A Study in Scarlet
Autobiographical Deductions: Doyle’s Characters and Context
In the novel A Study in Scarlet, we observe the relationship between Dr. John Watson, a retired Anglo-Afghan war veteran, and Sherlock Holmes, whom we first learn of as a man that works at a chemical laboratory in the hospital. Within the first chapter of this novel, we are set up to wonder who Sherlock Holmes is and why he is characterized to be such a mysterious person. Sherlock Holmes is brought out as a “cold-blooded” person (Doyle, 10), but I believe he is actually very big-hearted and works quietly, and most importantly, very diligently to do the right thing. I also believe that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle relates himself to Holmes in many ways throughout this novel by using Holmes as a character to describe who Doyle is, and lessons that he had learned during his years growing up.
Early on in the novel, Watson arrives in London and meets up with an old friend at the Criterion Bar. He reveals that he is looking to spend less money on housing by finding a roommate to live with. This is when Dr. John Watson’s friend, Stamford, first bring up Holmes by mentioning that he knows of someone else that is also looking for a roommate. Watson’s friend Stamford goes on to state about Holmes, “You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him, I know nothing more of him than I have learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible (Doyle,10).” This was the first flag that really stuck out to me that something might be strange about Sherlock Holmes. He also goes on to describe Holmes as cold-blooded which makes me wonder instantly why he is described as that as well as why the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would characterize Holmes to seem that way. John Watson and Stamford soon arrive at the hospital where Watson meets Holmes for the first time. Holmes begins to talk to Watson about his discovery of haemoglobin and explains the process. This first impression makes Holmes out to be seem like a very intelligent and proud man. He also exemplifies his extraordinary talent of deducting information about people, which is ironic as the title of chapter two is The Science of Deduction. When John Watson first met Holmes, Holmes states, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” This was done without any prior knowledge of Watson, simply a firm handshake, and leaves Watson wondering how Holmes could’ve every deducted that he was in Afghanistan simple from that information. They begin discussing living arrangements and learning more about the details of characteristics of each other. We learn as readers that Holmes enjoys doing chemistry experiments and that he also goes into periods of quiet, keep to himself, periods. He also enjoyed going on long walks in to lowest portion of the city (Doyle,15). Holmes likes to spend his time alone and isolated. This is where they really seem to complement each other as Dr. John Watson is known as being “extremely lazy” and also suffers from being easily shaken at loud noises as a result of post-traumatic stress from his time spent in war.
Through his narrative in A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presents Sherlock Holmes as a chemist who keeps to himself, and is very proud. He also continues to contrast Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes personalities by Holmes having regular meetings with “clients”, whiles Dr. Watson sits at home alone. This draws on the mysterious aspect of what exactly does Sherlock Holmes do for a profession? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also splits these two characters in chapter two. The title is called The Science of Deduction, but Dr. Watson just cannot deduct what Holmes really does for a living. In return, we can refer back to the first chapter were Holmes deducted instantly that Dr. Watson was in Afghanistan. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in London and grew up to be scientifically educated, much like Sherlock Holmes. According to “Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle”, once Doyle arrive at college he found it to be boring but also difficult. He found playing sports and listening to lectures much more exciting. This is parallel with Holmes working in a chemist lab, but really getting the thrill and enjoying life when he is working as a detective (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”). Doyle also found describing and learning about his instructors personalities much more exciting than he did studying (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”). This is where Holmes gets the extraordinary ability to deduct that Dr. Watson was in Afghanistan. I also found that Doyle became interested in photography and would often document and later publish his findings as well began writing short stories based on the adventures he had as a young child. We learn in Chapter two of, A Study in Scarlet, that Holmes also published an article himself entitled, “The Book of Life.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew in poverty and didn’t have many social connections around the time that he graduated from medical school. This caused him to struggle to open his own medical practice as he could not afford it. Aside from these struggles, he was still a very successful, modest medical practitioner. This is where we learn to see the resemblance between Sir Arthur Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
