Corrigan, the small town in which Jasper Jones is set, is obsessed with appearances. The white townspeople judge non-white people like Jasper Jones and Jeffrey Lu based entirely on their appearances, and their racist preconceptions about how Asian or “half-caste” people should behave. More generally, the townspeople talk constantly about people’s appearances. Any hint of impropriety or oddness is immediately the subject of gossip.
Because Corrigan places so much stock in gossip and appearances, all the townspeople “protect” themselves by keeping secrets in order to hide any evidence that might make them seem different or expose them to the ridicule or condemnation from the larger community. In the Bucktin family alone, Wesley Bucktin secretly writes a novel, while Charlie conceals his own literary projects from his father and others. Much more seriously, Charlie’s mother Ruth Bucktin is also involved in a secret affair with another man.
At the beginning of the novel, Charlie despises secrets and Corrigan’s emphasis on appearances. Though he loves his father, he wishes his father would tell him about the novel he’s writing. Working with his friend Jasper Jones, Charlie wants to find whoever killed Laura and bring them to justice. In this way, Charlie will expose the secret of Laura’s disappearance, and exonerate Jasper of all guilt—for as Jasper has previously pointed out, unless they can find the real killer, everyone will blame Jasper for the crime, again judging him on his appearance of untrustworthiness. Charlie hates that he has to keep his knowledge of Laura’s disappearance a secret. Dozens of times, he wishes he could tell Eliza or Wesley what he knows. Because he can’t share his secret, he feels a tremendous sense of anxiety.
When Jasper and Charlie learn more about Laura and her death, it becomes clearer and clearer that the truth will not automatically clear Jasper from all culpability. Because Laura hanged herself after looking for Jasper and failing to find him, the townspeople will blame Jasper for Laura’s death. It is for this reason that Eliza, Charlie, and Jasper decide to keep the circumstances of Laura’s death—including the rape and abuse she endured from her father—a secret.
The ultimate tragedy of Jasper Jones is that the truth doesn’t always triumph. Because the world is a complicated, imperfect place, secrets need to be kept and information needs to be withheld to give the appearance of normality. This “compromise” on truth can have dire results. Although Eliza agrees to keep her knowledge of her father to herself, she cannot stand to let him get away with raping his own daughter. Thus, she burns down her house with her father inside.
Appearances and Secrets ThemeTracker
Appearances and Secrets Quotes in Jasper Jones
“Bloody hell. Listen, Charlie, we can’t tell anyone. No way. Specially the police. Because they are gonna say it was me. Straight up. Understand?”
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.
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.