The Sign of Three, Sentiment, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Canonical Defense

This post will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of Sherlock Series 3.

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Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset, namely, what this post is not intended to do: This post is not intended to convince anyone to like “The Sign of Three,” Sherlock the show, or anything else. Liking is a matter of taste, and no one should be bullied because their taste is different from someone else’s.

That aside, what is the purpose of this? Well, it’s pretty obvious by now that this series of Sherlock has been polarizing from the get-go, particularly “The Sign of Three,” which aired January 5th and has been the source of debate ever since. Some people loved it; some people hated it–I’ve seen very few opinions in between. The specific criticism I’m addressing in this post is the idea that the level of emotion, sentiment, and overall warm-fuzzies in “The Sign of Three” was somehow anti-traditional, in opposition to, or different from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’ve now written two posts outlining canonical references in “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three.” What I’m doing now is mounting a more in-depth canonical defense of “Sign,” using specific ideas and quotes originated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’m going to do this three ways: Holmes’s character arc, story themes, and direct quotes. By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive survey of the whole canon; we could be here all day. I’m simply providing a jumping-off point to remind us all how Sir Arthur, surely the ultimate authority on the character of Sherlock Holmes, wrote, and what he actually had his character do and say and how that relates to “The Sign of Three.” After all, if we’re going to throw around comparisons to the canon, we want to know what it actually says, right? Let’s get into it.

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Part I: Holmes’s Character Arc

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in his 20s when A Study in Scarlet, the introductory Sherlock Holmes story, was first published. He was nearly 70 when The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published. In the intervening years between the two, he published over forty stories about Holmes, and those stories, contrary to cultural perceptions of Sherlock Holmes, do not paint a picture of a static character who remains entirely the same.

The protagonist of A Study in Scarlet is very young (only a few years out of university, Watson tells us) and certainly the seemingly cold, calculating, socially awkward Sherlock we meet in “A Study in Pink.” He continues that way for some time, leading Watson to say of him in one of the earliest stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” that, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

Lots of entertaining adventures and comradeship ensues, and then something big happens, something huge, in fact. In “The Final Problem,” Sherlock Holmes decides that giving his life is worth saving his friends. He leaves a note. Let’s talk about it. In this short death-note to Watson, Sherlock Holmes calls him “dear” no less than three times, and states, “I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you.” This is a man who has friends and acknowledges them and regrets giving pain to the one he cares most about. It’s not a stretch to imagine the man who penned these words penning a speech that calls John Watson, “the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing,” as Sherlock did in “The Sign of Three.”

Moreover, in the canon of BBC Sherlock, all of series three is taking place post-hiatus, when Sherlock is back from the dead. Most scholars of Doyle would, I believe, agree that there are some general differences in the canonical Holmes stories pre and post-hiatus. One of the most notable, in my opinion, is a believable softening of Holmes’s character as he ages. In his first return story, The Empty House, he says, “So it was, my dear Watson that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” This is hardly a man who shies away from stating his obvious affection for his best friend.

As the stories continue, so continues the increasing warmth. Famously, in “The Three Garridebs,” Holmes says to a criminal, “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?” The idea of Holmes making his first and last vow to protect his friend and family in “The Sign of Three” mirrors this quote closely.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll stop here, but an examination of Holmes’s character from the beginning to the end of the canon reveals subtle changes. A young man becomes an old one, and a mind that begins by valuing everything else above friendship is ultimately unafraid to acknowledge his warm attachment. For maximum evidence of the character’s progress, pick a story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and a story from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and read them in immediate succession.

Now that we’ve discussed the changes in canonical character of Sherlock Holmes, let’s move on to the pride of place that sentiment has in many stories from the canon.

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Part II: Story Themes

This is the section that threatens to get away from me with respect to length, because the idea that the level of sentiment inherent in the execution of the wedding theme in “The Sign of Three” is somehow in opposition to the canon of Sherlock Holmes is so erroneous that almost every story disproves it somehow. Nevertheless, I’ll try to hit some of the high points, while strongly encouraging those in doubt to go back to canon for themselves.

First, the mother of them all, A Study in Scarlet. For those who are unaware, the plot of Holmes’s first story is entirely based on romantic passion. It’s about a man named Jefferson Hope exacting revenge against those responsible for the death of the woman he loved. The section of this novel that concerns their love story (“The Country of the Saints”) has some of the purplest prose anyone could ever wish to find. For example, this description of Hope’s beloved,

“Many a wayfarer upon the high road which ran by Ferrier’s farm felt long-forgotten thoughts revive in his mind as he watched her lithe, girlish figure tripping through the wheatfields, or met her mounted upon her father’s mustang, and managing it with all the ease and grace of a true child of the West. So the bud blossomed into a flower, and the year which saw her father the richest of the farmers left her as fair a specimen of American girlhood as could be found in the whole Pacific slope.”

Suddenly, Sherlock’s gentle assertion that Mary is worthy of John in “The Sign of Three” barely seems to register on the sentimentality scale, and this is but one quote from a novel filled with such passages.

Let’s continue. Several Holmes stories contain weddings and wedding themes. Off the top of my head, I can think of “The Noble Bachelor,” “A Case of Identity,” and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes ends up being part of the ceremony.

Other stories are sentimental in other ways. “The Yellow Face,” which is notable for Holmes making a mistake in it as well as its intense lack of modern political correctness, is centered around a family melodrama, the climax of which is as follows:

“’And now to-night you at last know all, and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me?’ She clasped her hands and waited for an answer.

It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned   towards the door.”

