Saturday, February 15, 2014

What is Sherlock Holmes?

One thing that may get lost in our modern screen adaptations of the original Conan Doyle material on Sherlock Holmes is that strong feeling Sherlockians have always gotten from Holmes that he was a real person. Love the Cumberbatch to death, but his James Bond antics of late have raised his Sherlock Holmes to that sort of over-the-top personality I love to see on the movie screen. And while fans of the Miller tend to cite his more "down-to-earth" persona, he remains over-the-top in a different direction. You probably aren't going to run into anyone like either of those fellows on the street, which is why we watch television and movies in the first place -- to see people and stories we don't see every day.

But while we don't see a fellow like the Sherlock Holmes of the sixty stories every day, we see parts of him in ourselves and the people we know all the time. He's a complex fellow, full of contradictions, flaws, amazing bits, and just plain humanity . . . like the rest of us, just a little better at some things.

That came to mind this morning when I was re-reading Jacquelynn Morris's article "The Case of the Missing Misogynist" in the Winter 2012 issue of The Serpentine Muse. She makes a methodical survey of the Holmes Canon to gather his attitudes on women to see what the evidence truly is on Holmes being identified as a misogynist.

Jacquelynn passes over A Study in Scarlet with the statement "Holmes has no direct contact with any women in the entire story." Which is true. And not true. For in A Study in Scarlet, we have Mrs. Sawyer visiting Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street to reclaim "her daughter's" ring. Now, in an Austin Powers-like moment, Sherlock cries "Old woman be damned!" and declares that Mrs. Sawyer must have been a young man in drag.

Now, Holmes never proves his statement about Mrs. Sawyer's gender identity, and these days we might be more accepting of Mrs. Sawyer's life-choices, even if she is a lying, ring-stealing old biddy. But when Sherlock Holmes then says, "Women are never to be entirely trusted," early on in his next book, The Sign of the Four, one might see where he's coming from. (And for Holmes, men aren't to be trusted either -- remember that young man who wished Holmes good-night in "A Scandal in Bohemia?) Mrs. Sawyer really pissed Holmes off, so much that he started insulting her femininity in the absolute worst way. (Just like Austin Powers eventually does, actually, when he tries to pull the "wig" off a real woman.)

My point here, though I've wandered a bit just for fun, is that Sherlock Holmes was a misogynist. And he wasn't a misogynist, as evidenced in his interactions with Mary Morstan and other ladies, which Jacquelynn cites in her paper.

One of the amusing things I've learned since becoming a blogger is that people really, really want to see you as a consistent, definable creature, which we actual human beings are not. You're either a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or an Atheist, Straight or Gay in the eyes of somebody out there. As enlightened as any of us can be on some subjects, we all have our "black or white" definitions of people on other subjects. It's a built-in mental mechanic we can't ever seem to completely overcome.

And while Sherlockians have enjoyed trying to define and nail down Sherlock Holmes on a number of parts of his life for a very long time, the truth about Holmes is that he's more complicated than that. He has moments of misogyny. He has moments of racism. He has moments of intolerance for lesser intellects (which our modern adaptations love to play up). But these are moments, and not the whole man. Over the course of his life, Sherlock Holmes truly seems to enjoy people of every sort and shade. They make life interesting for him, and without their great variety, he surely never would have had the interest to hone his powers of observation as sharply as he did.

Jacquelynn was correct in her paper's conclusion: Sherlock Holmes was not a misogynist.

Sherlock Holmes was also not a sociopath. Sherlock Holmes was not asexual. Sherlock Holmes was not a bad friend. Not a braggart. Not a murderer. Not a plumber. Not a priest. Not a whole lot of things. And yet he displayed the characteristics of all of these roles on occasion. What was Sherlock Holmes?

He was very much like you or I, a real, and very complicated, person. And that, I am sure, is why we've grown so fond of him over the years. He's one of us.

Just very, very cool at being one of us.


  1. "One thing that may get lost in our modern screen adaptations of the original Conan Doyle material on Sherlock Holmes is that strong feeling Sherlockians have always gotten from Holmes that he was a real person. Love the Cumberbatch to death, but his James Bond antics of late have raised his Sherlock Holmes to that sort of over-the-top personality I love to see on the movie screen."