It starts to click that Doyle describes Holmes as keeping to himself, like when he would often go on walks alone in the lower-income poverty area of the city. This is because it reminded him of where he came from once he entered medical school and no longer received money from his family. This also explains why Holmes worked as a chemist in a hospital rather than opening his own practice (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”). I researched to find that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reveals that his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes is a former teacher of his, Dr. Joseph Bell. In “Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle”, Doyle states that Dr. Bell was a teacher that would often educate his students on the importance of using all of the senses as well as the importance of observations when using deduction and diagnosing such as Holmes. This is interesting to me because I think that a young Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is to Dr. Joseph Ball as Dr. Watson is to Holmes in the beginning of this novel, but as Doyle grew and graduated medical school that he came how to describes Holmes to be. In other words, he was a young Dr. Bell and when he grew up he began to show the same characteristic that he was taught from his teacher. Dr. John Watson learns so much from following and observing Sherlock Holmes throughout, “A Study in Scarlet”, and its correlates with how much Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learns from Dr. Joseph Bell in medical school (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”). Dr. Joseph Bell would also use inductive and deductive reasoning to guess a person’s profession much like Sherlock Holmes does in the story (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”). An example is shown at the end of chapter two into the beginning of chapter three when a letter comes for Sherlock Holmes from a man and Holmes was already able to deduct his profession before the man had come to deliver the note. Dr. Watson asks, “I wonder what that fellow is looking for?”, while pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of the message. “You mean the retired sergeant of Marines?” replied Holmes (Doyle, 23). From that small description that he had seen of the man he was able to deduct that he was a retired marine. It is fascinating that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admired an individual so much that he would incorporate him into a novel as well as allow his teacher personality and traits to rub off onto himself.
Through reading and researching “Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle”, I learned that although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very impressed and intrigued with Dr. Joseph Bell’s deductive reasoning skills, he was disturbed by the way to acted towards his patients. It is stated that he was often cold towards his patients, much like Sherlock Holmes is towards Dr. Watson in, “A Study in Scarlet”( “Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.”) In chapter one Stamford goes on to say, “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet, perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.” Dr. Watson replies, “Why, what is there against him?” With which Stamford replies, “Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him. He is a little queer in his ideas- an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough (Doyle, 9).” This portrays Holmes to be cold-blooded early on in the novel. This connects Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Joseph Bell in a way that they both can come off as tense and cold. Another aspect that particularly stuck out to me is that in “Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledges Dr. Joseph Bell as his inspiration to the character Sherlock Holmes, but then also creates Dr. Watson. This could just be a coincidence that they are both labeled Dr. but with opposing characteristics, but I believe that there is a correlation between Dr. Watson being like a younger Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then growing into the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Joseph Bell characteristics. Throughout the novel, Dr. Watson works alongside Holmes as he works to deduct the murder case where he learns much for what Holmes is actually like (“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle”). In Chapter seven while working to solve the murder, the novel states, “Sherlock Holmes sprang from his chair with an exclamation of delight.” ‘The last link,’ he cried, exultantly. ‘My case is complete.’ ‘I now have in my hands,’ my companion said, confidently, ‘all the threads which have formed such a tangle.” He then continues to go on states that he had solved the case (Doyle, 62). This is an example of Holmes out of nowhere using his deduction to solve the case. This connects him to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell in using deduction and pride confidently. Throughout, “A Study in Scarlet” we learn much of who Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is through the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Sherlock Holmes comes off in the beginning of the novel as a cold-blooded person but turns out to really help Dr. Watson by allowing him to learn from him and eventually work alongside him to help solve the murder, much like how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned from Dr. Joseph Bell. I researched to learn that Doyle thought highly of his teacher Dr. Joseph Bell in which he acknowledges that he used him throughout the story as Sherlock Holmes.
In all likelihood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Dr. John Watson as a man that is like a younger version of himself. A version of Doyle that was in medical school learning from Dr. Bell. He then grows to learn through deductive and inductive reasoning to understand and correctly describe professions and well as solve problems such as the murder case in this novel. This is where he learns to become more like Sherlock Holmes. Dr. John Watson is learning from Sherlock Holmes much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned from his teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell. Through its deductive reasoning, this novel is a great representation of learning, growing, working alongside, and different role models in life.
“Discovering Arthur Conan Doyle.” Discovering Sherlock Holmes – A Community Reading Project From Stanford University, Stanford University, 2006 Doyle, Arthur Conan., and Nancy Timmins. A Study in Scarlet. Langenscheidt ELT, 2007.
