(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.