    See, you feel it, too. In S1/2 Baker Street was so real for me. And now... it's not. Makes me sad. :-(

  2. I guess all the people who participated in the "I believe in Sherlock" meme would disagree with you about the level of "realness" of Sherlock.

  3. Mr Holmes is certainly a complex fellow, and he never was a misogynist. I believe people of this century are much more likely to judge the entire character of a person based on a statement or two, and sometimes, as in the case of all this electronic media, without even making that person's acquaintance.

    Though he has his flaws, Mr Holmes is at heart a gentleman who is kind and respectful of women. When he learned my story, he didn't just show intellectual interest in the particulars of my case; he showed that he cared about me and my life. He prevented my suicide by telling me, "Your life is not your own" and reminding me that "the example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world" (see Watson's story "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger"). Then, when I followed his advice, he called me a "brave woman." Hardly the attitude and words of a misogynist.

    It is my opinion that people of this century need to consider the person beneath the words. Words are superficial. The spirit behind them is harder to understand. Words which appear misogynistic may have prejudice underlying them, but those words may also reveal an apprehension of women that comes from an inability to completely understand them. After all, Mr Holmes likes to live in the realm of the purely logical. Our sex, with our natural ability to perceive feelings and to live on a more emotional, experiential level, must occasionally confuse and frustrate him.

  4. The article mentioned was written after many years of hearing people casually toss about the word "misogynist" with regard to Holmes as if we all naturally believed this. I have never believed it myself. When I heard it spoken from the podium at a large symposium by a well-respected Sherlockian woman awhile back I looked for an opportunity to put my own perspective out there in defense of Mr. Holmes. Were Holmes a true, full-time misogynist I can't see any woman really having much interest in him for the long-term, and my feminist hackles would have been raised had I perceived him as such myself. Yes, we are all at times racist, misogynistic, judgmental, exclusionist, but just as a candid photo rarely shows our true appearance, neither does a capture of a phrase or two spoken without reflection or insight represent our true character. Putting Holmes in the misogynistic box--and leaving him there--does him, and us, a great disservice.

  5. Moffat and Gatiss' approach to "homage" in "Sherlock" Series One and Two started out clever, knowledgeable and fairly restrained, at least compared to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spewfest of Series Three. The reason we engage with Sherlock Holmes is to see a brilliant man solve a complex puzzle in a way that makes us say, like Watson, "When I hear you give your reasons, the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled, until you explain your process." In cobbling together their oh-so clever Canonical references, homages, in-jokes and fan shout-outs, Moffat and Gatiss forgot to give us the mystery.

    By the way, in regards to the "James Bond antics", Moffat is a huge Bond fan and that shows up in "His Last Vow" where Mary Morstan turns out to be a CIA assassin who shoots Sherlock non-lethally in the chest. That was a major plot element in William Boyd's official James Bond pastiche "Solo" (2013) where Bond is shot in the chest by CIA triple-agent Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, in the one non-lethal spot where he could be shot and survive, to prevent Bond from being murdered by someone else--she saved his life by shooting him.

    I hope in Series Four Moffat and Gatiss remember what Sherlock Holmes is and why we are interested in watching him.

    1. I can't possibly explain all the reasons why I disagree with your assessment of Season 3, but in the words of both Moffat and Gatiss (both of whom appear to regard this season as their best), "Sherlock is not a detective series; it's a series about a detective". They repeatedly state, in commentaries and specials and interviews, that the real focus is on the relationships Sherlock has with others, not to mention the close friendship with John Watson.

      As for the notion that Mary shot him to save his life? There only a few million people beside myself who would vehemently disagree, including Moffat. If I want to save someone, I usually try NOT to put bullets in them and cause them to flat-line. Yes, Mary KILLED Sherlock and he literally saved himself (with some help from a virtual Moriarty!). All I can say is: watch "His Last Vow" (yep, the Emmy-winning ep.) again. And again...

      P.S. Season 4 will make you cry, say Moffat & Gatiss, may dislike it even more than 3...