The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Theme of Appearances
How many times have you been told not to judge a book by its cover? Well, Sherlock Holmes would say – no, totally, feel free to judge a book by its cover. Or a woman by her clothing (see Mary Sutherland in "A Case of Identity"). Or a man by his compass ornament and fish tattoo (see Jabez Wilson in "The Red-Headed League"). Borrowing from the example of Edgar Allan Poe's detective Dupin, Holmes spends a lot of time figuring out the character traits of the people around him based on their physical appearance. Also see our section on "Characterization" for more examples of this theme.
Questions About Appearances
- Holmes loves to make lists of character traits that he can tell just by looking at a person. But Holmes is fooled – twice – by appearances: Irene Adler's cross-dressing in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and Neville St. Clair's Hugh Boone costume in "The Man With the Twisted Lip." What does Holmes's own ability to make mistakes do to his character development? Do you find him more or less trustworthy as a result of these errors?
- Holmes is always adopting new disguises: an elderly clergyman and an unemployed groom in "A Scandal in Bohemia," a loafer in "The Beryl Coronet" and so on. And Neville St. Clair has his own disguise – Hugh Boone – in "The Man With the Twisted Lip." But all of these are examples of dressing down to fit in with a lower class rather than dressing up to climb the social ranks. Why might dressing down be less threatening to Conan Doyle's readers than dressing up?
Chew on This
When Holmes is fooled by appearances, he seems less omniscient (read: "all-knowing") and more sympathetic to the reader.
Holmes uses categories like class, gender, and even race to make immediate assessments about a person's inner character.