The Moderate Victorian Male Spectator in A Study in Scarlet, The Moonstone, “The Harlot’s House” and “Hermaphroditus”
The Victorian depiction of the masculine is divided by not only class factors but also by degrees of gender conformity and morality, it is this conformity and morality that shapes the role of the masculine narrative in Victorian literature. In this essay I will be examining the accepted norm of the Victorian male and those who transgress these norms in A Study in Scarlet (Doyle, 1887), The Moonstone (Collins, 1868), “The Harlot’s House” (Wilde, 1882) and “Hermaphroditus” (Swinburne, 1863). By examining these texts through the lens of concepts of masculinity I hope to show that the role of men in these select Victorian narratives can be roughly divided into the functions of spectator and spectacle, prescribed by their relationship to gender norms. The spectacle can be the often showy, athletic, criminal or unchivalrous masculine, or the feminine masculine who transgresses or transcends gender to become god-like, genius or otherworldly. In this way the normative masculinity in these texts is one of moderation, neither indulging in animal like masculinity, or transgressing too far into the territory of the feminine. This normative masculine ideal serves as both a standard by which all other characters are judged and an audience surrogate.
An understanding of the division and segmentation of masculinity is key to understanding the masculinity of the characters within the discussed Victorian texts (Smart and Yeates, 1). As reimagined in A Study in Scarlet, “The Harlot’s House” and The Moonstone, the spectator is a relatively conventional, Victorian masculine figure who can stand in judgement of the criminal subversive masculine spectacle. The Moonstone sets up Franklin Blake as the moderate masculine in direct opposition to the bold and driven Godfrey, and, in A Study in Scarlet Watson is the moderate masculine observer who is permitted to stand in judgement over the more brutish and base actors in the story. Similarly, the narrator of “The Harlot’s House” is a moderate masculine middle-class person who stands in judgment of the debauchery he has sought. These moderate men, in their role as the less muscular and aggressive male, allow for the reimagining of the typical Victorian man; a standard by which others may be compared to and consequently condemned or worshipped.
These texts highlight masculinity as being inherently problematic with the folly of the masculine standard bearer highlighted throughout. These masculine characters are often fallible and vulnerable to deception and seduction by the criminal element and the feminine. The uncontrollable and base masculine is full of bravado and bluster, and is a danger to the fabric of society and it is only through the efforts of the moderate masculine and the transgressive masculine that these villains of the text can be controlled. Godfrey in The Moonstone is described as being bold, athletic and pleasant and is later, quite literally unmasked (Collins, 1113) as being deceptive and base in his motivations. Collins reimagines the Victorian male hero into a character that unlike the greed, villainy and “muscular Christianity” of Godfrey (Karpenko, 134) is more considerate, thoughtful and less aggressive in his masculinity. The muscular male ideal is challenged in Collin’s The Moonstone with the characters who make the most notable positive impact being far from muscly, heroic adventurers, but rather educated and calculating. The positive masculinity demonstrated by character in the text is not necessarily the typical “uncontrolled physicality” (Karpenko, 133) of the conqueror, brave Christian missionary or adventurer but tows a more moderate almost secular line.
Similarly, A Study in Scarlet advocates for a considered and less tratitionally aggressive form of masculinity. The villains of the mystery are Stangerson, Drebber and the rest of the Morman settlement, who do not adhere to the Anglo Christian morality. Aside from Bringham Young, Stangerson and Drebber are the most demonized characters despite the fact that they are not the perpetrators of the murders that form the crux of the mystery, but are instead the victims. Their immorality and criminality is conflated with their religious ideology and the narrator of the second part and John Ferrier refer to Mormon polygamous marraiges as “harems” (Doyle, 181) showing contempt and condemnation of their way of life. The two murder victims do not directly kill anyone but take part in cultural and religious practices that result in forced marriage and the deaths of John and Lucy Ferrier. Stangerson and Drebbers eventual murderer, Jefferson Hope, is a base masculine spectacle, giving into his desire for vengeance, however he is painted more sympathetically than his two victims as he adheres to social constructs such as chivalry and monogamy that are viewed moderate and favourable in the text, with Watson describing him pleasantly after Hope’s apprehension (Doyle, 231). The case of Jefferson Hope demonstrates how the degrees by which the aggressive masculine can be tempered is indicative of their acceptability in the narrative. The text even affords Hope, a murderer, the dignity of dying, however painfully, without having to face the consequences of his actions and before he can be brought before the judicial system (Doyle, 255).
