Jasper Jones

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Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fear Theme Icon
Racism and Scapegoating Theme Icon
Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy Theme Icon
Appearances and Secrets Theme Icon
Escape, Guilt, and Writing Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Jasper Jones, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy Theme Icon

As Charlie is exposed to murder, racism, and other crimes, he struggles to understand the wrongdoers’ motives, with mixed success. Traumatized and deeply confused by the sight Laura’s dead body, Charlie goes to the library to research the other crimes that have taken place in his town. There, he discovers a string of grisly murders. In one case, the murderer was a lonely man named Cooke who had been bullied for most of his life. In another, the murderer killed a teenaged girl, and enlisted the help of other children to do so. Charlie’s research suggests many complicated and disturbing questions: How can it be that seemingly normal people are capable of heinous crimes? Should murderers be treated with more sympathy because they’ve experienced cruelty and bullying of their own? Can people ever truly apologize for their crimes?

At the core of Charlie’s conflict is his desire to understand and sympathize with people unlike himself. While he is not always willing to sympathize with criminals, his instinct is always to learn more, in an effort to understand others’ motives. One sees this same instinct in the way Charlie thinks about Jasper Jones. He tries to see the world from Jasper’s point of view—as Atticus Finch, the hero of Charlie’s favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, would put it, he tries “climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Sometimes, Charlie’s efforts to understand others are successful. When he and Jasper go to confront “Mad” Jack Lionel, they learn that Jack accidentally killed Rosie Jones, a woman Jack loved dearly, and that Jack is now just a lonely and harmless old man. Here Charlie’s desire to learn more results in his sympathy for a person he’d previously regarded as a dangerous criminal. At other times, however, it’s unclear how deeply Charlie understands others’ motives for wrongdoing. At the end of the novel, for instance, Charlie is unable to relate to Eliza’s crime, however justified it might be—tormented by her guilt and hatred for her abusive father, she sets fire to her own house, with her father still inside it.

Ultimately, Charlie acknowledges that there are some actions he’ll never understand. Cooke’s murders, like Eliza’s arson, are foreign to him, because he simply can’t “walk around” in Cooke’s skin and see things from his point of view. This helps to explain why Silvey’s book is named after Jasper Jones, rather than Charlie Bucktin or Eliza Wishart (characters who are just as important to the plot of the novel). Jasper is a friend to Charlie, but he’s also a mystery—the racism and neglect that Jasper experiences every day are utterly foreign to Charlie. Charlie must learn how to empathize with other people—Jasper included—while also admitting that there are certain aspects of people’s lives and personalities that he’ll never understand.

As the novel ends, it seems that this realization helps Charlie reach some kind of conclusion about how to relate to wrongdoers like Cooke and Eliza. Charlie bends toward Eliza’s ear and whispers “the perfect words.” Silvey never tells us what these words are. Perhaps this is his way of suggesting that there is no “correct” answer to the questions Charlie has posed in the novel. Each reader must decide for himself how to judge Eliza, Cooke, and those who commit crimes in general.

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Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy appears in each chapter of Jasper Jones. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy Quotes in Jasper Jones

Below you will find the important quotes in Jasper Jones related to the theme of Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I wish I could tell Jeffrey everything. I really do. I wonder what it is about holding in a secret that hurts so much. I mean, telling Jeffrey doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t take anything back. It’s just information. It doesn’t dredge that poor girl from the depths of the dam, doesn’t breathe her back to life. So why do I feel like I need to blurt it all out?

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jeffrey Lu, Laura Wishart
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie--who's now an accomplice to Jasper, having hidden a dead body at the bottom of a lake--contemplates spilling his secrets to his best friend Jeffrey Lu. Although Charlie and Jeffrey are close friends, Charlie knows that he can't share his secret with anyone--he swore an oath to Jasper to keep silent about the previous night.

Charlie's behavior during this scene suggests a strong need to tell someone about his traumatic experiences with Laura's dead body. By telling someone about his trauma, Charlie hopes to lessen the burden of remembering Laura. In a sense, Charlie is trying to lessen the burden by writing the book we're reading. In other words, Jasper Johns represents Charlie's attempt make sense of his frightening, complex experiences.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

How was it that Gertrude Baniszewski could seduce so many children into committing these acts? How could they turn up, day after day, to do the unspeakable? And how could they return home of an evening, no words of shame or remorse tumbling out of their mouths? What did Sylvia Likens do to deserve this? Or was it just shit luck and chance?

