As Charlie notes, "For some folks, it's easier to condemn another man than have the strength to right your wrongs" (213). Every society has its scapegoat, to whom they transfer their collective guilt in order to unload their own culpability. Jasper Jones becomes the perfect scapegoat, as he represents the stereotypical “bad boy.” But Jasper himself is not innocent in this regard, creating a scapegoat for himself in the person of Mad Jack. Likewise, Jeffrey and his family are also scapegoated and alienated in Corrigan due to their Vietnamese heritage. The novel is set in the hight of the Vietnam war. Mrs. Lu is attacked by another member of the community, who blames her for the death of her son who died in the war. Mr. Lu is also attacked and called racial slurs by Corrigan townspeople. This seeming need for scapegoats underlines one of Jasper Jones' main themes: the problem of culpability and how individuals and society bear blame.
When Jasper takes him to see Laura's body at the beginning of the novel, Charlie himself has to deal with this question. He is terrified of the situation he has found himself in, but feels irrevocably involved once he has helped Jasper throw Laura's body into the dam. He wonders about whether one can be closer or further away from a wrong, and how that affects culpability. Discussing the Vietnam War, he says it's hard to know who to blame since it is so far away, and "the less you know, the further away you are, the easier it is to shrug and tut and move on" (126). Furthermore, Jasper and Eliza both feel culpable for Laura's death, although the only two people who had a hand in the death were Laura and Mr. Wishart. Their love for Laura and proximity to her situation causes them to feel as though they could have saved her from her eventual fate.
The theme of courage is central to Jasper Jones, and the book as a whole can be framed as the story of how Charlie learns to be courageous. In many ways, Jasper is a model of courageous behavior for Charlie. When the boys hang out for the first time, Jasper tells Charlie: "You got to get brave" (23). Charlie adopts this phrase and repeats it to himself many times throughout the novel, as when he sits still even though he is terrified of the spider that is on him, and when he lies to his parents about where he has been all night. What Charlie perceives in himself as a cowardly nature causes him a lot of self-hatred, and he gets angry at himself when he is too timid to stand up for either Eliza or Jeffery when they are targeted by neighborhood bullies. At the end of the novel, Charlie undergoes two key realizations. The first is that Jasper Jones gets just as afraid as anyone else and that his bravery is nothing more than a poker face. The second is that he, too, can wear this poker face, and he does when he retrieves five bug-infested peaches from Jack Lionel's front yard.
The Law and Justice
Charlie puts his faith in the law as the means of arriving at justice. The much wiser Jasper—no stranger to viewing things through a more sophisticated prism of morality—understands that the legal system does not always ensure that justice is served; especially when arriving at justice requires that law enforcement put faith in the figure chosen as the scapegoat by society. Once local policemen question Jasper without any proof, and beat him over the course of a weekend, Charlie begins to wisen up to the true nature of the police. And although Charlie expects that legal remedy will be found and Laura's killer will be punished, he comes to realize that this is not always a possibility.
Similarly, Eliza commits arson at the end of the novel in retribution for her father's crimes against Laura. As the events are portrayed through Charlie's point of view, when her actions are framed in a positive light—despite the fact that she is breaking the law—we see the change in Charlie's perspective about the relation between law and justice. On the other side, the audience feels a sense of justice in seeing her father being punished, who previously, despite being perceived as an "upstanding" member of society, is a vile person who raped and abused his own daughter and unfairly targeted Jasper.
Discovery and Truth
The initial discovery of Laura Wishart's body is the catalyst for the events of the novel. This revelation has a profound impact on Charlie and changes his outlook on the world for the worse: he feels "like I’m underwater. Deaf and drowning" (9). Once Charlie learns what really happened on the night of Laura’s murder, he still feels equally distressed, believing that if he had not followed Jasper Jones, he “would have stayed safe in my room…None the wiser. Much the lighter. I’d never have known this awful brick in my stomach" (268).
Charlie also learns the truth about his mother Ruth's affair. Throughout the novel, Ruth is a domineering and vindictive figure, however, the revealed truth forces their relationship to change: Charlie now has power over her, and their roles switch. Jasper discovers the truth of his connection to Mad Jack. It is revealed that Mad Jack is really Jasper's grandfather, which forces him to reassess his previous attitudes towards both Jack and his mother, who he never knew. Charlie learns about his father's book. The Wishart family learns how Laura died.