Hysteria, which is most associated with the feminine, is a common trait of gender transgressive masculine characters. Holmes in A Study in Scarlet is moved to hysteria when confronting a failure in his own deductive reasoning, leading him to become anxious and aggravated (Bragg, 9). This nervous energy makes him a more feminine character than the blustering Gregson or the confounded Lestrade. These conventionally masculine characters look on as Holmes makes an emotional and nervous spectacle until he is able to reestablish his understanding of the mystery (Doyle, 131). Similarly, Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone is driven to tears as he relates the illness of Candy, and is visibly emotional and sentimental in a way that is not associated with Victorian masculinity (Karpenko, 133). Jennings is aware of his transgression and reflects upon it saying “Physiology says, and says truly, that some men are born with female constitutions—and I am one of them!” (Collins, 930). Jenning’s emotional vulnerability and feminine qualities give him an additional otherness that makes his medical and deductive genius just another aspect of his unusual and transcendent identity. As Watson and Blake watch on with interest they are merely spectators of the feminine spectacle before them such as the narrator in “The Harlot’s House”, positioning themselves outside the action, but are inexplicably drawn into it; Jennings makes an unusual proposal that Blake cannot resist, Holmes appeals to Watsons need for danger and in “The Harlot’s House” the allure of the spectacle of prostitution and debauchery fascinates and entices the narrator’s voyeuristic urges (Fong, 200).
The masculine intellect is a preoccupation of A Study in Scarlet with Holmes pushing all typically masculine concerns aside and focusing on the pursuit of knowledge pertaining to criminology. He explains his dedication to criminology to Watson “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across” (Doyle, 29). This pursuit of knowledge is all consuming and leaves no room for the pursuit of normative masculine goals. The legacy of Poe’s Dupin from “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as the precursor to Doyle’s Holmes is perhaps one of not just a particular brand of deductive reasoning but a sexual and gender ambiguity (Bragg, 6) that contributes to Holmes subversiveness and eccentricity.
Wilde’s spectator comes in form of the narrator and provides us with a text dealing with the male gaze and view of the female spectacle in “The Harlot’s House”. The narrator beholds the spectacle of prostitution, and voyeuristically indulges his curiosity with his “love” (Wilde, 25). His use of the plight of the women of the lower classes for entertainment removes him from the scene that is taking place. He is the observer, and when his companion is drawn into the action he is helpless to stop her. His voyeurism is the downfall of his companion, but he, ever the spectator comes out of the experience relatively unscathed showing the privilege that his masculinity affords him. We can liken Wilde’s narrator to other observers and spectators such as Watson, who has nothing to lose in A Study in Scarlet and a whole host of male characters in The Moonstone, who emerge from, the text unscathed. They are removed from the scene in a way that is typical of the gentleman spectator. The gentleman spectator often has very little concept of the repercussions of his actions in both “The Harlot’s House” and The Moonstone. Often the male characters, defined in this essay as the spectators, act upon their own whims without thought for the greater repercussions for others. In the male spectator there is often a lack of awareness or care for those with less agency than themselves, as demonstrated repeatedly by the blissfully unaware Franklin Blake who is clueless as to Rosanna’s affection for him and the motive to Rachel’s disassociation with him.
The collaborative abilities of the transcendent masculine and the masculine spectator is key to solving the mysteries at the heart of A Study in Scarlet and The Moonstone. The homosocial friendships in the texts form part of the reimagining of the Victorian male ideal. The Victorian male as a lone wolf is an incomplete and ineffective entity, whereas with the companionship of another man is able to achieve almost impossible feats. The ineffectuality of the moderate male to decode the mystery is exemplified by the confusion of Franklin Blake until he is drawn into collaboration with Ezra Jennings and Watson’s displacement until he takes up rooms with Holmes in Baker Street (Buchanan, 20). Within this collaborative effort the moderate masculine man tethers the othered and transcended masculine to reality, particularly in A Study in Scarlet with Watson proving to be the essential morally present character that keeps Holmes’s antisocial and apathetic behaviour in check (Buchanan, 20).
