Research Paper: The Case of Identity in Sherlock Holmes

Heather Haynes
March 13, 2007
Dr. J Andrew Hubbell
London Underworld
The Case of Identity

The Britain of the 1880s and 1890s had accepted urbanization and colonization into their national identity. As citizens embraced the urban atmosphere of London, the bustling environment became mundane and dull. British national identity also changed and intensified during this time, though not necessarily as a result of these urban sentiments. The “sensational popularity” of detective stories demonstrates the importance of British national identity during the late nineteenth century (Thomas 656).

Ronald Thomas notes: “Like the flood of scientific writing on criminology that appeared in England during the 1890s, these fictions of criminality link questions of personal identity and physiology with questions of national identity and security in ways that redefine the relation of an individual’s body with the body politic” (655).

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which take place in London, best exemplify popular beliefs regarding urbanism and nationalism through their character descriptions. Most of the characters Doyle describes through Holmes’ lips in the stories are foreigners to Great Britain. In common use by foreigners and natives are disguises of varying degrees. These telling descriptions can be seen in A Study in Scarlet and The Red-Headed-League, but most prominently in A Scandal in Bohemia.

The disguises used by Doyle are twofold as Holmes uncovers characters’ assumed identities whereas his sidekick Watson consistently fails to see the truth. Thus Doyle presented the reader with both sides of the disguise, and not necessarily in a regular order. Character descriptions from both Watson and Holmes are presented in a scientific fashion and presented as logical, leaving the reader to discern whether one or both of the descriptions are accurate.

In A Scandal in Bohemia Watson’s description of Holmes’ client appears to the reader first, describing the man as “six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules,” adorned with rich clothes and a black mask (Doyle 37). These observations are obviously presented to the reader as accurate statements of the narrator and set groundwork of obviousness to Holmes to later see beyond. His clairvoyance in this matter occurs after several lines of dialogue, when Holmes declares “Your Majesty had not spoken before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Falstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia” (38).

Without Watson’s initial observations, the detective’s deduction would not have seemed remotely as logical. Thus Holmes, as truth-bringer to the reader, “should be understood as the literary personification of an elaborate cultural apparatus by which persons were given their true and legitimate identities by someone else” (Thomas 656). The reader here also understands two levels of disguise: the physical mask that Watson fixates upon and the identity that Holmes deduces through the mask.

As the more observant man, Holmes’ own use of disguise attempts to foil this system. At one point in A Scandal in Bohemia Watson accurately describes the entrance of “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered…” who almost immediately upon being introduced to the reader, disappears and re-emerges recognizably as Holmes (Doyle 41). Watson’s inability to recognize his own friend attests to the reliability of disguise to change one’s identity. One may also conjecture that Watson, as Holmes’ foil, represents the common Londoner who sees, but does not observe (Doyle 34).

However, with preconceived knowledge, Watson finds himself able to describe for the reader how (later in the same story) Holmes “disappeared into his bedroom and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman” (44). The difference between Watson’s two descriptions of his friend’s disguises stands that without any previous knowledge, he believed Holmes to actually have assumed the identity of the groom whereas later Holmes is only describes as only assuming the character of the clergyman. In these two descriptions both sides of disguise are explored, again proving to the reader that upon first seeing someone and only relying on observations, the body makes “a case for absolute personal uniqueness and for the categorization of persons into types,” here ‘ill-kempt’ or ‘simple-minded’ (Thomas 672).

More importantly, Holmes’ disguises represent situations in which true identity must not be known. While readers implicitly understand this practice when enacted by antagonists, the idea of the story’s protagonist hiding his identity in a way criminalizes his actions. The Holmes stories stand to “identify the criminal body by tearing away its disguise, and to ‘fix’ the identity of the suspect with the certainty associated with material evidence” (Thomas 659). In the situation of Holmes’ disguise, his actions are represented as mysterious, perhaps unnecessary and in need of explanation, much in the same manner as criminals are treated in the stories.

Another common element of Holmes’ antagonists besides the use of disguise is a foreign national identity. In Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, “the criminal is determined by the detective to be a foreigner by the bodily traces that the suspect leaves at the scene of the crime;” which in this case is a blood stain (Thomas 661). The crime in A Scandal in Bohemia is obviously a foreign one, and the story resolves with client and criminal each returning to another country to live; the King back to his rightful place in Bohemia and Irene Adler to an undisclosed location on the Continent (Doyle 50).

While “Holmes’s antagonists are not always foreigners,” they represent the dangers that foreign affairs may entail (Thomas 661). Although The Red-Headed League deals with a robbery at home in London, the criminal presents himself as working on behalf of a foreigner, “the late Ezekiah Hopkins of Lebanon, Penn., U.S.A.” (Doyle 56). The criminal, a domestic Mr. John Clay, attempts to steal (from a London bank) “thirty thousand napoleons from the Bank of France,” making the crime foreign in respect to object as well as cover story (69). Here Holmes’ antagonist represents a foreign nationality in every respect except that of body, which functions as most important in the majority of Holmes stories.

Through another lens, readers are presented with the criminal body as exotic, not truly of London and not simple-minded in the vein of Dr. Watson. Doyle’s Holmes stories bring the quintessential criminal closer to a stereotypical “point that the criminal body is the non-European, non-white, often imperfectly-male adult, and a figure for the object of British imperialism” (Thomas 665). In this light criminals represent a larger nationalistic threat, one that nineteenth century British citizens would almost certainly (if not unconsciously) have recognized. Holmes’ practice of reading “in the body the scientifically predetermined identity of the person, a skill that was developed at the very moment when Great Britain needed to secure its identity as the predestined ruler of a great global Empire” helped forged a new nationalism in seemingly roundabout ways (680).

Thus the popularity of scientific writings and of logical detective stories to late nineteenth century British readers speaks against the excitement of domestic and urban issues, instead calling on falsehoods and foreigners to keep them occupied. Holmes himself states that he reasoned out the Read-Headed League case because “it saved me from ennui” (Doyle 72). Thus Doyle represents both types of Londoners in his stories: those, like Watson, who were content with what they see, and those championed, like Holmes, who sought deeper truths of national identity for entertainment.

Works Cited
Conan Doyle, Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories. 17-73.

Thomas, Ronald R. “The Fingerprint of the Foreigner: Colonizing the Criminal Body in 1890s Detective Fiction and Criminal Anthropology.” English Literary History 61.3 1994 655-683. Accessed 7 Mar 2007. .