Dickens: The Mind of A Murderer

(A morbid tale.)

This is a morbid tale, and may contain spoilers.  For those of you who are reading or planning on reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, and don’t want anything spoiled, I would suggest skipping this post.

Have you ever wondered about the mind of a murderer?  I’ve always assumed the same thing for each case: the murderer, deep deep down inside, felt a tinge of guilt… and his conscience plagued him, of course, even if he didn’t necessarily regret it.  Though Charles Dickens never murdered anybody, and could never really see into the mind of a murderer, he lent a new perspective to me.

In Our Mutual Friend, this is basically what happens.  Eugene Wrayburn is a lawyer who’s never had a purpose in life.  He’s never wanted a purpose, and he always gets bored… and he continues in a perpetual state of boredom… until he meets Lizzie Hexam.  She changes his life, though she his exact opposite.  Though he’s well above her station, Lizzie begins to love Eugene because she sees his purposelessness, and she wants to give him a purpose… help him find one, through her interest, help him become interested.  Eugene, always doubting himself because of his Boredom, doesn’t know whether he really truly loves her or not.

Enter school master: Bradley Headstone.  He meets Lizzie, and immediately falls in love with her.  Here is compared the difference between two loves: Eugene is hesitant to admit his, for he would never want to do her any harm, and he is only interested in doing what is good for her. (Sure proof of love.)  The schoolmaster becomes inflamed with passion for her.  He also sees her undoubted love for Eugene, and this maddens him.  The thought consumes him, the passion eats away his sense of right from wrong.  He hurriedly proposes, and is rejected.  Almost makes her accept by force, but finally goes away.

The premise is, after Lizzie leaves to escape this man’s terrible passion, Eugene tries to find her, and Bradley follows him.  Lizzie and Eugene have an interview, in which they both confess their love for each other, but the awful fact that they can never, never be married.  Most of it is the class difference, the other part is the passion of Bradley Headstone.  Lizzie fears for Eugene’s safety, and begs him to go and never come again, but the entire scene is spied upon by Bradley Headstone.  As soon as Lizzie leaves, Bradley mutilates the body of Eugene with an oar and throws him in the river.  Eugene is saved, but it is believed he will die.  Unsettled in spirit, Eugene makes one last request: that Lizzie would be his wife ere he died.  And there, upon the death bed, Lizzie and Eugene are united… and she must help him put her ring on her finger, because he’s too weak and hurt to do it himself.  And they watch the sun rise together.

The next chapter began to delve into Bradley Headstone’s mind.  I settled down and thought, “O, here’s where we deal with the guilt. Woe to you, Bradley Headstone.”  But oh no, something quite different.  The thought plagued him, the scene embittered him.  Why? Well… Was Eugene really dead? Had he done it the best way? It wasn’t perfect… he should have done this, altered this, made it less dramatic, made it quicker… etc.  I was shocked.  Was this the mind of a murderer? I thought there was remorse?  But I wonder, did I have any reason to think there would be remorse?  Had I ever hated to such an extreme, or experienced that kind of passion to such an extent?  No, I haven’t.  Bradley Headstone’s hate and passion went so far, that no remorse, no grief lingered behind.  In the end, his conscience was dead, he was lost, he could not be brought back.  In this I experienced something else: the awful sense of hopelessness. I felt that there was no hope for him, absolutely none.  People might try to bring him back out of this, but nothing could ever heal him.  He was hopelessly gone, and no amount of hope could bring him back.  Is this what the mind of someone God-forsaken looks like?

I know that in C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity he talks about how man always has a sense of right and wrong… It’s like the moral code, underneath everything there’s a conscience, something that tells right from wrong and plagues you if you do the wrong thing.  But Bradley Headstone had none of that.  I’ve always wondered, if Lewis’ theory was correct, where did that leave the Indians, or the cannibals, who felt absolutely no remorse at killing/eating the people that came their way?  Wasn’t that wrong?  Why didn’t they feel guilty? But who can tell? I’ve never been an Indian, and I’ve never been a murderer.

Who was right? Dickens, or Lewis? I’m not saying I believe one or the other, but Dickens presents a dark, lost, forsaken side.  It’s morbid, it’s horrific, and it’s evil.  Lewis present a side that’s “good but gone a bit wrong, with the ability to do right.”  But it seemed as though Bradley Headstone couldn’t do right he was so lost beyond healing.

What about the people today?  Mothers are horrified when their children come home from school or from anywhere and start swearing.  If they aren’t Christians, or “religious,” why are they horrified?  Because it’s not appropriate to swear? Well, why not?  It presents a bad view of your family? Well, why? WHY?  It eventually gets back to the fact that long, long ago, Christ set an example for use.  God set down the rules.  We aren’t supposed to take His name in vain, we are supposed to treat everybody with respect, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth,” etc.  That’s where it originated, and it’s been passed down through the years, but the reason has become antiquated, and lost.  Some people swear and “do all the bad things” without feeling guilty in the least. It’s natural to them. But a Christian would be horrified, wouldn’t he/she?

