Research Paper: Fear and Loathing in the Victorian City

Heather Haynes
London Underworld
Dr. J Andrew Hubbell
April 5, 2007
Fear and Loathing in the Victorian City

The ideological contradictions that permeate the Victorian city find themselves both exposed and kept in check through Victorian literature. Moreover, the methods in which literature (and characters within the literature) employs to harness these contradictions function within the framework of burgeoning sciences such as criminal anthropology. Manifesting as binary oppositions, these Victorian contradictions threaten society with their very existence, as the proper Victorian city accepts only one side of each binary. When the other side of the opposition finally appears to society through fiction, problem-solvers the likes of Sherlock Holmes are needed to restore order to London. In this manner Victorian literature automatically adopts one side of each opposition as its own, to be assumed by both characters and readers as the desired state of being.

In their most fundamental element, binary oppositions exist as Good and Evil. The two binaries need each other in order to define themselves, and thus co-exist within the Victorian city. Literature, however, consistently chooses Good over Evil as the point of reference given to characters and thus assumed by audiences. Almost every one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories begins with a client coming to “the only unofficial consulting detective” Holmes and explaining a situation in which they feel themselves to have been wronged (Doyle The Sign 6). Holmes then solves the client’s case, brings the wrongdoer to a fitting justice and the story promptly ends.
The Red-Headed League stands as a perfect example of this structure (Doyle 53-73). The plot begins with the narrator (Dr Watson) entering a conversation between Holmes and a client (Jabez Wilson). Once Wilson states his facts and produces all evidence, a dialogue covering eight of the story’s nineteen pages, Holmes puzzles over the case, calls together legal aid, and catches the antagonist (John Clay) before he is able to commit the planned robbery.

Generally Doyle’s Holmes stories, “threats are neither realized nor resolved in ways which unmask the contemporary conditions of life” (Knight 372). In this manner, readers only encounter one side of the story, empathizing with Holmes and his client instead of weighing the values of both the client and the supposed wrongdoer for themselves. In the case of The Red-Headed League, Holmes prevents Clay from committing his intended crime and thus the narrative displays no actual danger to Victorian law or society. Doyle’s readers distinguish Evil in these stories through threats to their social order. This allows Holmes and audiences alike to use antagonists similarly to scapegoats, indirectly taking the blame for instabilities within Victorian society.

Whatever else Holmes literature offers readers; they clearly distinguish a set of opposites that is followed through the entire plot. Working in conjunction with contemporary sciences, those characters viewed as Good within the narrative possess more scientific knowledge than do their antagonists (Holmes and Watson standing as excellent, though differing, examples of educated men). As a character, Holmes can been seen as synonymous with science due to his intimate “knowledge of forensics facts and criminal history” (Knight 369). Holmes admits, in one of his earliest apperances, that he “is guilty of several monographs…all upon technical subjects” (Doyle The Sign 8). He then explains to Watson two recent articles: one on tobacco ashes and one on hand morphology. Attaching the character not only to solving mysteries but to technical scientific writing furthers his attachment to Science and Good. Only through the science of deduction does Sherlock Holmes solve legal and social wrongs, proving with his superiority the inability of the wrongdoer to understand the science that he employs.

Holmes displays his scientific superiority to his readers as well. Doyle rarely discloses the ‘clues’ in Holmes’ mysteries to the reader (strictly speaking, in none of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes stories), creating a relationship where audiences need the consulting detective to interpret the story for them (Moretti 215). Thus Doyle uses, or withholds, scientific evidence as “a support for Holmes’s omniscience” and a reminder of the detective’s embodiment of Science and Good (215).

Perhaps most intriguingly, one of the articles Holmes discussed in The Sign of Four “would mysteriously appear in the very next volume of The Strand [the magazine that the Holmes stories were published in] as if it were the essay Holmes referred to reprinted in the pages of the same magazine. Titled “A Chapter on Ears,” the unsigned essay explains the character of figures like Mozart, Dickens, Gladstone, Mill, and the Prince of Wales (to name a few) through analyzing and reproducing photographs of their ears alone” (Thomas 670).

