The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Themes

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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.

Mystery

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes shows that the world works in mysterious ways—or rather, appears to. Over the course of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the detective finds himself entangled in one bizarre plot after the next. 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.

Justice

Sherlock Holmes is 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 righted.

Camaraderie

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.

Reasoning

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.

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