The Return of Sherlock Holmes Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Timothy Sexton
221-B Baker Street.
Throughout the entire canon, Mrs. Hudson’s rooming house has been the familiar comfort zone of Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson. The symbolic value takes on additional meaning with The Return of the Sherlock Holmes, first off. In the first place, it has stood empty for three years Holmes has been presumed dead and Watson has moved on with his life. Then there is the symbolic re-purification in the opening story as the final details removing the sinister reach of Prof. Moriarty are exorcised with the phony staging of Sherlock’s second “death” at the hands of Sebastian Moran’s gun. With the capture, instead, of Moran and Sherlock again escaping “death” 221-B Baker Street is symbolic reverted back to pristine state…and, by definition, so is everything else exactly as it was. It is as if Sherlock had never been gone and the whole three year absence was a foggy dream. The boarding house is not just home, it now takes on the essence of one of the few places in England where evil does not penetrate: the rest of the stories will show evil reaching into schools, whaling ships, manor homes, happy as well as unhappy marriages, a deserted country road and even Cambridge Univ.
Seeing Rather Than Observing
Perhaps the most persistent motif running through this collection is that of the façade; what appears to be factual on the face of things actually is integral to hiding the truth. Sometimes, this façade has a benevolent intent such as Sherlock pretending to be dead before revealing himself as quite alive or Elsie Patrick hiding her violent past behind a mask of innocence. In other instances, the false front is stripped away to reveal degrading humanity disappearing into pure malevolence: that other fake death by Mr. Oldacre and, most insidiously, the perpetually smiling, avuncular front presented by Charles Augustus Milverton to disguise his reality as a conscience-free blackmailer. The accrual of continuing examples of this motif might well even be said to become a collective symbol for Sherlock’s oft-voiced criticism against merely seeing things rather than observing them.
A More Nietzschean Homes
The adventures in this collection place Holmes in a remarkably ambiguous situation considering his reputation as the foremost criminal detective in literature. He makes a deal to withhold evidence—a confession, in fact—of a murderer in “The Abby Grange.” One can argue the semantics, the situation and the ultimate good of the details, but Sherlock Holmes effectively accepts a bribe in “The Priory School” to facilitate the protection the reputation of a member of the British nobility and then later goes to extreme lengths to hide the truth about the theft and the recovery of British state secrets. But each of those are small potatoes to the transgression of what is normally viewed as a serving the legal system that Holmes not only commits, but basically coerces Watson into committing as well: witness a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, allowing the murderer to escape without realizing she has been detected and then conspiring to cover up their active participation as eyewitnesses from the police. Holmes routinely shows a flair for flouting the judicial system under certain circumstances, but the sheer number and audacity of his contempt for jurisprudence in this collection bears an undeniable hint of symbolism. What actually occurred during the three years that Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead remains the greatest mystery associated with Holmes. The mere fact that his willingness to ignore the letter of the law in favor of the spirit of justice is highly indicative of some sort of experience coincident with transcendence of morality. The Holmes that comes back from the dead is unquestionably more Nietzschean than the one thought to have died at the hands of Moriarty.
Out of the Past
Many of the crimes committed in the present day in which Holmes is called upon to investigate have their stimulus in the past, often the distant past. This is another motif that is initially set up in the very story when it is Holmes himself who seems to have miraculously appeared from the more distant past. Jonas Oldcacre crafts a brilliantly convoluted plot to gain revenge for being jilted by a woman decades earlier. The appearance of coded “dancing men” messages is a devastating shock from the past she has tried desperately to escape for tragic newlywed Elsie Cubit. In “The Priory School” it is legal system of inheritance in place for centuries arrives out of the past to drive the villain to his nefarious scheme. Throughout the cases, the blending of the past into the present traces back to opening story to lend the unexpected reappearance a Sherlock Holmes though to permanently exist in the past an ever-increasingly symbolic significance.
Hiding On Sight
Another motif that recurs as a substantive point in the narrative of most of these stories is the key component of someone hiding almost in plain sight. In both “The Golden Pince-Nez” and “The Norwood Builder” a key character is hiding behind from Holmes being the walls of the very building he investigating One of “The Three Students” expected of cheating must, upon being almost caught in act, is forced to conceal himself behind a curtain to avoid detection. In “The Second Stain” the actual thief remains in plain sight the whole time, her complicity hidden from suspicion by the interference of Holmes while the actual subject of the crime is dubiously explained as having never actually going missing at all, but been hidden exactly where it was supposed to be. And then, of course, the ultimate twist to his motif: Holmes and Watson themselves hiding mere feet away and watching while Charles Augustus Milverton is murdered and remaining hidden so the killer can escape.
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