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Cunning and Cleverness
The very first paragraph of the first story in this collection, "A Scandal in Bohemia," includes
the following line: "[Holmes] was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing
machine that the world has seen." Part of Sherlock Holmes's attraction, both for Watson as
his narrator and for the readers, is the guy's superbly disciplined mind. Conan Doyle
emphasizes Holmes's magnificent brain in many ways: he uses Watson's admiration to
reinforce the reader's own. He gives Holmes lots of foils, including incompetent cops and
the criminals he's hunting. And perhaps the best trick of all, Holmes frequently gets to show
off his smarts by wowing his clients with how much he can guess about them just by
looking at their outward appearances.
Questions About Cunning and Cleverness
How does Conan Doyle's portrayal of Inspector Lestrade make Holmes look good in
comparison? Why might the police as a group make a good foil for Holmes as a private
consulting detective?
Where do we see proof of Watson's intelligence? How might Watson's own intelligence
influence our own appreciation of Holmes's brilliance?
One of Holmes's favorite tricks is to give details about the lives of the people around him,
which he discovers just by looking. What effect do these demonstrations of cleverness have
on the folks around Holmes? What reasons might he have for this kind of performance of
his intelligence?
Chew on This
As a detective working outside of official legal channels, Sherlock Holmes has more freedom
than policemen like Inspector Lestrade to dispense justice directly (and as he sees fit) to the
criminals he catches.
By making Watson a strong character in his own right, with both medical and literary
proficiency, Conan Doyle makes Watson's admiration of Holmes's intelligence even more
meaningful to the reader.
First of all, Sherlock Holmes basically has his own cheering section in the form of Dr. John
Watson, a man who has devoted his literary life to following Holmes around and seeing
what he does. That's a lot of admiration right there. But beyond simply giving a plot-level
reason for Watson to keep writing all of these stories, admiration has a formal role in
making the world of Holmes work. As Holmes repeats his feats of reasoning in every story of
this volume, he is constantly working to gain the trust of his clients. On a larger level,
though, he's working to reassure the reader that, within the fictional world of these stories,
Holmes's methods are beyond question. After all, we can only enjoy a mystery story if we
believe its chain of deduction. The admiration and respect Holmes draws from his clients
and his colleagues go a long way to convincing the readers that it's worth appreciating him,
Questions About Admiration
Why do we trust Watson's admiration of Holmes and not Lestrade's sneering? How does
Conan Doyle contain and defuse Lestrade's criticisms of Holmes to make sure our
sympathies stay where they belong?
What kinds of physical signs of admiration do Holmes fans exhibit in these stories?
What role does Watson's admiration play in creating a sense of glamour surrounding
Chew on This
Watson's admiration for Holmes encourages the reader to appreciate the Great Detective
just as much.
The physical surprise that people like Jabez Wilson ("The Red-Headed League") and Violet
Hunter ("The Copper Beeches") show when Holmes performs his usual deductions reminds
the reader of just how extraordinary Holmes is meant to be.
Literature and Writing
Conan Doyle is an intensely self-conscious writer. Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes often
squabble over the value of truth versus fiction and over the ways Watson represents
Holmes's work. As a writer who makes his fictional characters say bad things about fiction,
Conan Doyle brings ironic distance to a whole new level. We also have to wonder if his
personal ambitions to be famous as a serious rather than a popular novelist might have
influenced some of his nastier remarks about commercial fiction and its weak plotlines.
Questions About Literature and Writing
Why is Holmes so insistent that Watson leave human interest out of Holmes's chronicles?
What assumptions does Holmes seem to be making about the relation between emotion
and reason?
Why does Conan Doyle include so many arguments against fiction in his fiction? Does he
distinguish between different kinds of fiction?
How would the Holmes stories be different if they were told from the perspective of a thirdperson narrator instead? What does Watson contribute, as both a narrator and a character,
to these stories?
Chew on This
By criticizing cheap novels and popular fiction within his Holmes stories, Conan Doyle is
making an argument that his tales about Holmes belongs in a class apart from the
commercial fiction of the day.