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Sylvia Likens, Gertrude Baniszewski
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charlie becomes increasingly involved in Laura Wishart’s disappearance (first lying about it, then actually helping Jasper get rid of her body), he starts to wonder what could lead a human being to hurt a child. Being a bookish, nerdy teenager in a pre-Internet age, Charlie goes to the library and does some research on the subject. During the course of his research, he comes across a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski, who tortured and murdered a child (Sylvia Likens) for no discernible reason, and enlisted her own children to help her. Appalled by what he reads, Charlie tries to grasp what could have led Gertrude to act the way she did.

In the first place, it’s important to notice that Charlie is trying to understand Gertrude. While most of the people in Charlie’s community don’t offer any sympathy for the criminals, or people they perceive to be criminals (like Jasper), Charlie genuinely wants to understand people who are unlike him. This certainly doesn’t mean that Charlie wants to forgive Gertrude for her actions—but he’s too intelligent and open-minded to accept that Gertrude is purely “evil” and normal people are “good.” Indeed, the facts of Gertrude’s case practically prove that there are no normal people: Gertrude was able to convince other children to hurt her victim—innocent, everyday people were capable of committing astounding acts of cruelty, and other "normal" people ignored the crimes until it was too late. Charlie’s investigation may shed some light on the actions of his neighbors—average Australian people who nonetheless greet Vietnamese immigrants with violence and bullying.

I think about Eliza’s manner. So dry and centered. So matter-of-fact amid the panic. I watch her climbing the garden steps to their front door, holding her weeping mother. Someone is there to meet them with an outstretched hand and a look of concern. I shrink behind the branches. And then, swift as a knife, it occurs to me. A rash of sparks coats my skin. My heart almost leaps from my chest, and my brick slides.

Eliza Wishart knows something.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Eliza Wishart, Mrs. Wishart
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Charlie thinks about Eliza Wishart. Eliza is the sister of Laura—the young woman whose body Jasper and Charlie found at the beginning of the novel. Charlie has a massive crush on Eliza, and wants to tell her all that he knows about Eliza’s sister. He struggles to withhold his secret from Eliza, remembering the promise he made Jasper to say nothing. As Charlie thinks about keeping his secret from Eliza, he comes to the surprising realization that Eliza is also keeping secrets from him. Her calm, complacent manner parallels Charlie’s own—both teenagers are concealing a big, terrible secret.

The fact that Charlie and Eliza have so much in common—they both seem to be wracked by a guilty conscience—foreshadows the romance that will arise between them. More to the point, though, the passage suggests Charlie’s struggle to understand people who are—he believes—unlike him. Eliza Wishart seems completely different from Charlie in every way—she’s pretty, popular, well-spoken, etc. Thus, it’s a surprise for Charlie when he comes to realize, here, that he and Eliza aren’t so different after all.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Strangely, of all the horrible things I’ve encountered and considered recently, dropping a bomb seems to be the least violent among them, even though it’s clearly the worst. But there’s no evil mug shot, no bloody globe. It’s hard to figure out who to blame. There’s something clean about all that distance. Maybe the further away you are, the less you have to care, the less you’re responsible. But that seems wrong to me. It should be in the news. It’s wrong that they died. But if they weren’t Jeffrey’s family, would I care so much? That’s hard. Probably not, I guess. I mean, if you took every bad event in the world to heart, you’d be a horrible mess.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jeffrey Lu, Mrs. Lu, An Lu
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Charlie thinks about the news he's just heard: his friend Jeffrey Lu's uncle and aunt were killed in a bombing in the Vietnam War. Charlie feels horrible, but his sympathy is mostly directed at Jeffrey, his best friend. Charlie is less concerned by the death of Jeffrey's relatives than he is by the death of Laura Wishart: one girl's death seems to outweigh an entire village's destruction.

As Charlie's thought process suggests, there's a limit to the amount of compassion and understand one can feel for other people. Nobody can muster sympathy for everyone else--one must choose which people to feel sympathy for. Proximity and similarity usually determine how much sympathy one feels--i.e., Charlie feels sorriest for the people he knows, or for close friends and relatives of the people he knows (there's also often a subconscious racial or nationalistic aspect to this kind of empathy as well).

