The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Basically, all crime stories are about moral weakness: giving in to temptation, giving in to rage, giving in to the desire for revenge – whatever. But even if weakness is a general theme of the detective story as a whole, it's emphasized to an extreme degree in Sherlock Holmes tales. Conan Doyle writes over and over again about declining family fortunes, personal reputation, and social status as a result of moral weakness. Think Dr. Grimesby Roylott in "The Speckled Band," Isa Whitney in "The Man With the Twisted Lip," Henry Baker in "The Blue Carbuncle – the examples go on and on.
Why might this form of weakness be a particular preoccupation of Conan Doyle? One possibility is that he's writing during the late Victorian era, when England was at the top of its game imperially. The British Empire pretty much never gets better than this: it covers huge portions of the globe and has lots of money is coming in, the whole shebang. And you know what they say about being at the top? There's nowhere to go but down – at least, if you're not careful. Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are like subtle lessons to the British readership of his time, reminding them not to get too cocky. No matter how much status and wealth you have, you still have to be sensible and work hard to keep what you've got. Allowing yourself to abuse your power (Roylott) or to take it for granted (Isa Whitney and Henry Baker) leads straight to poverty, shame, and even violence.
Questions About Weakness
- James Ryder ("The Blue Carbuncle"), John Turner ("The Boscombe Valley Mystery"), and Isa Whitney ("The Man With the Twisted Lip") all give in to various temptations: money, revenge, and opium, respectively. But their representations are quite different. Ryder is whiny and unlikable, Turner is a tragic figure, and Whitney is a pitiful wreck. Is Conan Doyle punishing some forms of moral weakness more than others in these stories? What kinds of judgments do different weaknesses receive?
- There are women evildoers in these stories: Mrs. Rucastle in "The Copper Beeches" and Mary Holder in "The Beryl Coronet" come to mind. But it's unusual. And even in these cases, they act the way they do out of excessive love (in the former case, for Mr. Rucastle; in the latter, for Sir George Burnwell) rather than greed or anger. Why might Conan Doyle not want to make his women characters appear morally weak? How can we compare these women wrongdoers to good characters like Elise in "The Engineer's Thumb," Mrs. St. Clair in "The Man With the Twisted Lip," or even Hatty Doran in "The Noble Bachelor"?
- In "The Speckled Band," how does his family's decline in fortune set up Dr. Grimesby Roylott's fall into crime? By emphasizing Roylott's ancient English family and their wastefulness and greed, what larger dangers to the status of the British Empire might Conan Doyle be warning against?
Chew on This
By often making men examples of moral weakness and women models of moral strength, Conan Doyle is using the Victorian "Angel in the House" stereotype.
Conan Doyle uses examples of moral weakness in his stories to convince readers of the social and personal importance of self-restraint.