Holmes's frequent statements that truth is stranger than fiction is a strategy on the part of
the author to make even these far-fetched mysteries appear realistic and logical to the
How many times have you been told not to judge a book by its cover? Well, Sherlock
Holmes would say – no, totally, feel free to judge a book by its cover. Or a woman by her
clothing (see Mary Sutherland in "A Case of Identity"). Or a man by his compass ornament
and fish tattoo (see Jabez Wilson in "The Red-Headed League"). Borrowing from the
example of Edgar Allan Poe's detective Dupin, Holmes spends a lot of time figuring out the
character traits of the people around him based on their physical appearance. Also see our
section on "Characterization" for more examples of this theme.
Questions About Appearances
Holmes loves to make lists of character traits that he can tell just by looking at a person. But
Holmes is fooled – twice – by appearances: Irene Adler's cross-dressing in "A Scandal in
Bohemia" and Neville St. Clair's Hugh Boone costume in "The Man With the Twisted Lip."
What does Holmes's own ability to make mistakes do to his character development? Do you
find him more or less trustworthy as a result of these errors?
Holmes is always adopting new disguises: an elderly clergyman and an unemployed groom
in "A Scandal in Bohemia," a loafer in "The Beryl Coronet" and so on. And Neville St. Clair
has his own disguise – Hugh Boone – in "The Man With the Twisted Lip." But all of these are
examples of dressing down to fit in with a lower class rather than dressing up to climb the
social ranks. Why might dressing down be less threatening to Conan Doyle's readers than
dressing up?
Chew on This
When Holmes is fooled by appearances, he seems less omniscient (read: "all-knowing") and
more sympathetic to the reader.
Holmes uses categories like class, gender, and even race to make immediate assessments
about a person's inner character.
Respect and Reputation
We've mentioned, in our "Character Analysis" of Inspector Lestrade, that the policeman
makes a good foil for Sherlock Holmes because he works inside the law while Holmes is a
free agent. Holmes gets to choose whom he lets go and whom he carts off to the court
system. But if law isn't necessarily one of Holmes's primary means for keeping criminals in
line, threat to reputation is. The importance of reputation in Conan Doyle's representation of
Anglo culture is pretty evident. Probably the best example of this is Neville St. Clair, who is
willing to go to prison disguised as Hugh Boone under the charge of murdering Neville St.
Clair rather than confess to everyone that he has been posing as a beggar all these years.
Other examples include James Ryder ("Blue Carbuncle"), who begs Holmes to release him to
save his mother and father shame. Jabez Wilson goes to Holmes out of outraged pride at
being tricked by the Red-Headed League, and Alexander Holder ("Beryl Coronet"), the King
of Bohemia, and Lord St. Simon ("Noble Bachelor") all hire Holmes to preserve their
reputations. In other words, reputation is a great plot motivator throughout these stories,
both as a reason for clients to find Holmes and as a way for Holmes to keep wrongdoers in
line without having to send them to the criminal justice system.
Questions About Respect and Reputation
Protecting a man's reputation seems more important in some cases than in others. While
Lord St. Simon ("The Noble Bachelor") and Alexander Holder ("The Beryl Coronet") are both
victims of a deception, the stories seem more sympathetic to Holder than to St. Simon.
Why? What differences are there between these two characters that makes the value placed
on their reputations differ?
What categories – social, family, professional, etc. – seem most important in determining a
man's reputation in these stories? How do people like Lord St. Simon or even James Ryder
("The Blue Carbuncle") express concern over their reputations?
We've talked a lot about crises in men's reputations, but how about the ladies? For example,
what is Hatty Doran's ("The Noble Bachelor") reputation? How is her social status
represented differently from Lord St. Simon's? What kinds of points might we be able to
make about women and/or class and the importance of reputation?
Chew on This
Conan Doyle largely steers clear of discussion about women's reputations because he
continues to promote the "Angel in the House" ideal of domestic womanhood, which
requires women to be above reproach.
Instead of turning to the law courts, Holmes uses threats to criminals' public reputations to
keep them from repeating their offenses.