The masculine moderate man’s role as audience surrogate is firmly established by his role as narrator in all four texts under analysis. The sole exception to this is the contribution of the female narrator of The Moonstone, Miss Clack. However, Miss Clack is written as a caricature of the Christian woman, written from a very Victorian masculine viewpoint. The folly of her female behaviour is poked fun at repeatedly during her narrative, and she is oblivious to the ridiculous nature of her actions. Just as Miss Clack judges her fellow women, Betteredge as a moderate male narrator of The Moonstone stands in judgement of the women of his household. The women of his acquaintance are divided into three categories, those who are his social superior, those who he has fatherly feelings towards and those who he dismisses as cruel and silly. Even those to whom he shows fatherly compassion he views as less than him. The Moonstone’s Betteredge is not alone in its judgmental male gaze. “The Harlot’s House” is a poem that deals solely in the male narrator’s judgement of the female. He is the observer, the standard by which the virtues of the “Harlot’s house” are judged as “The dead” dancing with “the dead” (Wilde, 25,26). Prostitution is the spectacle, and he is the spectator.
The moderate male is able to not only stand in judgement of the women and feminine in his sphere but he is also able to condemn those deemed more brutish, aggressive or criminal in their masculinity. The status of the criminal and corrupted male as “other” to the masculine or gentleman spectator such as Watson, Blake and Betteredge is often achieved through the trangression of gender norms or exercising traits of aggressive muscular masculinity for immoral ends. Unlike the transgression of Sherlock Holmes and Ezra Jennings, the criminal male such as Stangerson and Drebber in A Study in Scarlet and Godfrey in The Moonstone reject the Victorian notion of chivalry and take advantage of women rather than protecting them. The deceptive and brutish nature of the criminal characters leads them take advantage of the feminine to meet their own ends. This transgressive and criminal behaviour allows the masculine spectator to judge them and condemn them. The othering of the criminals in the two novels often hinges on them straying from the accepted duties and characteristics of the masculine. Unlike the transcendent characters who also go against masculine norms and become divine or otherworldly, the criminal or immoral characters use their gender transgressions for personal gain and gratification.
The social dysfunction and otherness that results from the otherness of the genius and the god-like figure is shown to be a necessary consequence of their unusual qualities. Hermaphroditus is denied true allegiance with either gender, Ezra is shunned by virtue of his manners and heritage (Collins, 918) and Holmes alienates almost all but Watson through his arrogance and emotional volatility (Bragg,11). The lack of compliance with society norms seems in all of these characters to be not a matter of unwillingness but a matter of inability, they are simply outside of society norms by the very nature of their being. These characters are, however, given permission to be transgressive due to the god-like (Buchanan, 22) or genius qualities are also demonstrated in the masculine spectator’s reverence for Holmes and Ezra. The other masculinity, the masculinity that is permitted to stray into the territory of the feminine is granted its permission through the spectacular nature of their capabilities.
In “Hermaphroditus” the titular character is the spectacle who is considered asexual and transcendent, associated with Greek mythology and their realm of Gods (Morgan, 322). The male homoeroticism and intersexuality that runs through the poem supports the idea of the sublime nature of the transgression of gender norms. The transgression of heteronormative values in Swinburne’s poem is sensual and sublime, in fact it is this transgression that renders Hermaphroditus desirable and divine in the Victorian Hellenic tradition (Morgan, 317). The Victorian Hellenic tradition often utilizes homoerotic and gender queer themes to better emulate the Ancient Greek aesthetic (Morgan, 317). As in the Greek myth Hermaphroditus transcends gender and the Victorian normative values of Swinburne’s time, allowing the figure to rise above the narrator or spectator (Morgan, 324). Hermaphroditus is perhaps the most revered of the transcendent figures in the texts discussed in this essay, eclipsing even the god-detective Holmes. Hermaphroditus is the only character who is explicitly and physically intersex making him the epitome of feminine masculinity with Swinburne reflecting on the now permanent inability of his subject to fit neatly into accepted gender roles:
“Yet by no sunset and by no moonriseShall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,Or make thee woman for a man’s delight” (Swinburne, 34-36)
Swinburne’s celebration of the visage of Hermaphroditus is not unlike Watson’s celebration of Holmes’s unusual abilities or Franklin Blake’s fascination with Ezra Jennings (Collins, 813). Jennings, Hermaphroditus and Holmes are spectacles of abnormal masculinity, very unlike the more conventionally masculine literary characters that behold them. These male characters who fit more conventional masculine molds are portrayed as straightforward, controlled, fallible and bearing witness to the feminine and the transgressive. The conventionally masculine men are positioned as the norm by which all else is judged, and as a result are often the narrator as in “The Harlot’s House”, A Study in Scarlet and Franklin Blake’s narrative in The Moonstone. The masculine spectator being positioned as the reader surrogate assumes that the audience is likely to be able to relate to that viewpoint, and is further evidence of the moderate masculine being positioned as the norm within these texts.