Charlie's thoughts also imply that there's a limit to the amount of understanding he'll be able to muster for criminals like Gertrude Baniszewki. Even if it's possible, in an abstract sense, for Charlie to sympathize with this murderer, he simply doesn't have the moral strength to understand and sympathize with all similar people--if he tried to do so, he'd be a "horrible mess."

Chapter 5 Quotes

Jasper Jones has lost his girl, maybe his best friend, too. His only friend. It seems so infinitely sad to me, I can’t even imagine. To lose someone so close, someone he had his hopes pinned on. Someone he was going to escape with, start anew. And to see her, right there, as she was. Right where I’m sitting. What a horrible series of events this has been. But Jasper Jones has to keep that poker face. He has to throw that cloak over his heart. I wonder how much of Jasper’s life is spent pretending his doesn’t give a shit.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jasper Jones, Laura Wishart
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie tries to understand what his friend Jasper is going through. Jasper's girlfriend, Laura, has died recently; while a young woman's death would be sad under any circumstances, it's particularly moving since Jasper has few friends--his status as an outsider and  a scapegoat in his community means that he's forced to hold his friends especially dear.

Charlie also realizes that Jasper has to hide his emotions: his sadness, his loneliness, and especially his fear. Unlike Charlie, Jasper denies that he's afraid of anything; a lifetime of bullying and scapegoating has trained him to put on a tough face whenever anything frightening happens to him.

I had to make things work when I could. Soon as you can walk and talk, you start makin your own luck. And I don’t need some spirit in the sky to help me do that. I can do it on my own. But, see, that’s what I reckon, Charlie. It’s that part inside me that’s stronger and harder than anything else. And I reckon prayer is just trustin in it, havin faith in it, just askin meself to be tough. And that’s all you can do.

Related Characters: Jasper Jones (speaker), Charlie Bucktin
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jasper tells Charlie about the personal "religion" to which he subscribes. Jasper claims not to believe in any organized faith--he doesn't think there's a god, a heaven, or anything of the kind. Instead, Jasper subscribes to the belief that he is capable of anything: he believes in his own "spirit" of hope and inner strength. Jasper even suggests that all forms of religion are just versions of his own belief in himself; when a Christian, for example, prays to God for help, he's really praying that he'll find the spirit and the courage to help himself.

Jasper's trust in his own abilities parallels Charlie's quest to find bravery and strength through the act of writing. Just as Jasper prays to his spirit in times of uncertainty, so does Charlie turn to writing and self-expression when he's frustrated. Charlie tries to use words to inspire himself to be braver than he thinks possible--to summon the same strength that Jasper embodies.

Chapter 7 Quotes

I don’t know who this man is, but he didn’t kill anybody. I’ve done everything wrong. Mad Jack Lionel isn’t a criminal. He’s probably not even mad. He’s just old and sad and poor and lonely.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Mad Jack Lionel
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Jasper and Charlie go to confront "Mad" Jack Lionel, a grumpy old man, rumored to be a killer, who lives in the town. Jasper is confident that Jack murdered Laura Wishart--he thinks that by talking to Jack face-to-face, he'll be able to convince Jack to confess, clearing his own name in the process.

When Jasper and Charlie visit Jack, however, it quickly becomes clear that Jack 1) didn't kill Laura, and 2) isn't remotely as dangerous as he's rumored to be. Jack's reputation as a crazy, dangerous man is just another example of the townspeople's need for a scapegoat. Just as Charlie's neighbors bully Jeffrey and blame Jasper for everything, so too do they fear Jack. And Jasper, too eager to protect himself from being scapegoated by racist police officers, has accidentally been scapegoating Jack himself.

Here, Charlie begins to realize that Jasper isn't always the clever, confident leader he's pretended to be: on the contrary, he's just a lonely, frightened kid, way out of his depth. Charlie, on the other hand, discovers new levels of bravery and empathy here. Because he tries to understand and sympathize with other people, he has an easier time than Jasper realizing that Jack isn't Laura's murderer, and in fact isn't frightening at all.