Contrasting Regions: London and the Countryside
Holmes loves the city: after all, it's "a hobby of [his] to have an exact knowledge of London"
(League.148). The countryside? Not so much. In the scattered households of the
countryside, Holmes sees a lot of vulnerability to cruelty with no helpful neighbors on hand
to stop it. Consider the events of "The Speckled Band," "The Engineer's Thumb," and "The
Copper Beeches." All of these involve long-term abuses that go pretty much unnoticed
because they occur in isolated country houses.
At the same time, the city puts lots of different kinds of people side by side, which is like an
invitation to quite unexpected trouble. He takes advantage of this fact in "A Scandal in
Bohemia," when he stages a riot outside of Irene Adler's house. Other examples of volatile,
dangerous city life include poor Henry Baker's assault by some toughs in "The Blue
Carbuncle" as well as the opium dens of "The Man With the Twisted Lip."
Questions About Contrasting Regions: London and the Countryside
Why does Holmes fear the countryside? And is he right to? Do the crimes that take place in
the countryside seem worse than those that occur in London? Why or why not?
How does Conan Doyle's precise representation of Victorian London contribute to the
atmosphere of the Holmes stories? How might detective stories be linked to developing
urban cultures?
What differences are there in the presentation of urban and country settings? What kinds of
adjectives get attached to both? How are the moods of stories set in London different from
those set in the countryside?
Chew on This
In Holmes's adventures, the crimes that take place in London occur as a result of the city's
growing diversity and its economic wealth, while the crimes that take place in the
countryside are often conspiracies that depend on the isolation of the victim.
By setting the Holmes stories in London, Conan Doyle takes advantage of the city's
importance as the center of the British Empire to represent multiple races and classes living
Sherlock Holmes brings order to a chaotic world. Victorian England was a dynamic,
advancing time, but it was also a place of crime and sweeping social changes. For many
people these changes bred feelings of uncertainty and fear. By attempting to make the
world right, Holmes—working alongside his friend and companion, Dr. John Watson—can
be seen as a kind of support for tumultuous times.
Holmes confronts a scam organization claiming to honor red-headed men; a stepfather who
disguises himself as a suitor to his stepdaughter; a thief who hides a precious jewel in a
goose; and a family who hires someone to impersonate their daughter—whom they keep
locked in a room—among other schemes.
While life is indeed strange, it is not actually incomprehensible, at least not for the
determined and capable sleuth. At face value, all of the above plots appear to be completely
random, cruel schemes in a scary world that makes no sense. To Holmes, however, they can
be explained: by greed, jealously, anger, and other social causes.
Sherlock Holmes is able to solve the mysteries that so confound his clients, but he is one
detective against the world. Most people don't have access to Holmes or other competent
mystery-solvers, so their unresolved problems feel incomprehensible. When Holmes solves a
mystery, he is providing a cosmic resolution, because he is able to reassure his clients—and,
importantly, his readers—that, in fact, things happen for a reason. The world is mysterious
and absurd—only to the untrained eye. For those with the powers of observation and
reasoning, it is knowable.
not merely a crime solver: he is a reliever of existential angst.
Holmes's clients come to him because they believe they have been wronged. In many cases
the official authorities have been unable to help them or give them the resolution they are
seeking. They are desperate for his assistance, not only because they want to know what has
happened to them, but because their beliefs in a just, coherent world are at stake. He is their
last hope, a firewall between optimism and hopelessness.
The fact that Holmes solves nearly all of his cases is important, because it provides
reassurance to his readers that the world is in fact just. While the plot lines in The
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes shrewdly play on anxieties and fears of the age—in
particular, the big, scary city—Holmes demonstrates they can be overcome. Had the
detective rarely solved any of his cases, it's unlikely he would be nearly as popular, because
he would reinforce the fear of an unjust world, a prospect that, for many people, is too
terrifying to consider. Holmes's enduring appeal is that in his hands wrongs can indeed be
Sherlock Holmes's relationship with Dr. John Watson demonstrates the power of friendship
in a changing world. Though Watson has inferior crime-solving skills, Holmes always insists
the doctor accompany him on his crime-solving missions. Watson helps Holmes work
through his thinking, challenges him on different points, and provides an emotional
resource to the solitary and stiff-upper-lipped sleuth. By being available for his friend,
Watson is an essential part of Holmes's crime-solving toolkit.