The picture of Victorian masculinity painted by A Study in Scarlet, The Moonstone, “Hermaphroditus” and “The Harlot’s House” is one that is segmented and conditional. The power and status that comes with the masculine can be stripped away by purposeful immorality and criminality, and can be superseded by transcendent otherness that goes beyond masculine gender to a superhuman status. These superhuman characters such as the god-like Hermaphroditus and the genius Ezra Jennings are deliberately othered to make their abilities stranger, thus negating the need for explanation, they are simply beyond the normative masculine experience. Whereas the normative masculine character takes his power from much more explicable socially enforced means. The ability of the male spectator to divorce himself from the scene and yet have lasting repercussions on the lives of those within it is a way that his power manifests and yet he is often blissfully unaware of this power, taking it for granted, oblivious of his privileged place within the narrative. Another manifestation of masculine power is through the friendships and relationships between the male observer and the transcendent other. It is through these modes of power that the masculine observer characters within these texts are able to maintain their status as spectator as the scene plays out around them, allowing them to dance with danger but never to be truly exposed to it. References• Bragg, Tom. “Becoming a “Mere Appendix”: The Rehabilitated Masculinity of Sherlock Holmes.” Victorian Newsletter, no. 116, Fall2009, pp. 3-26. EBSCOhost, simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=47882817&site=ehost-live.• Buchanan, Ron. “‘Side by Side’:The Role of the Sidekick.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 26, no. 1, 2003, pp. 15–26. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23414984.• Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. [ebook] Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg, 2006. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/155 [Accessed 5th Oct. 2017].• Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. 2nd ed. [ebook] Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg, 2008. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/244 [Accessed 13th Oct. 2017].• Fong, Bobby. “Wilde’s the Harlot’s House.” The Explicator 48.3, 1990, pp198-201.• Karpenko, Lara. “‘A Nasty Thumping at the Top of Your Head’: Muscularity, Masculinity, and Physical Reading in ‘The Moonstone.’” Victorian Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2012, pp. 132–154. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23646858.• Morgan, Thaïs E. “Reimagining Masculinity in Victorian Criticism: Swinburne and Pater.” Victorian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 1993, pp. 315–332. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3828326.• Smart, Graeme, and Yeates, Amelia. “Introduction: Victorian Masculinities.” Critical Survey, vol. 20, no. 3, 2008, pp. 1–5. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41556280.• Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “Hermaphroditus” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.• Wilde, Oscar. “The Harlot’s House” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.
Multiple Approaches to Obsessive Tendencies: A Close Reading of ‘A Study in Scarlet’
‘The Hunter’s mind was of a hard, unyielding nature, and the predominant idea of revenge had taken such complete possession of it that there was no room for any other emotion. He was, however, above all things, practical.’ (Doyle, 2014, p.122)
A Study in Scarlet is the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s extensive renditions of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, a British detective that exhibits extraordinary skills in solving crimes. The novel deals largely with the issues of single-mindedness and behaviour that reflects obsessive tendencies. Beginning with an analysis of the above extract, I will explicate Doyle’s most poignant description of such attributes as presented in Jefferson Hope and thereby show some of Doyle’s attitudes. Following this I am to look at Holmes and Watson and their relation to these attributes and attitudes. Finally, I will consider Doyle’s scathing critique of Mormonism with regard to his depiction of these obsessive and single-minded traits exhibiting the centrality of the aforementioned ideas in the novel as an entirety.
