Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sense of Moral Justice and Belief in Rationalism in Sherlock Holmes Novels and Stories
With the dominance of rational thinking and scientific method in the 19th to 20th centuries, the world of literature had witnessed a gradual shift from the genre of romantic and expressions of emotions to contemplating social realities and investigating human nature through scientific inquiry. The genre of detective and mystery stories began from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's publication of novels and stories featuring his famous protagonist and detective, Sherlock Holmes. Set in 20th century English society, Sherlock Holmes was characterized as a highly rational and systematic individual, where mysteries presented to him were solved through deductive reasoning and systematic thinking.
Conan Doyle, who, like his character Dr. Watson, was by profession a physician, although he gradually shifted to being a writer and novelist when his stories became popular and patronized by magazine readers (Doyle's stories were initially published through magazine publications) (Microsoft Encarta 2002). After the success of his novels and stories, Doyle developed his career as a detective mystery writer, and in the process influenced not only his readers, but also the field of literature, in promoting the creation of literary works that delve into themes contemplating social realities through deductive reasoning. In addition to this, Doyle was also known for promoting his own brand of moral justice, wherein Sherlock Holmes had shown approval of retributive justice, wherein justice and revenge was exacted by people who had been wronged or victimized by criminals and offenders. In effect, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels and stories were propaganda that aimed to promote his own interpretation of justice and morality.
This theme of retributive justice and morality were promoted in Doyle's early novels and stories. In the novel, "A Study in Scarlet," Doyle's brand of justice clashing against the justice of English society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were illustrated through the character of Jefferson Hope, who was the protagonist and the novel's symbolic representation of retributive justice. In the novel, Doyle centered onto a story of Hope's revenge against two men who had been responsible for the death of his loved one, Lucy Ferrier. Adopting a present-to-the-past narrative order, Doyle presented first the facts of the case itself, and, through Holmes' investigation of the past histories of Drebber and Stangerson, victims of the revenge murder, the detective was able to identify the nature of both men's deaths, their killer, though not exactly the specific reason why they were killed. What was apparent in the novel was revenge was exacted with the murder of Drebber and Stangerson.
These generalizations arrived at in the novel were all generated through Holmes' deductive, rational, and systematic reasoning. In Chapter 2 of the novel, "The Science of Deduction," Doyle expressed his opinion of the scientific method and deduction as a science through Holmes' character:
I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little...
A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order ... It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
From this explication by Holmes to Dr. Watson in the novel, it is apparent that Doyle's belief in what Eco (1983) identifies as "empirical verification," which was interpreted as " ... based on a great fear of conceptual detachment from the "real" world of observable phenomena" (61). Though Eco argued that Doyle's belief in deduction was primarily based on 'hunches' or perceived knowledge about human nature in general, it became apparent through Holmes' character that what made these investigations and hunches essential was that it was based on verifiable facts, and not merely philosophical and observed phenomena.
Apart from subsistence to rationalization, Doyle also reflected his opinion about retributive justice through Hope's merciful death, which was due to natural causes. His sudden death after killing Drebber and Stangerson showed how the writer attempted to justify and consider permissible the actions of Hope. In the novel, Doyle reflected English society's sense of justice when he stated: "[t]he public have lost a sensational treat through the sudden death of the man Hope ... The details of the case will probably be never known now, though we are informed upon good authority that the crime was the result of an old-standing and romantic feud" (Holmes, 1986:103). Holmes being a 'connoisseur of crime' showed how Jones considers him as a man harboring a different, even alternative, view of justice and revenge. In the case of Jefferson Hope, Holmes believed that he deserved to be free despite his commitment of murder because of the ordeal and main reason behind his revenge. However, Doyle presented the real life scenario that Holmes had to confront everyday: there was always conflict between retributive justice and justice as ascertained by the legal system, and this was the conflict that Holmes had no control over. However, in Doyle's other detective stories, Holmes was portrayed as having power to control the direction of the case, choosing not to implicate the suspect if he feels that s/he does not deserve to be punished for an act committed just to seek revenge and justice on their own terms.
Apart from reflecting his own version of retributive justice, Doyle had also used the technique of concealed identities as one way in which he was able to distinguish between the bad and the good sides of the suspect (which were also portrayed as victims). In the novel, Jefferson Hope took on the role of a cab driver, concealing his true identity while at the same time, allowing him to note and track the progress of his targets, Drebber and Stangerson (Wynne, 2002:44). The Hope's alternative character through the cab driver allowed him to commit the murder that Hope himself would not be able to do, being a naturally good man that he was prior to Lucy's death. Hope as a dying man redeemed his character as the 'bad' cab driver from punishment as the murderer of the two men. This string of events and techniques utilized in the "A Study in Scarlet" highlighted how justice can exist with morality despite the dominance and prevalence of subjective thinking through the science of deduction and scientific method.
Critical analysis of Doyle's works on Sherlock Holmes showed how, despite the themes of rationalism and retributive justice, what made Doyle and his works appealing to the general public was that he was able to reconcile both the reader and writer's wants in a literary work (Cook, 2001). Moreover, the analysis also acknowledged Doyle's talent of giving focus on small details that would have otherwise been left unnoticed and taken for granted by the individual. What made Holmes and his mysteries appeal, in effect, was the stories' ability to bring larger solutions and discoveries from small things or observations from the detective. Gradually, people became more acquainted and familiar with Holmes' methods, influencing their way of thinking and observing their everyday realities and events in life. In the world of Sherlock Holmes, nothing was trivial, though one must be careful and prudent enough to include only details that would be beneficial to the observer and significant to the problem being…
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