, but his repeated attempts to strangle Deputy and a Chinese with his hands are easily explained by that sadistic pleasure which he takes when seeing them suffer.

It can be urged here, and entirely with reason, that there is a different underlying motivation. Jasper escapes from the real world into the unreal of the opium den. Witness, for example, the words he mumbles to the den's mistress taking opium after murdering his niece:

"Well; I have told you, I did it, here, hundreds of thousands of times. What do I say? I did it millions and billions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast expanses of time, that when it was really done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon." (XXIII)

His mumbles are clear enough to reveal that the sadistic pleasure he derives from strangulation in the real world is nothing to that which he does, however often he may to his full satisfaction, in illusions. It is unreal to him: "When it comes to be real at last, it is so short that it seems unreal for the first time" (XXIII). "Paradises and Hells of visions" (XIX) bring a much stronger/more sensual excitement to him than "sordid realities". Certainly his paradoxical words serve to make us recognize that the sadistic pleasure is much stronger under opium. I do agree with Geoffrey Thurley that "[t]he opium affords Jasper an almost masturbatory indulgence of the fantasy of murdering Edwin, and, like many an adolescent before him and since, he discovers that the actual event falls short of the orgasmic intensity of fantasy." (_The Dickens Myth_, p.333, Routledge & Kegan Paul) In fact, as Dickens suggests in Durdles's dream (XII), dream is all reality to a dreamer, and it is nothing but reality like an experience he/(she?) has when awake.

On the surface, the motive of Jasper's murder is an illicit love for his niece's betrothed Rosa, and by so thinking he lives in the real world. On the profounder level, though, the true motives are not only the sadistic pleasure mentioned above but also a masochistic pleasure. For instance, he hurries to the opium den immediately after chasing Edwin and Rosa during their secret rendezvous (in fact, their breach of marriage promise). Why? This characterization of Jasper's can be found in his predecessor Bradley Headstone, schoolmaster in _Our Mutual Friend_ (1864-65).

Like Jasper, Headstone feels jealousy and hatred as a principal in a love triangle. His state is murderous, and he knows it. More: he irritates it, with "a kind of perverse pleasure akin to that which a sick man sometimes has in irritating a wound upon his body. . . ." (III, xi) It can safely be said, therefore, that Jasper also extracts "a kind of perverse pleasure" named masochistic pleasure from the scene of the couple's rendezvous. By so doing he arouses a murderous impulse to an extremity, and then he explodes to orgasm in the opium den.

I don't know whether Dickens, stared in the face by Death at this period, knew visual stimulation could lead to orgasm. I think he must have thought that Jasper's primary motivation of murder was something like sadistic and masochistic pleasure, emotional excitement incidental to the murder. Masturbation is a paradoxical mixture of sadistic and masochistic pleasure.

Too personal?


Mitsuharu Matsuoka

University of Manchester

Nagoya University


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