As well the men's shared history makes Dr. Watson an invaluable asset to the detective.
Holmes's cases bring him into contact with humans at their worst; he encounters liars,
thieves, schemers, murderers, usurers, vengeful ex-lovers, and other damaged people who
cannot be trusted. Holmes, however, knows he can always rely on his old friend. In this way
readers can relate to their relationship. In an unmoored, uncertain, and seemingly unsafe
world, a deep friendship is a rock of stability.
Sherlock Holmes is a master of deductive reasoning. In nearly every case that comes his way
he seems to spend almost as much time asking questions and contemplating motives as he
does physically chasing down clues. His chief weapon is his mind, which he has trained to be
a cold, effective instrument that runs on logic alone. (This explains his disdain for emotional
responses like passion and love, which he believes are the enemies of reason.) Through his
years of studying crime and human behavior, he knows exactly what questions and
information to pursue in order to solve a mystery. The message of the entire collection of
stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that a powerful enough dose of reason can
resolve almost any problem.
Holmes's reasoning is so effective because he has such solid data—facts and clues. "You know
my method," Holmes tells Watson after the sleuth literally combs for clues in Chapter 4. "It is
founded upon the observation of trifles." Throughout the story collection Holmes is constantly
observing details, even seemingly insignificant ones. In his view these clues are rarely minor
and so often hold the key to solving a case.
The world of Sherlock Holmes is a world of lies. This state of affairs is necessary in any book
of mysteries, but it also reveals anxieties about life during Victorian times. As people moved
into cities, they were suddenly surrounded by strangers. Holmes, however, could provide
something critical: the truth. Holmes's clients have been cheated and abused, misled and
deceived, and he is hired to see through these deceptions to establish the truth. The
deceptions Holmes's clients are subject to give each adventure its narrative thrust. Each case
is a race to discover the meaning of a lie or reveal what someone is hiding, and each story
reaches its climax when the deception is revealed.
Arthur Conan Doyle employs some situational irony by causing Holmes, in his crusade to
establish the truth, to employ his own deceptive tricks, such as going in disguise. He dresses
as a stable groom, a "loafer," and other characters in order to earn the trust of people—and
then exploits it to gain information. This makes him an effective sleuth who uses deception
for his own advantage.
The wealth and growth that occurred during Victorian England bequeathed to the nation a
far-reaching network of rails and carriage routes. Within cities residents could hail "cabs"—
carriage taxis—just like people do today. This created a mobility unknown to earlier
generations, a mobility widely reflected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and
different characters constantly travel around the city of London and often travel to distant
areas of the country. Several of the characters in the stories, such as Neville St. Clair and
Alexander Holder, actually commute into London each day for work by train. Still others, such
as Dr. Roylott Grimesby, who lived in India, have traveled overseas.
These new opportunities, however, make Holmes's sleuthing more time-consuming, as he
must leave his home base in central London to gather clues and investigate. He must also be
well-informed about the wider world, since many of the cases he works on involve incidents
that took place in other countries. In this respect the mobile, worldly detective is a perfect
embodiment of a Victorian sleuth.
Introduction to The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a collection of short stories
about the fictional Sherlock Holmes, an opium-smoking detective living at 221B Baker Street,
London, from 1881 to 1904. The book is the third installment in Doyle’s series of books about
Holmes, and the only one that is a collection of short stories instead of a novel. Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle was a Scottish author and physician who graduated from the University of
Edinburgh Medical School. The first and second Holmes novels were A Study in Scarlet and
The Sign of the Four. Both novels and the short stories in Adventures first appeared in
magazines of the times. The events in the stories take place from 1880 until 1914. The stories
and novels are mostly narrated by Holmes’ friend and roommate, Dr. John H. Watson,
although some are written from Holmes’ point of view or in the third-person narrative style.