We’d gone to confront Mad Jack Lionel about murdering Laura Wishart only to find that he was driving the car that killed Jasper’s mother. The world isn’t right. It’s small and it’s nasty and it’s lousy with sadness. Under every rock, hidden in every closet, shaken from every tree, it seems there’s something horrible I don’t want to see. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why this town is so content to face in on itself, to keep everything so settled and smooth and serene. And at the moment, I can’t say as I blame them.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jasper Jones, Mad Jack Lionel, Laura Wishart, Rosie Jones
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie and Jasper have just visited Jack, hoping to convince him to confess to Laura Wishart's murder. Instead, they wind up discovering that Jack is Jasper's own grandfather. Jack had always called out at Jasper whenever he saw him, because he feels responsible for the death of Jasper's mother (Jack was driving the car when Jasper's mother was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis).

Thinking back on everything he's just learned, Charlie reaches some bitter conclusions: life is a mess; the world is meaningless, etc. Charlie even comes to sympathize with his townspeople--the same people who beat up his best friend's father just a few days before. In the past, Charlie has resented his neighbors for ignoring injustice and pretending that everything is perfect. Now, Charlie can understand his peers' behavior--they're just trying to forget how horrible life can be.

And yet in spite of his understanding, Charlie himself doesn't try to forget about the horrors of life. Instead, he converts these horrors into literature. By writing about Jack, Laura, and Jasper, Charlie finds a more powerful and honest way of coping with tragedy: he deals with his problems head-on instead of repressing them.

I also have a suspicion that Eliza might be less concerned with what’s right, less concerned about uncovering the truth, than she is about ensuring that she and Jasper Jones, and maybe her father, too, are meted out the penance that she feels they each deserve. I think she wants to do something with all this blame and hurt. I think she just wants to tie rocks to all their feet.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jasper Jones, Eliza Wishart, Pete Wishart
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

Jasper and Charlie find out the truth about Laura Wishart's death--she hanged herself after being raped by her own father--by talking to Eliza, Laura's sister. Eliza explains that she witnessed Laura's suicide; instead of intervening, she just watched. Eliza insists that the only "right" thing to do is tell the police about her father's actions, ensuring that he'll be arrested for rape and child molestation. Jasper angrily points out that going to the police will implicate him in Laura's death, since he moved Laura's body. But Charlie realizes that Eliza wants to punish herself and punish Jasper for their roles in Laura's death.

The passage reiterates Charlie's abilities to understand people's reasons for doing strange things, while also making an important point: sometimes, people do the right thing for the wrong reasons. While Eliza's decision to go to the police might seem like the only moral action, it's also clearly motivated by a desire for revenge.

Chapter 9 Quotes

And for some reason I’m reminded of Eric Cooke, haggard and angry, at the moment they finally asked him the question. I just wanted to hurt somebody, he replied. But that was never the whole story, was it? Only he could have known that, and he held his secrets tight in his fist, in his chest. And there’s always more to know. Always. The mystery just gets covered in history. Or is it the other way around. It gets wrested and wrapped in some other riddle. And I think of Jenny Likens, who also watched her sister die, who said nothing until the end, who got brave too late.

Related Characters: Charlie Bucktin (speaker), Jenny Likens, Eric Edgar Cooke
Page Number: 308-309
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Charlie rushes to the Wishart house to find that Eliza has set it on fire, horribly burning her father. Charlie realizes that Eliza, frustrated that she's unable to alert the police to her father's crimes, has taken matters into her own hands with an act of fiery revenge.

As always, Charlie tries to understand things from Eliza's point of view: he tries to understand how someone could commit a crime that, on the outside, might seem barbaric. Charlie has researched many such crimes--for instance, the murders committed by Eric Cooke, a shy, harelipped man. Previously, Charlie wondered if he could sympathize with Cooke's desire to hurt people. But now he realizes that even Cooke's stated motive for murder wasn't the truth--Cooke's motive must have been more complicated, just as Eliza's reasons for burning down her own house are more complicated than any police officer would be able to determine.

Charlie isn't excusing Eliza or Eric Cookie for their actions; rather, he's trying to understand them. While Charlie admits that his understanding will never be perfect, he has one important insight about Eliza. Eliza blames herself for her sister's suicide: by standing back and watching, Eliza allowed her sister to hang herself. Now, Eliza seems to want to be punished for her actions. Watching her sister hang herself, Eliza acted to late--now, she's overcompensating for her passivity, lashing out at the world with a big, horrific crime.