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Story so far

Neville Landless, a suspect in the disappearance of Edwin Drood, is about to be visited for the first time in his London lodgings by Mr Crisparkle, the supervisor of his recent education.

Extract

‘An air of retreat and solitude hung about the rooms, and about their inhabitant. He was much worn, and so were they. Their sloping ceilings, cumbrous rusty locks and grates, and heavy wooden bins and beams, lowly mouldering withal, had a prisonous look, and he had the haggard face of a prisoner. Yet the sunlight shone in at the ugly garret window, which had a penthouse to itself thrust out among the tiles; and on the cracked and smoke-blackened parapet beyond, some of the deluded sparrows of the place rheumatically hopped, like little feathered cripples who had left their crutches in their nests; and there was a play of living leaves at hand that changed the air, and made an imperfect sort of music in it that would have been melody in the country.’

 Commentary

 Just four sentences are enough for Dickens to set up a vivid city scene in his theatrical writing style. He uses careful punctuation to guide the reader smoothly through his writing, whether the reader is reading aloud or quietly alone, and this is apparent in the extract: the pauses are all printed for the reader to follow.

Pairs of words: ‘locks and grates’ and the alliteration in ‘bins and beams’ emphasise the starkness of the rooms’ surroundings. Dickens employs the unusual word ‘prisonous’ to gain our attention and to compare the look of the ‘worn’ rooms with Neville’s ‘haggard face.’ But it is the fourth sentence of 82 words that literally illuminates this section of the narrative.

Dickens sheds light on the gloomy scene with the sun shining in at the ‘ugly garret window,’ which is treated to its own whimsical description of having ‘a penthouse to itself thrust out among the tiles.’ From those few words, the reader is helped to paint a mental picture of the rooms. 

We are then taken to the view from the window. First is the predictable ‘cracked and smoke-blackened parapet,’ but then comes the unexpected description of the ‘deluded’ sparrows that ‘rheumatically hopped’, followed by the arresting simile ‘like little feathered cripples’ without their crutches. Through this description, Dickens makes us see the out-of-place city sparrows as an extension of the prison-like rooms and their restricted occupant.

The narrative’s final sentence reaches a climax with the poetic alliteration of ‘living leaves’ and their ‘imperfect sort of music’, with the final emphasis that this sound ‘would have been melody in the country’. This climax serves to reinforce the point of the whole narrative section: Neville is now both physically and mentally removed from the countryside, confined indoors in the city and awaiting his fate.

April 2022