Themes and motifs of the story
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was known for his cleverness and cunning, often being able to draw
amazingly astute conclusions from the tiniest bits of evidence.
Holmes’ sense of vigilante justice is also a prominent theme in the works of fiction, and he
does not generally obey the same laws as policemen – which often leads to his solving crimes
much more rapidly than the officers.
The movement of foreigners and money into and out of London are motifs that carry
throughout Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, as well as characters’ strange and often unfortunate
experiences when traveling abroad.
Another motif and theme of the Holmes stories is opium use. Holmes smokes it incessantly,
and seems to know where all the local opium dens are located when searching for unsavory
characters in the books.
Women in Holmes’ and Watson’s world are very vulnerable and mistreated, from murders to
imprisonment for no reason. The female characters tie into the motif of society and class
structure present in London in the 1800s. Jack the Ripper was a prominent figure in London
at the time, assaulting and murdering women in the business of prostitution at will.
Details about Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually killed the character of Sherlock Holmes in the short story
“The Final Problem,” to devote more time to historical novels he was working. Public outcry
eventually ground him down, and he published The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901, and
Holmes reappeared explaining that he had faked his own death in 1903’s “The Adventure of
the Empty House.”
Watson’s description of Sherlock Holmes uses the word “bohemian,” and his character was
nothing if not eccentric. Order and tidiness are not Holmes’ strong points, although he is a
stickler for personal cleanliness. Holmes was a collector of papers, and they were “stacked”
un “every corner” of his residence. Holmes is known to avoid food while solving difficult cases,
and smokes cigar, tobacco, and opium.
Sherlock Holmes’ consistent use of opium was representative of the times in London. Opium
became legal beginning in 1856 and was rampant in 1903. In 1909, opium was outlawed for
importation into the United States, and 1910 saw the dismantling of the India-China opium
trade due to high levels of addiction all over the world.
Watson notes uncaringly that Holmes hides the truth and conceals evidence from meddling
policemen. However, Watson is offended if Holmes uses the manipulation of innocent people
to solve a case. Holmes is portrayed as a genius, infallible, and arrogant detective, whose
good works of crime-solving are usually attributed to the police. After word of mouth gets
around London, clients as directly for Holmes’ help in sticky criminal situations instead of
going to the police.
Justice and Judgment
Sherlock Holmes is no Dark Knight: he's not zooming around London dispensing vigilante
justice. But he is a private detective, which means that he too doesn't have to obey the rigid
rules of police work. For all of Holmes's talk about being unemotional and so on, he makes
judgments based on feelings all the time, as when he lets James Ryder go at the end of "The
Blue Carbuncle" or when he releases John Turner at the conclusion of "The Boscombe Valley
Mystery." Once he's solved a case, Holmes has a lot of leeway to decide whether the
wrongdoer deserves mercy or not. And his decisions are not always the purely logical choices
he might have us believe.
Questions About Justice and Judgment
What are some examples of cases in which Holmes takes direct action either to punish or to
release a criminal? How do these cases compare with one another? What kinds of reasons
does Holmes give for his decisions, and do you find them compelling?
Several of the stories in this collection don't involve crime at all, including "The Man With the
Twisted Lip" and "A Case of Identity." Why include them in this collection at all? What do
these stories allow Holmes to do that other, more serious criminal cases might not?
Chance occasionally intervenes to ruin Holmes's plans. Even though he solves the case, he's
not able to rescue John Openshaw in "The Five Orange Pips," and the gang of counterfeiters
in "The Engineer's Thumb" manages to get away before he can catch them. How does the
knowledge that Holmes is still subject to chance and to error change your sense of his
character? In other words, why might it be important or useful to Conan Doyle to allow
Holmes to make mistakes?
Chew on This
Smaller problems such as Mary Sutherland's exploitation by her parents in "A Case of Identity"
give Conan Doyle a chance to think about the place of morality outside of its strict legal
By making Holmes subject to error and to accident sometimes, Conan Doyle inserts an
additional layer of suspense into his detective story formula.
