Saturday, April 17, 2010

Empire in Holmes

As we discussed in class I think that there are obvious attacks of class and empire in Sherlock Holmes. For me one of the most interesting pieces of the book was when the KKK becomes a part of the action. That entire story is very gothic because of the disappearance of the ship and at the beginning of it the semblance of haunting that is created by the letters inscribed with KKK. It seems like the spoils of imperialism and empire are coming back to haunt the British. This is because the letter is addressed from India as well as it directly references American slavery which is a part of the British colonial legacy. While Holmes identifies the murderers they are not caught which to me suggests that even though unjust wrongs have been done to British people, those small injustices do not absolve them from the sin of empire. The lack of clear resolution says that there can be no justice for the British who have been operating and profiting from unjust rule for so long. It's a very dark reading but I think pretty appropriate.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Holmes' take on drug usage

Today in class we discussed the general themes that Sherlock Holmes seems to address. We decided that the book advocates middle class education and training, comments on the corruption of the upper class, stresses that all of the social entanglements caused by upper class corruption and problems with the middle class must be fixed, claims the superiority of natural law over positive law, and says that the middle class needs to separate themselves from drugs, immorality, and deception. In seems like most of us are in agreement about these general ideas, but I am still struggling with interpreting Doyle's take on drug use. In the stories, Holmes is presented as sort of separate from the middle class, but not quite part of the corrupted upper class either. He acts as a role model that Watson and the rest of the middle class should follow. Holmes can recognize the "types" (or stereotypes) that everyone around him sees, yet he is not confined by them - he recognizes individuals as well. In every way he acts as the role model for Britain's middle-class. Where, then, does his drug use fit in? If he is actually a role model, and engages in opium and cocaine use, then is Doyle advocating the use of drugs? The rest of the book makes clear that Doyle believes the rampant drug use within his country to be a serious problem, but I think that Holmes' use compromises that message.

In addition, someone's response to my question about this today was that Holmes recognizes natural law as superior to positive law. But positive law in Britain at the time allowed opium use, whereas natural law clearly recognizes drugs as bad. By using drugs, Holmes appears to support positive law in place of natural law. Anyway, I'm still having trouble processing this so if anyone could clarify it would be a big help.

Sorolla, Clotilde

Induction vs Deduction

One theme I've found throughout the Holmes stories is the critique on reasoning that Doyle employs. At this time in history, most trains of thought were based around an "inductive" style of reasoning - that is, "clues" or "evidence" was sorted into categories, and based on the category a response was chosen. Even Watson, a doctor, was prone to this. Just like other doctors at the time, Watson would see clues for a case much like he would symptoms in an illness. Based on what illness the symptoms seemed to indicate, he had a regimented treatment for that illness.

Holmes takes another approach. While at first seeming similar in that both characters use evidence to support their conclusions, Holmes' utilization of deduction, while potentially open-ended and inconclusive, proves to be a much more valid method in many cases. He takes the clues for what they are and pieces them together, without a regard for what convention may suggest the clues indicate.

I feel that Watson would say, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck and we should feed it bread." However I see Holmes as saying something more like, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then we've only proven it to be like a duck."

As a side note, the deductive style of reasoning is more common in medicine today, I think. Rather than having one approach to an illness, doctors more and more often develop individualized plans of treatment. While they can't defenestrate convention's suggestions as easily as Holmes seemed to, it is a marked change.

Stranger than Fiction

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes remarks several times that real life is often weirder than the mind can imagine: "we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any efforts of the imagination" (51). Holmes' insistence on the strangeness of everyday life and his preference for the smaller cases that present idiosyncratic details versus the large/high-profile cases that all seem the same, reflect Doyle's awareness of the weirdness of his society. We have discussed the strangeness of British society--especially at the beginning of the semester (ridiculous corsets, wigs, etc.)--and how Britons focused on the weirdness of other societies (African and American) rather than recognizing their own eccentricities. Doyle, however, points out the unusual facets of British society through normalizing weird--calling out life in general to be weird. Through these stories of odd crimes, odd human behavior, Doyle easily entertains his readers by allowing them to join in his observation of the odd, and yet he also shows them just how odd normal life can be. The question is, did they know that by going "How strange!" about the events and characters in the stories they were actually going "How strange!" about their society and possibly themselves?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Seeing vs. Observing

In class on Tuesday we ended talking about the difference between seeing and observing. Watson sees everything, but he overlooks the important details.
In "The Red-Handed League," Watson tries to analyze Mr. Jabez Wilson "after the fashion of my companion to read hte indications which might be presented by his dress or appearance."
However, he only notices his clothing and concludes that "there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his features."
In a matter of mere minutes though, Holmes has figured out that this man has "done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately."
Watson sees what is on the exterior, but usually does not get past the colors and shapes of the clothing, which are details that could be important, but are sometimes irrelevant.
According to, to observe is: to see, watch, perceive, or notice and to regard with attention, esp. so as to see or learn something.
In each of the cases, it is meticulous observation that solves the crime.
So the difference between seeing and observing? Seeing is looking on the surface that the coat is red, but observing is noticing that the sleeves are too short, and too tight around the shoulders, indicating that the wearer is strapped for cash or has little time/does not care to shop. (Ok, so maybe not such a great example but I'm not Sherlock Holmes.)