Such emotional scenes are never far from Doyle’s pen, and several stories contain them. Additionally, “The Dying Detective” has a plot that almost entirely centers around Watson’s ever-increasing emotional desperation over the fact that he thinks Holmes is dying. It’s hardly a cracking caper; it consists of a middle-aged man trying to save his friend while experiencing utmost distress.

Yet another aspect of the canon, seen in The Sign of Four in particular, is the Baker Street Irregulars, the network of children Holmes employs to prowl the London streets looking for clues. Holmes fondly calls them, “the unofficial force,” and Doyle pens them with equal parts humor and sentiment. Those who found either the sentiment of “The Sign of Three” or the humor found in sections like Holmes’s encounter with the little boy named Archie anti-traditional would do well to re-read the chapter Doyle named for the Irregulars.

Now that we’ve looked at some (though far from all) of the sentimental themes in the canon, let’s look at specific Doyle quotes that echo the tone of “The Sign of Three.”

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Part III: Direct Quotes

Again, we would be here all day if I reproduced every single sentimental quote from the canon, so I’ll limit myself to a few meaningful ones:

“I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing.” (Holmes on Mary Morstan in The Sign of Four)

___________________________________________________________________

“MY DEAR WATSON

[ it said ]:I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. He has been giving me a sketch of the methods by which he avoided the English police and kept himself informed of our movements. They certainly confirm the very high opinion which I had formed of his abilities. I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this. Indeed, if I may make a full confession to you, I was quite convinced that the letter from Meiringen was a hoax, and I allowed you to depart on that errand under the persuasion that some development of this sort would follow. Tell Inspector Patterson that the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed “Moriarty.” I made every disposition of my property before leaving England and handed it to my brother Mycroft. Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow
Very sincerely yours, SHERLOCK HOLMES.” (Holmes’s farewell note in “The Final Problem”)

_____________________________________________________________________

“Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

’You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!’

It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.” (“The Three Garridebs”)

Many, many more such quotes pepper the canon, and I cannot recommend discovering them for yourself highly enough.

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Conclusion:

The Doyle canon spans years of a writer’s life and a character’s soul. It is filled with the entire range of human existence. Yes, there is murder and mayhem, but there is also a bevy of weddings and romances and embraces.

It is Doyle’s Watson himself who goes from telling us in “A Scandal in Bohemia” that love and emotion are abhorrent to the mind of Sherlock Holmes to telling us that the detective loves deeply and is in possession of “a great heart as well as of a great brain.” Similarly, the creators of BBC Sherlock introduced us to a man who believed the only reason he needed a friend is because genius must have an audience and proceeded to develop that man, through trial and experience, into someone who understands the value of companionship and love, to the point of recommending it to his own brother.

Doyle was a writer who understood that reason and emotion are both necessary parts of a full life, and he peppered the canon with both, through his characters, his themes, and his plots. In its first two series, Sherlock showed us a great brain. In “The Sign of Three,” it gave us an equally great heart. I believe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve.

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The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

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14 thoughts on “The Sign of Three, Sentiment, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Canonical Defense

  1. I didn’t object to the sentiment. I objected to the farce: a drunk Sherlock vomiting on the carpet. Meanwhile they burned a full hour of the show before really getting down to the mystery. I am impatient and thus do I stomp my foot!

  2. I just started watching Sherlock a few weeks ago and there has not been an episode that I have not disliked. I loved the wedding episode, Sign of Three. I had so many laughs watching it and I really enjoy Mary – even after just 2 episodes of her. I was so afraid something would happen that John and Mary would not get married and now I’m in fear that something will happen to her eventually. She is the best thing that has happened to both John and Sherlock. Any other girlfriend John as brought home didn’t stay, couldn’t handle the things that go along with John working with Sherlock. She gets it all and is not afraid or jealous.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post! I think it’d be of interest to @thenorwoodbuilder.tumblr.com, a great Sherlock blog if you haven’t seen it yet.

    I also loved the ‘Yellow Face’ story; I found it fascinating to see how Holmes handled being wrong (relatively gracefully) and to see the very human topics of love, marriage, race relations, and more woven together.

    Here in the States, can’t wait for the episodes to air!

  4. this blog is very interesting .. I’m so glad that I found it,
    this article is very interesting also , I think people who found it strange that Holmes was very sentimental in the ” sign of three ” are just not familiar with the INTP personality … I’m an INTP too and I know that most of the time people find me cold and anti-social, but it comes to their surprise when they see how sentimental and affectionate I can be with my closest friends .. it’s not that we’re not capable of being warm, sentimental and emotional, it’s just we choose when, where and who we open up to .

    I’m sorry for any grammar mistakes, English is not my first language .. lookin’ forward other beautifully written articles and reviews ^_^

    • We are SO on the same page! I had the same thought about the INTP personality. People think I’m very unemotional, but there’s a huge amount boiling under the surface. You made an excellent point.

  5. At the risk of sounding like a radical, may I suggest we give Doyle credit for being a considerably more subtle writer (even a sly one) than he usually receives? Let’s look again: “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler” may be read more than one way. Put the emphasis on “love,” and it says, “Holmes did not feel anything like love for Irene Adler.” But put the emphasis on “akin,” and you hear something very different – the rhetorical figure of litotes, in which a thing is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite, as in “his manner was not effusive” for “his manner was reserved.” Thus, “It was not that he felt any emotion AKIN to love” — because it was love, nothing more, less, or other. And this revelation is followed by the discourse on how disturbing this must have been for him: “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.” (It was not his stock and trade; he was out of his element.) “He never SPOKE of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to ADMIT” (which may mean “permit the entry of” or “confess the existence of”) “such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. AND YET — there was but one woman to him…”

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