Foreignness and 'The Other'
Conan Doyle is writing his Holmes novels and stories at a time when money is pouring into
the U.K. from its colonial territories. But with rising capital comes huge anxiety over the social
effects of greed, theft, and instability. The Blue Carbuncle and the Beryl Coronet are probably
the most obvious examples of riches coming in from outside and then tempting good (or not
so good) men and women to commit evil.
But money isn't the only thing that's going into and out of England at an amazing rate: there
are also huge movements of people, both to the colonies and back again. And when they
come back, they're not always the better for having been away. Consider Dr. Roylott's extreme
violence upon his return from India, where he already showed himself capable of murder. And
how about the torment Charles McCarthy brings to John Turner, as a remnant of his wild past
in Australia? Even the cruel Hosmer Angel/Mr. Windibank trick played on Mary Sutherland
depends on her stepfather's business trips to France. Increased contact with the foreign can
be a good thing, as with Holmes's encounter with Irene Adler, straight from Warsaw. But it
also can provide increased opportunity for evil to take advantage of vulnerable people.
Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'
How do the British colonies appear in relation to England, and to London in particular, in these
stories? Do they seem easily reachable? Distant? Attractive? Threatening?
How do these stories deal with racial and ethnic difference? We have Holmes's strong loathing
of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand, representations of gypsies in "The Speckled Band"
and of Asians in "The Man With the Twisted Lip" can be disturbing. In what ways do racial
difference seem to matter in these stories? What kinds of spaces do racially-marked people
occupy in Sherlock Holmes's mysteries?
We have raised the question of England's relationship to its then-current colonies. But how
does Conan Doyle represent the United States (a former colony) in relation to the United
Kingdom? What impression do you get of Americans and of American society from Conan
Chew on This
In Sherlock Holmes stories, the British colonies seem like centers of lawlessness waiting to
introduce their legacies of crime into England itself.
Conan Doyle makes an analogy between people of color and dangerous places, as in his racist
descriptions of the opium dens of "The Man With the Twisted Lip."
Drugs and Alcohol
There are two general threads that drugs and alcohol follow in The Adventures of Sherlock
Holmes. First, there are lots and lots of examples of substance abuse ruining lives and
destroying otherwise noble people. See, for example, opium addict Isa Whitney at the
beginning of "The Man With the Twisted Lip," or drunkard Henry Baker in "The Blue
At the same time, there is Sherlock Holmes's own cocaine use, mentioned in passing in "A
Scandal in Bohemia." Cocaine would have been legal in Conan Doyle's day, so the social
meaning of taking the drug would be quite different than it is today. At the time, Holmes's
drug use might have underlined not only the extreme activity of his brain, but also his
generally Bohemian lifestyle. Even so, Watson clearly disapproves of what he sees as Holmes's
moral weakness in relation to his drug use and, in later Holmes episodes, Watson gradually
persuades his friend to quit.
Questions About Drugs and Alcohol
How does Holmes's addiction to cocaine affect your sense of his character? Does his addiction
seem in keeping with everything else we know about Holmes?
How does Conan Doyle's depiction of Holmes's drug use differ from Isa Whitney's? Why
include this section on Isa Whitney at the beginning of "The Man With the Twisted Lip" at all?
How do stories of addiction and personal downfall – like Isa Whitney's or like Henry Baker's
in "The Blue Carbuncle" – echo other kinds of personal and moral decline in these Holmes
stories? Examples of demise might include Dr. Roylott's extreme violence in "The Speckled
Band" or even Neville St. Clair's begging in "The Man With the Twisted Lip."
Chew on This
Holmes's cocaine use is a device for characterization to show how little he cares about social
mores or restrictions.
Concerned about representing drug use too positively in the character of Holmes, Conan
Doyle uses Isa Whitney to demonstrate the potentially dangerous effects of substance abuse
on a person's life and character.