Through the use of scientific reasoning relatively new to Victorians, the literary Sherlock Holmes simultaneously represents both Science and Good within his London. Here Good and Evil, the most basic binary oppositions at work in the Victorian city, permeate the very nature of Sherlock Holmes’ literary world. As ideological contradictions frame the overarching story, those opposed to Holmes can be viewed primitively as Not-Science and Not-Good; what we may currently view as Ignorance and Evil. Conan Doyle’s portrayal of the antagonist Other in this light proves potent enough that Ignorance and Evil two adjective ring synonymous with Criminal at least in this author’s mind, over a century later.

Another, more specific, example of a binary opposition at work in Victorian London is that of British and Foreigner. In the same manner as Good and Evil the two oppositions need each other in order to exist, and are taken for granted almost to the extent of their vaguer cousins. The opposition of British and Foreigner requires less assumption than the former example because Doyle’s stories are set in London, giving Holmes as well as most of his fictional colleagues and clients identities as British citizens. The British are acutely aware of foreigners, especially on their native soil, and the two groups commingle on a seemingly regular basis. Yet the vast majority of cases Sherlock Holmes consults identify the criminal as “the non-European, non-white, often imperfectly-male adult, and a figure for the object of British imperialism” (Thomas 665). Thus Holmes’ antagonists are seen not only as Not-British but so threatening to social order that they must be conquered or done away with, in order for the British to elevate themselves socially and politically above the antagonist Other.

A Scandal in Bohemia clearly centers on foreigners, as both Holmes’ client and his antagonist traveled to London from abroad. The client (King Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein) bears a name readers cannot help but identify as foreign. He desires a photograph in the possession of Irene Adler, who has broken no law or social regulation in refusing to relinquish the item. Holmes identifies Adler, whose foreign name begets no thoughts of Foreign, as “born in New Jersey… Prima Donna Imperial Opera of Warsaw… living in London” thus identifying her as twice the foreigner (Doyle 38). In comparison to von Ormstein visiting London from Bohemia, and Holmes’ true British identity, Adler’s foreignness seems the most threatening to London’s social structure. The plot ends amicably for the Victorian city with both von Ormstein and Adler leaving Britain for the continent, negating the need for literary conquest.

This limited view of Victorian society similarly represented in much Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes literature, readers are left with situations in which Foreigner repeatedly becomes synonymous with Criminal (and Evil). Here the practice of identifying Other as antagonist (and vice versa) becomes “precisely the repeatable element of literature: what returns fundamentally unchanged over many cases and many years” (Moretti 224, emphasis in original). Although the Victorian’s fears are quelled at the close of each Holmes case, their anxieties prove strong enough to bring about 60 Sherlock Holmes stories in all.

Adding more weight to the British and Foreigner opposition, Doyle’s audience in The Strand was mainly composed of British men, analogous to his main characters. This not only allowed the intended readers to identify and sympathize with Sherlock Holmes, but enforced their society-taught contradictions of British and Foreigner. Opposition between British and Foreigner could be found in “virtually every article about military conquest and every adventure story dealing with exploration that appeared in The Strand” in the late nineteenth century, including the Holmes stories (Thomas 658). Furthermore, the criminal Foreigner in Doyle’s Holmes stories often commits no legal crime, and is righted by Holmes and his Good clients for committing little more than a British social faux-pas.

This too reinforces the British and Foreigner opposition by suggesting that “disorders in respectable bourgeois family” may be attributed to foreigners, and even more so that proper British social conventions are better than those of criminally-minded foreigners (Knight 370). Also, any fears Londoners may have held about themselves are realized here in foreigners, allowing the British to feel more secure about themselves and their brethren. This in effect builds literary walls against the other, suggesting to readers that in order to assuage their fears, foreigners must be identified and either extricated from Britain or conquered by her.