The Elementary Case of "A Case of Identity"

"A Case of Identity," seems a rather perverse tale upon review. Miss Sutherland, a victim of deceit by her own step-father, who engages in a romantic relationship with her using a disguise. While Holmes reasons that his motives were financial in nature, I feel that Mr. James Windinbank, being 15 years younger than his wife, had more sexual desires with Miss Sutherland, but couldn't follow through with his plans when she began asking too many questions. It seems rather strange that a young girl wouldn't recognize her own stepfather, and that she would agree to marry Hosmer Angel without knowing hardly anything about him; however, love can be a powerful force often blinding a person to observation. This is precisely why Holmes chooses not to reveal his conclusion to her.

Holme's keen sense of observation, seen in his description of Miss Sutherland's sleeve, and again in the characteristics of the type-writer, is a pervasive theme throughout this and the other the stories in the collection. However, this story differs from some of the others in its simplicity. Holmes finds the case, "elementary," and even I came to a similar conclusion after reading Miss Sutherland's description of the case and the title of the story. This story was most likely written for an experienced Sherlock Holmes audience to be able to figure out before the end, which fits in with our discussion the other day about the use of periodicals in delivering the stories to the masses.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Holmes and Mr. Utterson

There is an obvious connection between "Sherlock Holmes" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in the fact that they are both short stories that unravel a mystery. This parallel places Holmes and Mr. Utterson in comparable positions as the detective figure in each work, yet their methods of discovery and theorizing are strikingly different. Mr. Utterson tries to maintain a rational viewpoint by assuming that Mr. Hyde is a manipulative criminal, and he relies strictly on the documented facts as we discussed last week. Despite his attempt to stick to evidence, his imagination constantly wanders but without the efficiency that arises from Holmes' thoughts. Holmes does not focus solely on the evidence; instead, he acknowledges that evidence can point in the wrong direction or be misinterpreted. This is a concept that Mr. Utterson was unable to grasp, leaving him without the full scope of information necessary to solve the mystery of Dr. Jekyll. I think the difference between Holmes and Mr. Utterson has an interesting tie in to our discussion of observation vs. seeing in class. Although Mr. Utterson sees everything just like Watson, he is unable to observe everything like Holmes. Perhaps then, observation is not only derived from visual clues but from cognitive assumptions as well? Holmes does notice the tiny details, but it is his deductions that truly separate him from Watson or Mr. Utterson.

Mind Tricks and Illusions

In previous conversations, we have explored the Victorian fascination with optical illusions and tricking the mind. Sherlock Holmes certainly capitalizes off this popular craze. Watson and Holmes can look at the exact same situation and see entirely different realities. I imagine the audience loved trying to guess what Holmes might have noticed throughout the narrative. I think it was especially fascinating to try to fool the mind, which Doyle does quite well. In his costumes, Holmes is unrecognizable even to his best friend. Doyle is particularly dramatic in presenting Holmes' deductive capabilities by catching his visitors off guard and then slowly revealing his reasoning. This plays into the "throw away effect" that we mentioned in class today- once Holmes reveals the mystery, there is no longer any curiosity or magic about the situation. Furthermore, the reader is entertained by sharing the insight into the illusion, as if they are part of the inside joke. In this manner, Doyle creates short stories that are thoroughly engaging for both his contemporary audience and modern readers.

Mapping Rationality in Baker Street

Coming from my favorite website, Strange Maps, I found this image of Holmes' flat in Baker Street as reconstructed from references to the location of rooms and furniture throughout the story. Looking at it again, I was reminded of the end of our discussion regarding the ability of Holmes to function as a camera, developing in his mind the photographic image of a case from the story brought to him by a client. It seems fitting, then, that this map is created in a particularly Holmes-ish way. The input of impressionistic, facts as related by Watson as to the set-up of the apartment are here transformed into the imminently rational, delineated, and recreated itemized, cross-referenced, and labelled. Down to the "pipe rack next to the settee," Holmes' space is recreated via the same process that Holmes himself uses in deducing his way through the facts and impressions of the cases he encounters, using reason to create a whole, coherent picture from tidbits of information that would not register with one who is not trained in the hyper-rational.

Galton composite

Strand illustration

Strand Magazine cover

Sorolla, Instantanea, Biarritz (1906) and Beach at Valencia

Monday, April 12, 2010

Social commentary in these stories?

I really enjoyed reading these stories this week especially since I have watched many of them. They are very easy to read and the mystery is easy to understand. It is very predictable that he will solve the mystery but it is still enjoyable. I like the way Arthur Conan Doyle writes because the lower classes can also follow the story. I couldn't help but wonder what was his purpose behind the stories. The stories involve both the upper and lower classes (A Scandal in Bohemia and The Man with the Twisted Lip), the court system (The Boscombe Valley Mystery), romance (A Case of Identity), and many different situations. I also noticed that the people never went to the police but they came to Sherlock first. Are the stories a critique on the police system and their inability to solve the public's problems? I feel like there is a reason behind the stories, possibly some type of social commentary. Any ideas?

Example of a cabinet photo