“So silent and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defence.”
-John Watson, The Sign of Four
Over the course of history, the western literary canon has seen countless stories with countless characters. These tales have spanned over centuries, shaping and being shaped by the cultures and traditions of their own respective eras. As a general rule of thumb, there is usually at least one major character who the audience follows in order to understand the plot and the world in the narrative. When it comes to the Sherlock Holmes stories, this becomes a little trickier to pin down. Though they center around Holmes solving the many cases that come his way, it is actually Dr John Watson who narrates them to the reader. Perhaps some distinction can be made between the two and between what constitutes as ‘protagonist’ and ‘main character’. However, for the purposes of this discussion, the character of Holmes will be referred to as protagonist, seeing as he primarily drives most of the stories forward when there is a call to action.
To the average person, the term ‘protagonist’ can mean quite a plethora of things, but one can assume that one of the more common terms attached to it is ‘hero’. The most cliché imagery that can be constructed from said term is most likely the ‘knight in shining armour’ who saves the day and rescues the princess. As obnoxious as this may be, much of the elements involved here rings true. In Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his main argument is that the archetypal hero that exists in the mass consciousness is one who goes on a journey, faces obstacles and comes back home as someone who has grown, shedding away the ignorance of their past self (Campbell 30). For a hefty amount of fictional work, this can be a very legitimate summary of what the hero goes through. Whether it be Beowulf or Harry Potter, some form of self-growth and journey is involved and the characters are deemed as ‘good’. While Holmes is obviously not evil (he does work on the side of the law, after all), he certainly does not fall under the category of ‘completely good.’ Yes, a protagonist with flaws is one that is compelling, but many of Holmes supposed ‘flaws’ are rather alarming to say the least. He is no paragon of virtue and he definitely is not the knight in shining armor that saves the day because of his ‘strong moral compass’. The most straightforward reason as to why he does detective work can be best summed up by the character himself when he sordidly states that his mind is akin to “a racing engine, tearing itself to pieces because it is not connected up with the work for which it was built” (Doyle, The Sign of Four, ). This alone is his primary reason for being an investigator; not because he wants to serve and protect, but because he wants the thrill of the chase and to unravel the many knots that are left by those on the opposite side of the law.
The word ‘addict’ carries with it many negative connotations. It is also the word that can sum up Sherlock Holmes in an unbelievably succinct manner. Unless Holmes supplies his mind with challenging puzzles and problems to solve, he resorts to other means for that stimulation, i.e narcotics. In The Sign of Four, an equally exhausted and enraged Watson reprimands his companion quite harshly for his constant use of cocaine and morphine, imploring him to consider the consequences of losing “those great powers with which [he had] been endowed” (Doyle, The Sign of Four). It is here where Holmes reminds the reader of his abhorrence to the “dull routine of existence”, further iterating how his constant craving for mental exaltation has led him to create his own profession of the ‘consulting detective’ (Doyle, The Sign of Four). Although use of morphine and cocaine were not deemed as illegal in the Victorian Era, the dangers surrounding abuse of the substance were quite well known by doctors in the medical field. Watson being the level headed companion that he was, fully understood the implications of using them, but alas Holmes’ stubborn nature proved too much for even the good doctor. Fortunately, this aspect of his personality does not ultimately lead to anything permanently damaging.
The same, however, cannot be said for his many instances of disregard for others’ emotions or well-being. While he has shown aptitude for gratitude and praise and genuine affection for those close to him, it is to many a stranger that Holmes has shown a blatant disregard of such affection. Nothing can be a better example of this than his affair with the housemaid in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” In the story, Holmes is after a particularly vile criminal who revels in blackmail and emotional manipulation. For one thing, he disregards the law entirely in order to break into Milverton’s house, an act that would most likely land him in jail. However, the contentious activity that should be alarming to most sensible readers is that of the housemaid. In his journey to learn about his target’s home and habits, Holmes engages in regular flirting with one of Milverton’s housemaids, culminating in him proposing to her and being ‘engaged’. By the end of the case (and in subsequent stories), she is never brought up ever again. While this may be played for laughs, the psychological implications of manipulating a human being in order to achieve an ulterior motive must not be undermined. It is as if Holmes forgets that he is dealing with living, breathing individuals. It is as if he is reducing them to mere objects in just one of many “games” that he gets tangled up in. In “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” there is a similar, albeit a very toned down, replication of this behaviour. To Watson, it appears that Holmes has shown considerable interest in a young female client, but to his disappointment, by the time the case is over, she is completely removed from Holmes’ memory.
In “Psychoanalysis on the Main Character and Author of Sherlock Holmes”, Giovanny Mario comes to the conclusion that Holmes is a person who is selfish, self-destructive as well as a perfectionist (Mario 12). In the previous chapter, it was shown that Joseph Bell was used as a model for many of Holmes’ core characteristics, from observation skills to analytical abilities. What then of the negative, less ‘superhuman’ ones? What is the purpose of having a protagonist so fundamentally flawed in what would be considered basic human decencies? The answer lies in that word itself: protagonist. While Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey fits with many myths and folklore of old, what makes the obsessive Victorian sleuth stand out is his very lack of growth. Watson, never shies away from highlighting his companion’s many negative traits. It bothers him to no end and over the course of the stories, the good doctor’s frustrations are felt on numerous occasions. These traits work so well for the character as they very firmly tether him to the land of the common folk. Obviously, not everyone is sneaking into other people’s houses at night, breaking off faux engagements, or injecting morphine into their veins. Yet there are many people who do end up doing such things; real human beings and real criminals that make the news every other day. Suddenly Sherlock Holmes is not the superhuman detective with amazing abilities. Suddenly Sherlock Holmes is someone who could be the beggar one passes on the street, or the shady looking fellow near the bus station. The two extremes of such a character that are such prevalent aspects of his personality not only make him an endearing figure to read, but tie him to both the land of the common as well as the land of the superhuman very, very firmly. An investigator who fights for good and does drugs: it sure does sound like an unforgettable figure, and if I dare say, it sounds like a figure whose id and superego are in a perpetual state of flux.
Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1968.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Geddes & Grosset, 2001.
Mario, Giovanny. “A Psychoanalysis on the Main Character and the Author of Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet.” Bina Nusantara University, 2012.