A close reading of the extract brings to the fore issues of obsessive behaviour and single-minded preoccupation. Revenge has taken ‘complete possession’ of Jefferson Hope’s mind as he searches for Drebber and Stangerson, the men Hope believes responsible for the death of his beloved – Lucy – and her father. As his mind is ‘hard’ and ‘unyielding’ this ‘predominant idea’ is durable and does not fade. As such we see him spend the remainder of his life working towards attaining his obsessive goal of avenging the death of Lucy Ferrier. So far has his obsession gone that Hope no longer experiences emotion – other than his compulsion for revenge. Doyle’s narrative asks us to question such behaviours. We see that Hope’s life becomes dreary and, in many ways, empty. While his turmoil begins with the death of Lucy, he seems to delve deeper into despair in his pursuit of revenge. Doyle is alluding to the pejorative effects of the predisposition Hope exhibits which limit his ability to grow or experience his humanity in any other sphere of life whether it be inter- or intrapersonal relationships. However, it is worth noting that it is only through this fixated mind-set that Hope was able to find the two men he so laboriously hunted and enact his revenge. While the moral value of revenge can be questioned, it noteworthy that Doyle suggests that Hope’s commitment to revenge and nothing else was instrumental in his achievement of his goal. Thus, the passage shines light on the prevalent theme of ostensibly neurotic infatuation with a single ideal or concept and Doyle’s response to these issues.
On further reading of the novel, we see that Sherlock Holmes, the crime solving protagonist, is an almost perfect embodiment of this same neurotic behaviour which takes possession of every aspect of his life. Watson describes Holmes’ ‘passion for definite and exact knowledge’ as being ‘pushed to excess’ (Doyle, 2014, p.7). Holmes believes in a ‘duty to unravel [mysteries], and isolate [mysteries] and expose every inch of [mysteries]’ (Doyle, 2014, p.44). Holmes is entirely absorbed in these endeavours to the extent that they dominate his life. Watson’s reflections on such pursuits by Holmes show that it leads to some deprivation in Holmes life – an emotional absence in Holmes’ psyche, so much so that Holmes has an entirely callous response to ‘death in many forms’, a disposition Watson observes when encountering the body at the centre of the novel’s mystery (Doyle, 2014, p.30). As readers, we experience an intuitive aversion to such an emotionally abject life. Holmes’ deep preoccupation with deductive reasoning and rational thought in his pursuit of truth serves to make his life approximate the emotional abjection of Hope’s. Watson even alludes to Holmes’ use of opioids, a substance abuse commonly associated with some sort of emotional turmoil. This point is further emphasised in Holmes depressive behaviour when he disconnects from his external world and engages in little more than practicing violin. Doyle’s representation clearly indicates an attitude that regards these obsessive behaviours as damaging in that it detracts from Holmes’ psychological and emotional wellbeing.
It is possible Doyle is offering a perspicacious critique of his society. Writing in the nineteenth century, Doyle was exposed to an important shift in the collective conscious of England. As industrialisation and the transition to modernity took hold of Europe and technology became the ostensible panacea of agricultural and economic shortcomings, rationality and reason came to embody the ideal. An idea more fully developed in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, as Gulliver encounters various societies that are slave to their all-pervasive rationality, Doyle is perhaps arguing that such complete immersion in rational thought at the expense of emotion and other less objective and logical mental processes is not the ideal for which we should strive. We see this when, despite their affection for Gulliver, the houyhnhnms expel Gulliver from their society because of their inability to logically align their predispositions with such his being welcomed (Swift, 2008). In this context, Doyle’s use of Holmes as a critique of unwavering rationality in thought is hugely relevant.
Yet, Doyle does not purely condemn Holmes’ deductive, acute and incisive obsession with rational thought and mystery solving. It is alluded to that Holmes’ preoccupied mind has allowed him to solve many crimes, including the one in the novel. It is because of Holmes’ unwavering – ‘unyielding’ – mind that his observational skills are so attuned to every detail he is able to observe through his senses – footprints, smells, writing on the walls. His focused mind allows him to discover details not easily noticed by even the top detectives of his time – Lestrade and Gregson. As such, Holmes is a bulwark of justice in that he ensures that criminals are apprehended and the truth of all crimes is learnt. Moreover, these characteristics allow Holmes to perpetually grow his knowledge and its application in the real world – ideals of modernity as discussed above. It is very difficult to look at this in any but a positive light. Doyle makes the lucid suggestion that perhaps there is some advantage to the fixation Holmes exhibits – a fixation that mirrors Hope’s single-minded pursuit of revenge.