Women and Femininity
Women are incredibly vulnerable in Sherlock Holmes's world, from poor Helen Stoner's
murdered sister in "The Speckled Band" to Miss Rucastle, locked up by her own family in "The
Copper Beeches." There are contrary examples of women who manage to determine their
own fates – Irene Adler and Hatty Doran, of "The Noble Bachelor," for instance – but their
independence is so unusual in the context of Holmes's world that it has to be explained in
detail to make it believable. Adler can move around in society widely because she's an actress
and an adventuress. And Doran can take care of herself a bit more because she was raised in
a mining camp until she was twenty.
"Properly-bred" femininity appears to be in constant danger of cruelty and damage. The flip
side of this vulnerability, though, is that these women are often portrayed as morally superior
beings: devoted, faithful, self-sacrificing, and above all, domestic. This theme shows the
influence of the prevailing "Angel in the House" model of womanhood in the Victorian era.
Questions About Women and Femininity
What gives Irene Adler and Hatty Doran the freedom to go where they want and to marry
whom they wish? How are these two characters represented differently from other, more
traditionally feminine women characters like Mary Sutherland or Helen Stoner?
What values do Holmes and Watson seem to attach specifically to womanhood? What are
"masculine" qualities for Holmes and Watson, then?
Does Conan Doyle represent women from different classes differently? If so, how?
Chew on This
Irene Adler has greater social mobility than other women characters in Holmes's adventures
because she's an actress and performer and so, like Holmes, operates outside of mainstream
Holmes and Watson strongly identify women with emotion and men with reason.
Society and Class
Sherlock Holmes says time and time again that the status of the clients he serves is less
important to him than the intrigue of the problems they bring him. And in fact, we see him
interacting with a wide range of social classes, from Peterson the hotel employee, who brings
him the surprising goose in "The Blue Carbuncle," to the extremely class-conscious Lord St.
Simon in "The Noble Bachelor." So Holmes is pretty even-handed and does believe in equality
among the classes. Well, up to a point. Social status is still one of the determining tools for
characterization in these stories. It's right up there with gender as a way of working out what
a character's weaknesses and strengths will be. So while Holmes may claim not to care about
class, he's certainly not blind to it.
Questions About Society and Class
What formal tools does Conan Doyle use to represent characters of different social statuses?
Does status matter to Holmes? What evidence do you have that it does or does not?
Does any single class get more representation than other ones in Holmes stories? Is there a
particular class-based value system that Holmes seems to belong to?
Chew on This
Conan Doyle uses dialect, clothing, physical appearance, and emotional sensitivity to suggest
differences in social class.
Even though Holmes enjoys exploring the problems of working-class clients as much as highclass ones, he still uses social status as a way of judging people's character.
Basically, all crime stories are about moral weakness: giving in to temptation, giving in to rage,
giving in to the desire for revenge – whatever. But even if weakness is a general theme of the
detective story as a whole, it's emphasized to an extreme degree in Sherlock Holmes tales.
Conan Doyle writes over and over again about declining family fortunes, personal reputation,
and social status as a result of moral weakness. Think Dr. Grimesby Roylott in "The Speckled
Band," Isa Whitney in "The Man With the Twisted Lip," Henry Baker in "The Blue Carbuncle –
the examples go on and on.
Why might this form of weakness be a particular preoccupation of Conan Doyle? One
possibility is that he's writing during the late Victorian era, when England was at the top of its
game imperially. The British Empire pretty much never gets better than this: it covers huge
portions of the globe and has lots of money is coming in, the whole shebang. And you know
what they say about being at the top? There's nowhere to go but down – at least, if you're
not careful. Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are like subtle lessons to the British readership of
his time, reminding them not to get too cocky. No matter how much status and wealth you
have, you still have to be sensible and work hard to keep what you've got. Allowing yourself
to abuse your power (Roylott) or to take it for granted (Isa Whitney and Henry Baker) leads
straight to poverty, shame, and even violence.
Questions About Weakness
James Ryder ("The Blue Carbuncle"), John Turner ("The Boscombe Valley Mystery"), and Isa
Whitney ("The Man With the Twisted Lip") all give in to various temptations: money, revenge,
and opium, respectively. But their representations are quite different. Ryder is whiny and
unlikable, Turner is a tragic figure, and Whitney is a pitiful wreck. Is Conan Doyle punishing
some forms of moral weakness more than others in these stories? What kinds of judgments
do different weaknesses receive?