Interestingly enough, Sherlock Holmes’ final nemesis Professor Moriarty is a British gentleman not unlike Holmes. Described by the detective as “an antagonists who was my intellectual equal,” Moriarty finally matches Holmes in British identity, scientific knowledge, and place within the Victorian city (Doyle 217). However the two function as opposites even in their similarity since Holmes fundamentally works (for Good) to solve crime and Moriarty (for Evil) to create it. Although Doyle both introduces and annihilates Moriarty in his story The Final Problem, he explains the characters’ interdependency through having Holmes state: “He [Moriarty] is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city” (Doyle 216). In this manner the two men function similarly to all other ideological contradictions as they work on the same level and define each other through their existence.

Doyle’s narrative keeps these contradictions legible and discrete through having a well-known and trustworthy character (Holmes) fully describe another character he believes to be his foil. In this sense Holmes acts as his own client, soliciting Watson to join him on a case he has already begun to solve. Now readers, especially those familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories, doubly connect Moriarty to Evil as he has simultaneously wronged a British citizen and the detective. Holmes’ statement that Moriarty heads “some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law” threatens London as a whole and thus further empowers Holmes’ statement of the case (Doyle 216).

In addition to presenting a character who has thrice wronged audience assumptions of the functional Victorian city, Doyle neglects Moriarty’s point of view within the story. Oftentimes after Holmes puzzles out a case and meets the antagonist, the supposed criminal tells his side of the story to fill in any gaps or present another point of reference. The Sign of Four’s final chapter “The Strange Story of Jonathan Small” stands as an excellent example of this ending testimony in which the antagonist Other explains himself to the detective’s satisfaction as a conclusion to the plot (Doyle The Sign 95-118).

Only Watson and Holmes state their thoughts in The Final Problem, and Moriarty is left with only a dozen lines relating to phrenology before presumably perishing at the end of the plot. Not only does Doyle neglect to include the climactic scene of the narrative but he ignores Moriarty’s views almost entirely. This prevents the audience from developing any sympathy for the antagonist described as the “Napoleon of crime” (Doyle 216).

Doyle further paints Moriarty’s character as Evil in comparison to Holmes with references to the burgeoning sciences of heredity and phrenology. Before describing the professor as his intellectual equal, Holmes qualifies his intelligence by explaining that Moriarty was “endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty” (Doyle 216). This skill allowed him to obtain a respectable job as a math professor, yet a “strong hereditary tendency of the most diabolical kind” led the man towards crime (216). In describing Moriarty this way, Doyle assures his readers that the character is beyond societal help. With an inclination toward crime embedded in his family, Moriarty is a natural criminal, and one that scientists of the Victorian city would have accepted as equal to the Foreign antagonist.

Through Sherlock Holmes, literature exposes ideological contradictions rampant in the Victorian city. Specifically in the Holmes stories, one side of the opposition is identified with the protagonist and reader while the other side is attributed to the antagonist Other. In their most fundamental state, these binary contradictions are simply Good and Evil, represented at the next level between British and Foreign national identities. Most specifically recognized with Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, the oppositions collaborate with popular science through equating Science to Good.

In identifying Holmes with Good, Science, and British, Doyle gives readers a hero not very far removed from themselves. Perhaps predictably, Victorian audiences trusted Holmes and assigned those opposed to him identities of Evil, Ignorance, and Foreigner. Yet Holmes’ final antagonist Professor Moriarty embodies (of this list) only Evil. Luckily, Holmes pulls in science to explain Moriarty’s Evil tendencies, once more completing the loop between himself and Science as Good. In this binary opposition as in the others, Holmes uses biases held by inhabitants of the British Victorian city to exploit and explain crime as blamed on the feared antagonist Other.

Works Cited
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. John A. Hodgson. Bedford/St. Martins, 1993.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc, 2001.

Knight, Stephen. “The Case of the Great Detective.” Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. 368-380. Ed. John A. Hodgson. Bedford/St. Martins, 1993.

Moretti, Franco. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 (2000) 207-227. Accessed 31 Mar 2007. .

Thomas, Ronald R. “The Fingerprint of the Foreigner: Colonizing the Criminal Body in 1890s Detective Fiction and Criminal Anthropology.” ELH: English Literary History 61.3 (2004) 655-683. Accessed 31 Mar 2007. .