Sherlock Holmes: To analyse or not to analyse?

Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget

Should we leave Sherlock Holmes alone and stop over-analysing the working s of his mind, or could this be what Doyle actually wanted us to do? writes Charlotte Anne Walters.

To all those who say writers and fans shouldn’t make suggestions about Holmes’ mental state and should just accept the character exactly as he was written, I say this: Let’s face it, if Sherlock Holmes was your next door neighbour and not a character in a book, you and your family would sit around the dinner table discussing whether the oddball next door was of sound mind or not – what with the gun shots into the wall, the strange visitors, police turning up all the time, a man of that age without a wife, girlfriend or children etc.

Watson gives the reader a view of what actually went on within the walls of 221B and of the complexities of Holmes’ way of thinking, putting us right there in the heart of the action and compelling us to analyse.  It would be a waste to shun such an opportunity.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories we have a description of a character who is crying out to be analysed, full of so many complexities and hints at mental instability.  Holmes is as clever as he is ignorant, intuitive as he is rude and cold mannered. He swings between extreme lethargy and intense energy.  If Doyle intended for Holmes to simply be viewed as a genius, he would have made sure he knew the earth revolved around the sun.

So who can blame the inquisitive reader for wanting to discuss whether or not Holmes was a functioning autistic or indeed affected by Asperger’s syndrome.  The fact that his brother possesses many similar characteristics only serves to add fuel to the fire.  Though Hans Asperger didn’t publish his work on this particular branch of autism until 1944, it is possible that a medical man such as Doyle would be aware of, or have encountered in his own patients, the symptoms it detailed.  Can it simply be coincidence that Holmes exhibits so many characteristics which are typical of those displayed by someone on the autistic spectrum?

Holmes clearly had an above average level of intelligence but his knowledge and interests were very restricted to subjects pertaining to his work.  Outside of this sphere he remained happily ignorant.

He was fanatical about that which was of interest and use, demonstrated clearly by his specific scientific knowledge, the monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of tobacco, the ability to recall from his vast mental encyclopaedia crimes and criminals from throughout history to correlate this to the problem he was trying to solve.  But ask him, as Watson did in the Study in Scarlet, about philosophy, politics etc and he admitted to knowing nothing.

Holmes had only one friend and had not formed an attachment to anyone else, his social skills were virtually none-existent in this respect and he could be highly insensitive especially when critiquing poor Watson and his noble attempts to document his friend’s unusual career.  Was he just grumpy and irascible or were these traits all just part of the same picture?

In the canon we have three men – Holmes, Mycroft and Moriarty who are devoted to their careers, who are so far removed from commonplace society that they carve out unique niches for themselves in their particular field and their intense focus allows them to excel in this.  None have a wife, children or wide circle of friends – indeed Mycroft is so anti-social that he sets up a gentleman’s club in which talking and acknowledging one another is banned.  What is Doyle trying to tell us?  Surely this can’t just be coincidence?

I know the purists frown upon such discussions and I can understand this but, for me,  the joy of Holmes is in the dissection, the discussions of interpretations and the creative outpourings this can inspire such as my own novel due out in September. (Click here to pre-order the book)

I have touched upon these issues – particularly with Moriarty – in my own work but certainly don’t pretend to have the definitive answers.  Frankly no-one ever will but let’s not be afraid of the debate.

And as for the residents of 220 Baker Street, what lively dinner table discussions they must have had.

“I’m sure I’ve just seen the King of Bohemia go into next door . . .”

“Makes a change from the police turning up every five minutes.  Honestly, this used to be such a nice neighbourhood.”

Would you analyse or do you prefer to leave the character as written by Conan Doyle? Post your views using the comment form.

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About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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3 Responses to Sherlock Holmes: To analyse or not to analyse?

  1. Joe Revill says:

    I agree: it sounds like Asperger’s to me — high-functioning Asperger’s, of course. The traits are most notable in the early stories. The longer Holmes lived with Watson the more human he seemed to become; and that is how it is for many high-functioning Aspies, who, like Data in ‘Star Trek’, learn how to be human from their friends. (I speak as one who knows.)
    In later stories, too, Holmes seems quite well-informed about many subjects of which Watson had initially said that he knew nothing. The relevance of Hafiz or Winwood Reade to a detective’s work is not obvious! Perhaps (as has been suggested) he was pulling Watson’s leg a little at the beginning; or perhaps he did extensive reading on areas in which the Doctor found him wanting.
    There is so much that Doyle doesn’t tell us! Novelists like you and I must be grateful for his silence, because it leaves us room to fill in the gaps.

  2. The same can be said of many other fictional characters. Would we really want to invite the gang from “Cheers” over to a cocktail party? They were all, in their own way, horrifically damaged people, the kind most people tend to avoid, yet we loved them in small doses, knowing that weekly observation was the contact their lives and our lives would ever have. In the case of Holmes, thought, we must see everything through the focus of Watson, even to the point of taking him on faith that he is reporting events and actions truthfully. For me, that is the fun of taking on Holmes as a character…maybe it’s Watson who, for whatever reason, was pulling our leg (or, at least burnishing the accounts to make the stories more exciting). The key to Holmes is the word “singular.” It was Watson’s favorite word, appearing incessantly–almost to the point of self-parody–in the original stories, which meant it also must have been one of Doyle’s favorite words. I think, therefore, that the two of them had to present a character who was “singular” at all costs, and they let rationale for it hang on the word.

    • Very good comment, yes I agree that Watson probably embellished things a little to make his accounts more engaging – this was what Holmes disliked about them the most. And singular certainly makes for a more interesting character than commonplace.

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