There are women evildoers in these stories: Mrs. Rucastle in "The Copper Beeches" and Mary
Holder in "The Beryl Coronet" come to mind. But it's unusual. And even in these cases, they
act the way they do out of excessive love (in the former case, for Mr. Rucastle; in the latter,
for Sir George Burnwell) rather than greed or anger. Why might Conan Doyle not want to
make his women characters appear morally weak? How can we compare these women
wrongdoers to good characters like Elise in "The Engineer's Thumb," Mrs. St. Clair in "The Man
With the Twisted Lip," or even Hatty Doran in "The Noble Bachelor"?
In "The Speckled Band," how does his family's decline in fortune set up Dr. Grimesby Roylott's
fall into crime? By emphasizing Roylott's ancient English family and their wastefulness and
greed, what larger dangers to the status of the British Empire might Conan Doyle be warning
Chew on This
By often making men examples of moral weakness and women models of moral strength,
Conan Doyle is using the Victorian "Angel in the House" stereotype.
Conan Doyle uses examples of moral weakness in his stories to convince readers of the social
and personal importance of self-restraint.
Technology and Modernization
There would be no Sherlock Holmes without technology and modernization: without the
telegraph service, how would Holmes send his messages in "The Five Orange Pips?" Without
trains, how could he travel across the country consulting on cases like "The Boscombe Valley
Mystery" and "The Engineer's Thumb"? And without modern ocean liners, how would all the
travel in these stories – to Australia, to New Zealand, to India, to Mauritius – be possible? Even
Holmes's frequent chemical experiments show Conan Doyle's commitment to all that is newfangled. What's more, the whole idea of the detective is a pretty contemporary notion: looking
for clues as a basis for logical reasoning is a concept rooted in modern scientific method.
Questions About Technology and Modernization
How are new communication technologies represented in Conan Doyle's stories? What
contributions do they make to the action?
How do new transportation technologies feature in Conan Doyle's stories? How do these
developments make Holmes's detective work possible?
In what sense is the detective story a distinctly modern development?
Chew on This
Without modern developments like the telegraph, the train system, and even the London
Underground, Holmes would be unable to conduct his cases.
Many of the crimes conducted in the Holmes stories, including "The Five Orange Pips," "The
Boscombe Valley Mystery," and "The Speckled Band," come about as a result of improved
methods of transportation that have made international travel easy for numerous people.
This at-least is how it goes in the original Arthur Conan Doyle version, which is what I consider
to be the best and original version of Sherlock Holmes.
As for what sets the stories apart, I think above all else, it is the character of Holmes himself.
His superhuman powers of observation and deduction inspire a cohort a followers because
they appear to be just realistic enough to be possible (they aren’t really). His stories are also
written in a way, that it seems that he could have been a real person living in the London of
that time.
But more than that, he’s quite different from many other fictional detectives. Very often,
detectives are portrayed as ‘hard-boiled’ world-weary noir types. Holmes is above that filth.
He is a dignified, charismatic Victorian gentleman - the very archetype of a reclusive genius
with few human connections, who lives for the sake of the art. A specialist.
Whereas other detectives are often muddled up in the intricacies of human affairs, Holmes
dispassionately examines the problem from above, finds the solution and then closes the case.
He benefits also from the company of Watson, who forms the perfect humane counterpoint
- a normal down-to-earth loyal-to-a-fault military man of average intelligence, from whose
viewpoint the audience can admire Holmes.
I can think of half-a-dozen other similar fictional detectives from Poirot to Dupin, but they
were mostly bland and forgettable. It helps that Arthur Conan Doyle was a damn good writer,
capable of superb pacing, description and memorable dialogue. The original serial in The
Strand also had first-rate illustrations which really set the atmosphere.
All these things when combined serve to elevate Sherlock Holmes above the usual rabble into
the realm of legendary characters.