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.
Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy ThemeTracker
Understanding, Innocence, and Sympathy Quotes in Jasper Jones
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.