Revisiting Holmes:Empire and Its Falling Shadows in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Iconic Hero

It is often proclaimed by critics and theorists that there cannot be a specific demarcation between ages. There might be (and seems to be) a transitional phase between two apparently dominant literary, philosophical, social, political,cultural, psychological currents and then the stronger one takes over the weaker. Now, there might not be a specific date but sometimes one can really point out what in poetry is called a Volta: a turning point. In case of the Victorian and Modern age arguably that Volta is the publication date of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin –24th November, 1859. This was the book in which we came to learn about the human evolution –from one-celled amoeba to the multi-celled, complex neurological entity called the human being. The book virtually demolished the age-old religious notion of a coherent unidimensional world with considerable organic collectivity propelled by the church.In this context, one could almost conclusively say that in one moment of epiphany the whole Victorian sense of the superior centrality coming down through the golden middle ages of trust and truth and collective well-being as explored in Everyman, Mankind and similar texts, was gone. From Morality to Materiality, it is a journey towards brokenness –a large and gigantic fluidity with essential dots of superfluous fragments of a shattered post-industrialization, post-neo-classical age of liberal ideas trying to gather its own bits and pieces and as the poet exclaims, against its own ruins.


In our theoretical classes our professors used to teach us how the age of “heroes” have ended with an emerging concept of the principle character, the protagonist. From the miracle to the morbidity it was all about the cry for the passing one, an all-time ubisunt which eventually leads to a corresponding search for a counter-pointing. With the breaking of the grand narratives like God, Faith, and Morality in a post-Darwinian age, the claws and paws of dehumanised modernity revealed itself more than ever in its overwhelming mechanized machinations. It is interesting to find how through the Iconoclast Sleuth of Doyle, the broken empire shows its lurking shadows; how Sherlock becomes a face of the times forgotten, trying to fulfil the need for what a Jimmy Porter would call a ‘good cause’.

It is interesting to note that Doyle was born in the same year which stands as the age-defining year for the publication of Darwin’s book, 1859. So, technically being born in the post-God-made-thee era, Doyle’s perception of his time was mingled with a belief of the enlightenment, in the super-reality of the massive metier of the empire. The very name Sherlock brings to mind a superhuman deduction with God-like knowledge on multifarious aspects. On the contrary, in the introductory novel A Study in Scarlet Sherlock’s would-be life-long partner-cum-friend-cum-narrator Dr. Watson reveals his vast ignorance about facts generally held to be an insignia for post-18th Century ‘educated intellectuals’:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done…

Sherlock, brother of an important empire-man does not only seem to be the super example of the construct of the Messiah for the distressed with all his larger–than–life ability to deduct and identify the real culprit but also the man who consciously detests the superficial sense of frugal prosperity.

Mycroft, the obese ‘government’ itself-man is the very representative of the centre that was losing its grasp on a world-wide scale. With the emergence of a broken generation on the advent of the Great War with insurgent colonies, with lowered values and higher need for mundane survival, the centre, as it is evident is able merely to give a vacant gaze at the ‘things’ while they fall apart. Sherlock’s intimacy with his new war-returned friend John Watson and his clear preference towards him over family deconstructs the idea that Mycroft symbolises – all that is of the empire, therefore, loftier and therefore important. With his unsocial confinement, his so called weird sense of the universe, man and nature, his lonely ruptures, his curious secrecy about himself and workings of his mind, Sherlock stands apart from being a mere white awe-inspiring Messiah. A nuance of a classical past, of those humanitarian substances in a virtual world of ‘superhuman inhumanities’(Owen- “Spring Offensive”) and made-up truths, his random and often outright condemnation of the present with all its scientific-geographical advancements might be considered as a comment upon the futility of the future to come. A sensitive man of the pro-war generation, Sherlock contains that potential, namely the cause of ‘being’, while the other half of the magic word remains,‘human.’

Probably, this was the reason for Sherlock’s provisional death as conjectured by Doyle –to be by a fall – a gigantic, tremendous and overwhelming fall that will shake the root of every adoring heart, the reverberation of which will last for ages –howling and haunting. Wondrous fact is that, the extent of the wailing of the devotees around every nook and corner was a little undermined by the author himself!

It is Holmes, who pointed out the threatening turbulent east and to strip it of its last residing, notion of the master. As a break from his bee-cultivation in the countryside to help his country with his espionage skill, he proclaimed it. And we see two old little buddies sitting side by side in an uncanny silhouette conversing while giving birth to the crucial prophesy that comes out of a Victorian viz-a-viz Modern bleeding heart, one final prolegomena off the platonic friendship.

In Thucydides’ Battle of Epipolae in his History of the Peloponnesian War, there is a passage on the confusion faced by the Athenians during a battle at night. Unable to distinguish friend and foe, the Athenians became panic-stricken and attacked their own people. The note of the melancholic that one could hear in the Stradivarius compositions of Holmes therefore goes beyond the personal; it virtually becomes an age-defying elegy on the loss of assurance, integrities and finally whatever stands for the humane. A more likely source could be the sermon of Cardinal Newman, ironically on the traditional day of Twelfth Night:

Controversy at least in this age does not lie between the hosts of heaven on the one side and the powers of evil on the other; but it is a sort of a night battle where each fights for himself and friend and foe stand together.(1839)

Instead of being the primeval saviour, the fairy-tale grand-narrative, Sherlock Holmes served as the metaphoric abode for the restless generations, a shelter at predicament, a psychological boost to the depressed empire, an ever-present solution to the impending unnamed complications –the last projection of a sane man probably who could sense the compromise in the prosperity, bring the ancient wisdom to meet newly found aspiration, distinguish friends and foes properly. He was the Hero, even at a failing time when Heroes were scarce; there was a character who is worth speaking of, adding whatever dignity is left off what Alan Kirby would call a pseudo modern or post truth world.

-Saranya Mukhopadhyay

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