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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Beauty's Wholeness, Or, Why We Care Who Killed Edwin Drood

Inspired by the success of his friend Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens set out toward the end of his life to write a mystery. He called it, aptly enough, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and for nearly 150 years it has exercised a fascination over readers—principally because it is a mystery without a solution. Dickens died on June 9, 1870 before he could complete his tale, and ever since readers have wondered just who killed Edwin Drood. In fact, on the 7th of January 1914 in London, G.K. Chesterton, along with his brother Cecil and others, staged a mock trial in which a character from the novel, John Jasper, was put on trial for the murder of Edwin Drood (George Bernard Shaw was foreman of a jury that included, among many others, Hilaire Belloc).

I began thinking of Edwin Drood as I pondered Chapter V of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, the focus of our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies. Chapter V is devoted to theme of Art and Beauty, and in the chapter Maritain follows St. Thomas Aquinas in naming three “conditions,” or what we might call “features,” of beauty: integrity or wholeness, proportion, and clarity or radiance. Over the next three days I would like to reflect briefly on each of these three features—beginning with integrity or wholeness.

Maritain defines wholeness as the pleasure that the intellect takes in the fullness of Being (p. 24*). This is precise but abstract. Keep in mind that the experience of beauty is an experience of delight in the intellect’s grasp of the form, the intelligible structure or design, of a thing. What we are doing now is getting more specific about what in the design of a beautiful thing the intellect is finding joy in.

Let’s bring the abstractness of wholeness closer to the ground by thinking of the wholeness of a particular work of art—let’s say a novel, even better, a murder mystery. According to Maritain and St. Thomas, no murder mystery would have a chance of being beautiful if it did not possess fullness of Being. Or we might say, if it didn’t come to its perfect realization. Now Edwin Drood cannot possibly possess wholeness, for the obvious fact that it is unfinished. On p. 27 of Art and Scholasticism Maritian speaks of the wholeness of the Venus de Milo, but I don’t believe wholeness can be said, simply speaking, of a broken statue, or an unfinished murder mystery. This is not to deny that some beauty exists in the unfinished or broken work—only that its beauty is, well, unfinished or broken. Wholeness, again, refers to the perfect realization of the form or design of the work.

So what, when it comes to a murder mystery, is required for wholeness? The work must be finished, first of all, meaning not just that the artist lived long enough to write, “The End,” but that the work possesses the basic narrative structure of beginning, middle and end: the set-up in Act I leading to the complications of Act II in turn leading to the fingering of the murderer in Act III. At the end of such a narrative, the sense that a story has been fully told, our satisfaction that the murderer has been brought to justice, is a sign that the work is whole. In this light, it is interesting to note that since Dickens's death, many authors have set about trying to complete Edwin Drood.

The full realization of the design of a murder mystery is achieved in various other ways, such as in the characterization, or the use of symbolism. Wholeness also comes into play in the way in which the mystery is resolved. One of David Mamet’s rules for writing is, “Embed the end in the beginning.” When the rule is applied to a murder mystery, we feel that wonderful frisson at the climax when we realize the essential clue was in front of us the whole time—giving us a wonderful sense of integrity of the work (the extreme case: Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”).

But whether abiding by Mamet’s rule or not, the good mystery writer knows that the integrity of the work can only be achieved by not making the solution to the mystery ad hoc. The key evidence must not descend like a deus ex machina, but must have been put before the reader along the way. The murderer in a murder mystery can cheat all he wants. But the mystery writer must be scrupulously fair with his readers. 

Yet in speaking of wholeness and the laying of clues, the difficulty presents itself of distinguishing wholeness and the second feature of beauty, proportion—which has to do with the ordering of the parts of a work. But tomorrow I will try to distinguish between these two features of beauty—and thus probe deeper into its mystery.

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).


  1. If art imitates life, remeber that the events we experience in life often have no clear, neatly wrapped-up ending. The essentially human search for wholeness and truth is itself a beautiful thing, and this search is captured in works of literature that seem tantalizingly unfinished or leave certain ambiguities with which the reader will struggle.

  2. To God, and to us in the end, all life and every life will have a "clear, neatly wrapped-up ending." It is only then that we realize that every life is a work of art by the Divine Artist.

  3. You're perfectly right, Anonymous, to remind us that the sense of order in our life's narrative is (in one sense of "relative") relative to the observer. For we ourselves, sometimes, fail to perceive how our life is heading in any coherent way toward wholeness, even though for others, and above all for God, it may be abundantly clear. Many works of literature, as you say, try to capture the ambiguity of our search for wholeness. Much modern poetry does so. Modern literature in general. The concrete example that soonest pops to mind is actually Sophia Coppola's film, LOST IN TRANSLATION--one of the most ambiguous endings in cinematic history. But I think it's significant that the majority of stories follow a pattern in which there is clear-cut resolution at the end, perhaps not to neatly tied up in a bow as in the classical detective story, but with a clear resolution nonetheless. What does this say about storyteller and the desires of the human heart--especially our desire for wholeness in God?