But there are also other moments in the novel in which the truth doesn't come to light. Charlie never tells Jeffery about what occurred between him and Jasper, and so he doesn't know that Mad Jack isn't dangerous once the other boy attempts to retrieve peaches from his lawn. And although Eliza tells her mother what happened to Laura on the night she died, her mother decides to keep Laura's abuse at the hands of her father a secret, so no one else in the town ever learns the truth about Laura's disappearance.
Trust and Honesty
Trust is an important element in the relationships in Charlie's life. Although he comes to understand that Jasper was so desperate that he would have confided in anyone the night he found Laura's dead body, at the beginning of the novel Charlie is made to believe that he uniquely held Jasper's trust. Some part of Charlie's nature makes Jasper believe that he could trust him. Charlie believes it is the fact that he reads so much, as it makes him seem open-minded. He wonders if he is the only person in Corrigan who would have trusted Jasper as he did on that first night, and, in truth, he maintains a blind trust in Jasper throughout the summer. This is due, in part, to Jasper's honest nature.
Trust is also a component of Charlie's relationship with his parents. He threatens their trust in him as a good, untroublesome kid when he persists in sneaking out of the house despite the curfew. He is able to earn back this trust from his father when his father sees him kissing Eliza at the cricket game, but his relationship with his mother never recovers. At the end of the novel, Charlie learns he can't trust his mother when he finds her cheating on his father, and the power dynamic in their relationship shifts. Eliza and Charlie must also learn to trust each other, as each has information that the other needs to know, but they don't share it with each other for a long time. Eliza is worried she is culpable for her sister's death, and Charlie is worried that Eliza will hate him for his involvement in the hiding of her body. Once they share these truths with each other, they are able to trust each other and build a relationship.
Loss of Innocence
Jasper Jones is fundamentally a coming-of-age story, and in it, we see the main characters shed their child-like innocence and wisen up to the darker realities of life. We see Charlie learn how to smoke and drink with Jasper's influence. Although at the beginning he never accepts the other boy's cigarettes, by the end of the novel he accepts one and takes a long drag. He also drinks with Jasper on the night that they dispose of Laura's body, and although he hates it, the more times he repeats this action the more he begins to realize why people choose to drunk. The knowledge of Laura's death has stolen something vital from both Charlie ("The night has pick-pocketed me of precious things that I can't ever get back" (32)) and Jasper ("It's like somethin's bin ripped right out of me" (34)).
And after learning of Laura's death, Charlie is more rebellious than ever. He resists his parent's efforts to protect him, curses at his mother for the first time and becomes more and more disillusioned about their characters. He practices his lying skills and can convincingly lie to the police the second time he is caught sneaking out, even though he considered himself to be a poor liar before. After An Lu is attacked, Charlie's father serves him a glass of port, as if to signify that seeing his neighbor brutalized is a step toward adulthood. This loss of innocence also brings about positive change in Charlie. He learns how to manage his mother, acting diplomatically instead of emotionally in response to her demands. He also learns to stand up for his friends, particularly Jeffery Lu, against bullies. He learns not to trust Corrigan's rumor mill, and eventually is able to use it to his own advantage.
Power, especially the power that children have over the adults in their lives, is key. Charlie often feels powerless in his relationship with his mother, who exerts her influence over her son whenever possible. He is frustrated by the fact that she always wins whatever altercation the two find themselves in. This makes him resent her. At the end of the novel, when Charlie sees his mother for who she is, he is able to gain some power over her. He is able to finally claim his independence.
The police have a power over Corrigan that is similar to the power that Charlie's mother has over him. When they collude with town officials in order to commit crimes, like the extrajudicial apprehension of Jasper, and get away with it, they transgress their appointed roles in society. Another figure who violates their legitimate role is Mr. Wishart, who uses his role as city counselor to participate in Jasper's beating. He also uses his power in order to hide his alcoholism and the terror happening inside his own home. Mr. Wishart abuses his daughter, and by doing so violates one of the most sacred relationships known to humans. This is what eventually kills Laura. At the end of the novel, Eliza regains power over her father by setting their home on fire.
Jasper Jones Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Jasper Jones is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.