I’ve never been a murderer, I’ve never been an Indian, I’ve never been a “swearer.”  I cannot tell you if there is a conscience in any one of them, I can’t tell you whether Dickens or Lewis was right.  I would lean towards Dickens, because I do believe that God has forsaken some.  The “wicked” to be exact.  And if there is any such thing as a God-forsaken mind, then I think Dickens represented it in a horrifyingly true nature.

For the record, Bradley Headstone, in the end of the book, wraps his arms around a man he tried to blame the murder on, and jumps into the river.  They both drown.  This is after he hears of the marriage of Lizzie and Eugene, and Eugene’s decided progress in health.

8 thoughts on “Dickens: The Mind of A Murderer

  1. Great post, Ruby! Oh *cringes*…I hate Bradley Headstone. YUCK!! (I’m thinking especially of him in the movie of Our Mutual Friend…have you watched the movie?) I love the story all together, but Headstone is just….creepy. yuck. the whole nine yards. :)
    But anyway, you really made me think while I was reading this post!
    One more thing—I’m glad you’ve never murdered anybody. :P “I would hate to see you hung for murder.” (Sense and Sensibility 2008) :D

    Looking forward to a new post!! I love reading your posts!! :)


    • Bethany-
      Thank you. :) Our Mutual Friend is my favorite Dickens book so far—I’m glad there’s someone else I know who’s read it! I did watch (parts of) the movie… It’s not much to my credit, but I only watched the parts I wanted to. I get bad like that. The only reason I did it, though, was because I was watching it on youtube and the quality was bad.
      Thanks for your comments, Bethany, I really appreciate them!

  2. If you think Dickens and Lewis had different versions of murder and guilt, consider Texas and Tennessee. Texas will put people on death row even though they are considered severely mentally retarded, while Tennessee will not hold the mentally retarded punishable for crimes. Tennessee law believes it would be inappropiate to punish one who is incapable of knowing their guilt. While Texas law sees guilt as part of the crime and it doesn’t matter if the person knows guilt. Ironically, and probably the reason Tennessee is more lenient, if you have ever seen the picture of the hanging elephant, that was taken in Erwin, Tennessee.

  3. Good review! I LOVE “Our Mutual Friend”!! (I prefer the John and Bella story though to Lizzie’s, though I like that storyline too.)

    Anyway, I think both Dickens and Lewis were right. I believe all men are born with conscience and a sense of right and wrong, but some people, by continuing to ignore it and going their own way, end up with a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) so that they cannot listen to it anymore and don’t feel remorse after doing a great evil. Like Bradley Headstone.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts! I love how you think deeply about and explore certain aspects of the books. I’m not too good at that in my writing yet… :-S Have you taken specific courses in writing?

    • Thank you for your insights, Melanie! I ALWAYS appreciate feedback like this—something that adds to what I’ve said, or finishes something I’ve left unsaid.
      It seems liked that’s exactly what happened with Bradley Headstone. Towards the beginning of his entrance, he seemed quite capable of seeing right from wrong and acting accordingly. But as soon as he let the passion and jealousy consume him, his conscience became warped, and ceased to be a conscience.
      I’ve never (sadly) taken any courses in writing. We’ve bought a few, but didn’t like what they looked like at all, and we just haven’t gotten around to doing it. I imagine you’ll see great improvement when I do take some! :)
      Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate them!

  4. Hey! I came over from a link from The Dashwood Sisters. Some good thoughts here.

    As evil as Bradley is and as much as I detest him and his actions, at the same time I can’t help but pity him a bit. Dickens gives us a little glimpse into his past and events that helped shape him into what he was – it’s implied that he’d been told and had come to believe that he was worth absolutely nothing to anyone – I don’t think he was every really loved. So I think his anger toward Eugene had as much to do with Eugene addressing him as simply Schoolmaster and “that’s right, I do not think of you” as it did with his jealousy over Eugene’s love for Lizzie. I get the impression that Bradley viewed Lizzie as a prize or trophy and that if he succeeded in obtaining her, it would prove his worth to himself and others. When he failed, he simply couldn’t handle it. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, you know?

    Anyway, he’s definitely an interesting character.

  5. Lindsey,
    I feel sorry for Headstone too. Throughout the middle of the movie, my sisters and I all gag at how creepy he is (especially when he smashes his hand on the tombstone… shudders) and he really turns out quite evil but I almost cry when he kills himself, because he didn’t have to turn out that way, and he was so miserable. I too think that Eugene’s unkindness had a lot to do with his going so wrong too (though ultimately it was his own choice). I wonder how he would have turned out otherwise.

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