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.
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