So considered, Doyle seems to present a view not entirely opposing such single-mindedness. However, on examining his representation of the Mormons in the novel, we come to see a severe criticism of such relentless ideological zeal. The Mormons are here presented as a notoriously fundamentalist sect of Christianity – so much so that within the group ‘even the most saintly dared only whisper their religious opinions with bated breath’ out of fear of social sanction (Doyle, 2014, p.97). In the novel, they come across John and Lucy Ferrier at the edge of death from dehydration. They save the destitute Ferriers on the condition that they convert to Mormonism – a condition which calls their apparent altruistic rescuing into question; is it not a mere self-serving action? Later on, the leader of the Mormon sect, Brigham Young, insists that Lucy partake in their polygamist traditions and forces her into a wedding with Drebber despite her romantic affections for Jefferson Hope. Lucy’s father tries to oppose the wedding and by implication dissents against the Mormons. Brigham Young’s cult-like following proceed to threaten John and ultimately kill him. Lucy is married to Drebber and subsequently ‘pined away and died’ from the trauma of her father’s death and her forced marriage (Doyle, 2014, p.121). The harmful effects of the Mormon religious obsession that led to the destruction and ultimate end of the lives of John and Lucy are deplorable. Similarly, it is these actions that lead to Jefferson’s tireless pursuit of revenge and can therefore be considered the antecedents of his own misery. Aside from the prominent characters in the novel, the fear and lack of autonomy with which members of Young’s sect are forced to live can be looked at with nothing but disapprobation. Here we see that Doyle does not offer a balanced account that considers a beneficial aspect to such behaviour. Rather, he condemns the fanatical Mormons whose actions seem to cause nothing but hurt and damage in the lives of all associated with them.
But Doyle’s critique is not fully considered until one looks at Watson. In the narrator’s character Doyle presents the utility that an all-encompassing mind-set can offer – provided it is used with discretion. Watson demonstrates similar, although lesser, skills of observation, deduction and rationality to that of Holmes. While Watson’s actions never directly suggest a more balanced demeanour, his narrative voice persistently alludes to his having a better understanding of the social world around him – he displays far greater emotional intelligence. While Watson is in a similar friendless state to Holmes, he is more acutely aware of the circumstance and suggests through tone that he is aware of the negative toll this takes on his psychological welfare – something that never seems to occur with Holmes. Watson tells the reader that ‘Holmes is a little too cold blooded for [his] taste’ (Doyle, 2014, p.7). Holmes’ calculating nature precludes any emotional intelligence and interferes with his performance of any social interactions that suggest warmth. As readers, we are drawn to Holmes’ extraordinary skills, but find something unsettling in what he lacks – emotionally and socially. Doyle offers a counterpoint in Watson that allows us to see the benefit of a more balanced existence, even if this comes at the expense of some of the natural abilities exhibited by Holmes while maintaining that there are times when focus and mental dedication can serve us well in life.
A Study in Scarlet is a novel that deals with obsessive, compulsive and single-minded behaviour. As the extract shows, Doyle believe such attributes are, for the most part, not ones to which we should aspire. However, he does acknowledge the benefits that they may bring in allowing Jefferson to carry out his revenge and enabling Holmes to solve numerous mysteries. He reminds us, though, through the Mormons, that ultimately, these behaviours often lead to hugely destructive consequences, especially when enacted through large scale social groupings. But we must not forget the narrative voice that threads the novel together – Watson. Through Watson, Doyle subtly suggests across the novel that if such obsessive and single-minded behaviour is throttled to some extent, so that it does not entirely consume one’s life, it may have much to offer in certain situations.
Doyle, A.C., 2014. A Study in Scarlet: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure. William Collins paperback edition ed. Great Britain: Harper Collins Publishers. Swift, J., 2008. Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford World’s Classics paperback, New Edition, Reissue ed. United States: Oxford University Press, Inc. Originally published 1726.