The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis

While thinking through a new article idea today (about Sherlock Holmes, of course, and yes, I have about five of those), I started thinking about detective fiction, detecting, and the process of reading. While there’s still much thinking to be done before I come to a thesis on that particular topic, I did remember a piece I’d written on the subject a few years ago. I thought it’d be relevant to dig it out and repost it, as I do quite like the piece. It is entitled, as one might surmise…

The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis

It was at some point during the twenty-four-hour cycle we call “the day,” and the line between night and morning was becoming just as blurry as the text before my eyes. The play count of several select songs on my iTunes had increased significantly, contributing largely to my feeling of accomplishment, copious amounts of graphite had been left on the pages of a well-worn book in the form of notes and underlining, and I was almost finished with my essay on Wilde’s artistic philosophy as presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It was in that bleary-eyed state that I went for a stroll through the utterly deserted Hyde Park in Chicago. As a part of my brain wondered whether there was another human being left on the planet – hardly likely, it seemed in that complete and utter emptiness – the rest of it considered how well some of Sherlock Holmes’ statements about crime solving applied to literary study.

Of course, that idea is nothing new. That’s what the whole idea of playing “The Game” is about.

If you don’t know what “The Game” is, allow me to explain.

“The game is afoot!” figures among those famous Sherlockian quotes that pop up ubiquitously along with “elementary” and “you see, but you do not observe.” To Sherlock Holmes, that phrase meant that there was a crime to be solved, a challenge to be faced. To us Sherlockians, the notoriously obsessed, it also means that there’s a mystery to unravel. It means pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real and applying his sleuthing skills to fill in the gaps in the Canon. Gaps such as trying to figure out what happened to Holmes’ cocaine habit after The Final Problem, or finding the location of Watson’s strangely mobile war wound.

But what occurred to me during those early morning hours is that those sleuthing skills apply not simply to speculating about how many times Watson was married (between two and six, depending on whom you ask). They apply to writing the kind of literary criticism that the aforementioned essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray involved.

For example:

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Holmes states in A Scandal in Bohemia.

The above quote embodies the first rule of the study of literature. One does not come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support that thesis in the book. One lets the book speak. Each quote, symbol, image, color, literary reference, each word, really, is one piece of data. All the pieces of data must be weighed and examined. Then (in my case, at least), lots of logorrhea must ensue, during which thoughts become theories and theories are refined and perfected. And then a thesis emerges. Which makes it sound, of course, like throwing a bunch of pieces of data into a brain-machine, cranking it up, and coming out with a thesis. That’s not inaccurate: Holmes is described by Watson as a reasoning machine, and I like to be able to immodestly say that I emulate his methodical process.

But the ability to reason like a machine is not the only important one. In The Sign of Four,Holmes outlines “three qualities necessary for the ideal detective.” They are: “the power of observation, the [power] of deduction, knowledge.” The literary critic is also a sort of detective, searching for Truth (or a publishable thesis, as the case may be), and those three qualities are invaluable.

Observation: to know what to look for, to notice themes and images and be able to pick out the significant phrases from a text. To notice the imagery of light in a text dealing with knowledge, or in a science fiction novel – such as the fire at the end of Frankenstein. Knowledge – the knowledge of what those themes and images mean, of literary history and context and the influence of both upon the text in general, of what the author knew and how that could have influenced him or her. The knowledge that light is a metaphor for knowledge, for example, or that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “to look.” Deduction – the ability to apply knowledge to observations and make deductions. To deduce, for example, that Frankenstein’s death in a fire at the end of the novel symbolizes his destruction through knowledge.

All of that makes it sound, of course, as if books have one clear, unarguable message; that each classic contains one Truth that is as impossible to contradict as the results of Sherlock Holmes’ hemoglobin test. Which just really isn’t true. Literature does have wrong answers, I would argue, but it doesn’t have one right answer. It has right answers. It’s the search for those answers, and what they mean to us, that makes literature meaningful. A wonderful teacher once said to me that when you come up with a thesis that applies to a work of literature, it “clicks.” Really, I think this is true. There will be certain theories about literature that will feel “right.” They will feel like the truth, even if it’s the truth of one’s subjective world, and Sherlock Holmes just might have had something to do with finding that truth.

 

Posted on April 2, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I really liked this. It reminds me of my days analyzing literature. Sometimes I went into a book with prejudices or ideas before I read and it always resulted in lousy analysis. But sometimes–sometimes I’d like the work speak for itself and the analysis was always great.

    • Yeah, I had a few great English teachers that taught me not to come up with my thesis first but to read the damn book and see what it tells me. Incidentally, the teacher I mention in the last paragraph is Rabkin. I think he’d totally support this scientific approach to literature.

      • Rabkin definitely would. I liked his method of reading a book a week and writing small papers on them. It let me compare the ideas I came up with and the topics he talked about.

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