Mysteries have always held great fascination for the human mind, not least because of the aura that surrounds them and the realm of the Unknown into which they delve. Coupled with the human propensity of being particularly curious about aspects which elude the average mind, the layer of intrigue that glosses over such puzzles makes for a heady combination of the literary and the popular. In the canon of detective fiction worldwide, no detective has tickled the curious reader’s imagination and held it in thrall as much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The 221-B, Baker Street, London ‘amateur’ detective combines a rare blend of intellectual prowess and sharp wit to crack a series of baffling riddles.
The aim of this somewhat ambitiously titled paper is to use Marxist literary criticism to understand the literary merits of the Sherlock Holmes series, given its historical location and specificity. The idea is to analyse Holmes’ ‘Victorian-ness’ and place it in the socio-economic framework of that era. Special attention has been paid to character interaction and Holmes’ reaction to the dominant class and vocational ideologies (the word is used here in its Marxist sense) of his day.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), like Holmes’ chronicler, was a doctor by profession. He led a varied and adventurous life. The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in New Forest, Hampshire reads: Steel true/ Blade straight/ Arthur Conan Doyle/ Knight/ Patriot, Physician and Man of Letters. Conan Doyle was also a lot more. He was a historian, whaler,
athlete, war correspondent and spiritualist. He was knighted in 1902 for his services in South Africa during the Boer. He wrote four novels and fifty six short stories featuring the celebrated Sherlock Holmes.
The first Sherlockian mystery, a novel called A Study in Scarlet, was first published unserialised in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, the year in which Britain celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The first publication fetched Conan Doyle a flat fee of twenty three pounds. It is narrated from Watson’s perspective and recounts the duo’s first fateful adventure.
Sherlock Holmes, as a late Victorian, lived in an age of great social change. England was rapidly moving towards new schools of thought. The Reform Bills of 1832, 1867 and 1884 that gave democratic rights to the people had been passed. The spread of education and the increase in the publication of books, periodicals, and newspapers gave power to new sections of society: the trading bankers, merchants, financiers, professionals and writers. The proletariat occupied a strategic and important position between the aristocracy and the working class. Class barriers were breaking down, which led to insecurity amongst the nobility and the newly formed ‘upper’ classes. England’s imperial conquest was at its peak, having successfully subdued the Indian Mutiny. Scientific...