Lesson #277: Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and The Value of Repetition

If you have been learning English for some time, you may have listened to speeches given by politicians, actors, or artists. A common trope (literary or artistic feature) you will notice in such speeches is that of repetition the repetition of some words or phrases for effect.

English literature also has plenty of examples of effective repetition. One of the best writers to illustrate this is Charles Dickens, who was himself an amateur actor. He loved to entertain his audiences with lively performances!

The very last novel that Dickens ever wrote was The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). The very last Dickens novel I ever read (and I have read all his novels) was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 📘

As I look through my notes on this detective story, I notice how often Dickens turned to repetition for dramatic effect. So we will do well to look at

  • how he used it and
  • also how he avoided the pitfalls (the dangers, risks) associated with repetition.

💡 The risk is always that repeated phrases can end up being overused and sound meaningless after a while.

It is a delicate balance!

But on the other hand, if you use them wisely, they can

  • ✔️ add an audible rhythmic current to your writing or speech,
  • ✔️ capture your audience’s attention (whether someone is reading your work or listening to you),
  • ✔️ and emphasise a point like nothing else can!

So I always recommend that English language students learn how repetition is used by English speakers, whether in reading or writing. And as Dickens was great at both written and spoken expressivity (the ability to express himself), let’s turn straight to him!


  1. We will begin by looking at two quotations of Dickens and explaining the story around them.
  2. Then we will finish with my short summary of the novel, which I encourage you to retell in your own words while using an appropriate amount of repetition.

Let’s get started!


📘 ‘I loved you madly; in the distasteful work of the day, in the wakeful misery of the night, girded by sordid realities, or wandering through Paradises and Hells of visions into which I rushed, carrying your image in my arms, I loved you madly.’

― Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Can you spot the repetition here?

This is what I notice:

📘 “I loved you madly …” – repeated twice

📘 “… in the [adjective] [noun] of the day [OR] night” – repeated twice

✏️ Here is something we might not observe in the written text but would certainly notice if spoken aloud: the prepositions are emphasised throughout this passage. So a native English speaker might read it with the following emphases: ‘… girded by sordid realities, or wandering through Paradises and Hells of visions into which I rushed …’

What is their effect?

✍️ They create as a sense of

  • rhythm,
  • force and passion (after all, this is a love declaration),
  • and memorable drama.

✏️ Here is our second example:

📘 ‘How beautiful you are! You are more beautiful in anger than in repose. I don’t ask you for your love; give me yourself and your hatred; give me yourself and that pretty rage; give me yourself and that enchanting scorn; it will be enough for me.’

― Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Can you spot the repetition in this example?

📘 “beautiful …” – repeated twice

📘 “in anger … in repose” – Not quite a repetition but still a parallel comparison

📘 “give me yourself and …” – This is actually repeated three times!

✍️ Like the first example, we see how the repetition here is rhetorical. This means it doesn’t just give information, it creates an effect.

Repeating the word ‘beautiful’ twice helps to emphasise how extraordinarily beautiful the person is.

📘 ‘… in anger … in repose [rest]’ shows a contrast.

And saying 📘 ‘give me yourself …’ three times over shows just how desperate the speaker is to have this particular woman!

Isn’t it wonderful how a certain amount of repetition can produce such effects, such meaning and atmosphere?


Now it is your turn. 🧐

Here is a summary of Dickens’ book The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Please read it carefully and then consider how you can retell it with a certain amount of repetition. (You will probably notice how I have readily used repetition in a few places to create a kind of rhythm and sense of continuity in the story).


The story is set in a small, fictional cathedral town called Cloisterham. Edwin Drood is an orphan who, many years before, had been promised to marry another orphan called Rosa Bud as soon as they would come of age (become adults). However, as young adults they soon realise that, while they are fond of each other, they are not enough in love to actually want to marry each other. They break off the engagement quietly.

Sometime after this, twin orphans called Neville and Helena arrive in the town. They meet Edwin, Rosa, and Edwin’s gentlemanly uncle John Jasper, who is also the choirmaster (or music teacher and conductor of the choir) of the local cathedral. Neville and Helena are both from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Both have lively temperaments, and while Helena quickly becomes a good friend of Rosa, Neville’s fiery personality gets him into a fight with Edwin. Neville gradually falls in love with the beautiful Rosa and feels jealous knowing that Edwin is legally engaged to her. However, neither Edwin nor Rosa have yet told anyone that they do not plan to marry. Rosa is secretly shy and afraid of Edwin’s uncle and guardian (legal protector) John Jasper, though she does not share this with anyone.

At Christmas, Edwin’s hospitable (welcoming, friendly) uncle Jasper invites the young men to dine with him. Edwin and Neville both get a bit drunk and start arguing, so that Edwin leaves the house in a fluster (annoyed, agitated state). Neville leaves afterwards, heading off alone in a different direction. He takes his walking stick and hopes to walk far away to another town on this day, his Christmas holiday.

Unfortunately, a terrible storm sweeps through the land on this same night, Christmas Eve. At some point during the dark night, Edwin Drood disappears.

Serial Cover of Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Image Credit: Chapman & Hall, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He leaves nothing behind him – no note, no clothes or travelling bag, nothing significant at all. Poor Rosa is deeply distressed. She tells her friends that although they were no longer engaged, she cared very much for Edwin as her friend. When John Jasper hears of this, he reacts as a person who is greatly shocked, even more shocked than when he was told by the police that his nephew might have been killed.

Meanwhile, Neville is caught and arrested by the police, who treat him as the main suspect (person who seems to be guilty of a crime) in the disappearance (and possible murder) of Edwin Drood. He denies (refuses to accept) vehemently (with great spirit and energy) that he killed Edwin or had anything to do with his disappearance.

Rosa quietly grieves (feels and shows intense sorrow) for Edwin over many months while she tries to finish her studies at a convent school in the town. One day, she is surprised to find John Jasper standing right beside her in the school garden. He has come to tell her that he loves her deeply and has loved her for a very long time. She becomes frightened and hurries to leave. There is something that upsets her, something more than just knowing he loves her while she doesn’t like him at all. There is something that worries her, although she doesn’t know what it could be …

The novel finishes on this cliffhanging (exciting because we don’t know the end) point in the plot. Charles Dickens sadly died before finishing writing this novel.

Will we ever know who caused Edwin Drood’s mysterious disappearance?


I hope this lesson has encouraged you to 👉 1) pay attention to how native English speakers use repetition in their spoken and written expressions, and 👉 2) how you can start to use some thoughtful repetition in your own expressions as well.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)