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All the Detective’s Men: Binary Coding of Masculine Identity in the Sherlock Holmes Stories

Leslie Haynsworth, University of South Carolina

The binary coding of female identity in the Victorian age—Madonna/whore, Angel in the House/Lady Audley-type demon—is a widely recognized phenomenon. Such either/or categorizations of women have tended to be interpreted as rhetorical bulwarks of a patriarchal social order, neatly pressing what would otherwise be a broad spectrum of feminine identities into two tightly-defined camps, both of which are manifestations of masculine, not feminine, ideas about women’s nature, behavior, and roles in society. This binary approach to gendered identity is thus probably most typically understood as an epistemological containment strategy, a way of “knowing” women that empowers the men who read them through this interpretive framework and circumscribes notions of what is possible for women to do and to be.
What happens to this take on the ideological work performed by that kind of binarism, though, when the subjects of the binary opposition are male? Gender is, of course, never a fixed concept or a stable identity marker, and much critical work has been done of late on mid-to-late-Victorian anxieties about masculine identity. What’s striking, especially in light of binarism’s function as a control mechanism when applied to women, is the extent to which literary expressions of anxiety about masculinity in the second half of the nineteenth century tend to constellate around one particular, recurring binary opposition which in itself has its origins in literary history. If women are often pegged as either madonnas or whores, Victorian men are often likewise typecast in the literature of the period either as the (feminized) heroes of domestic fiction or the hypermasculine heroes of adventure fiction. They are either the men women want or the men the empire wants—and the gulf between those two models of masculine subjectivity is presented as being wide and deep. Particularly when taken up by male writers, this particular instance of binarism thus registers less as a will to power than as a manifestation of insecurity, less as a mechanism for social control than as a yearning for a functional interpretive framework that can help to explain what normative masculine subjectivity is actually supposed to look like.
The domestic male/imperial male binary opposition is particularly apparent in Victorian detective fiction, which, with really striking recurrence, pits these two types against one another as potential suspects in its investigations. Detection’s explicit purpose is the mapping out of normative and deviant subjectivities, and it’s notable how often that purpose plays out across the domestic male/imperial male binary: from The Moonstone to Lady Audley’s Secret to the novels of Rider Haggard to quite a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the underlying problem that gives rise to mystery, crime, and a menacing sense of danger is often presented as an uncertainty about which of these two models for male identity is safer, healthier, and better suited to serving the greater good.
In this paper, then, I will look at the issue of Victorian vexation/anxiety about masculine identity through the binary lens that the Victorians themselves often applied to the issue. I will begin by quickly surveying the investments both adventure fiction and domestic fiction make in certain kinds of masculinity, and then, through quick readings of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which I think are particularly representative in this respect, I will explore both the ostensible binarisms posited by Victorian detective fiction and the murkier, messier things that really seem to be happening with masculine identity in these texts.
One of the most persistent anxieties expressed by Victorian imperial adventure fiction is that English culture lacks a stable and coherent norm for masculine identity, and these novels often trace their protagonists’ identity crises back to what they identify as a disjunction between “English” and imperialist models for masculine subjectivity--a disjunction which is nicely illustrated by Tennyson’s Ulysses (1842), in which Ulysses himself calls attention to the sharp contrast between his own character and that of his son Telemachus. “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink/ Life to the lees,” Ulysses asserts, characterizing himself as a “gray spirit yearning in desire/ To follow knowledge like a sinking star/ Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” In contrast, Telemachus is characterized by “slow prudence. . . . Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere/ Of common duties, decent not to fail/ In offices of tenderness.” Ulysses embodies the spirit of exploration and of conquest; when he asserts that “I am a part of all that I have met,” he is proclaiming his role as a kind of cultural imperialist, his ability not merely to encounter but to transform alien civilizations. Telemachus, on the other hand, performs a kind of work Ulysses finds distasteful. Figured as “blameless,” “prudent,” and “tender,” he is a masculine version of the angel in the house; indeed, the task he has taken upon himself-- "to make mild/ A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees/ Subdue them to the useful and the good”--places him in a cultural role that is startlingly like that John Ruskin assigns to women in his influential essay “Of Queens’ Gardens” (1871). “The man’s power,” Ruskin asserts, “is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His . . . energy [is] for adventure, for war, and for conquest. . . . But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle--and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision” (37).
Tennyson’s Ulysses, who has “drunk delight of battle” and frets at “How dull it is to pause . . . As tho’ to breathe were life,” embodies Ruskin’s notion of the masculine spirit, but his portrait of Telemachus reflects what Ruskin identifies as distinctly feminized qualities. Yet the masculine ideal advanced by most Victorian domestic novels is far more like Telemachus than Ulysses, and this construction of masculine identity is a product of cultural values that run counter to those endorsed by Tennyson’s Ulysses. Claudia Nelson has proposed that the angel herself was such a resonant archetype in Victorian culture precisely because she represented opposition to “masculine” values. The angel’s “ultimate role,” Nelson, argues, “ was as the instrument of Victorian society’s subversive quest to heal itself by undermining the precepts of aggression, selfishness, and competition upon which the male world depended. . . . Untainted by nineteenth-century capitalism, the Angel imagined an alternative society that valued gentleness, feeling, community, mutual respect, and spiritual equality” (4). From Pamela to Jane Eyre to Middlemarch, all the major English domestic novels evince a similar desire for this kind of “alternative society”, and many of these novels take as a central theme the reformation of men so that they too learn to approximate the Angel. Indeed, Nelson notes,
countless Victorian writers of both sexes re-create Coventry Patmore’s insipid icon as a weapon for deconstructing the dominant male ideology--not only among women, but among men. The same code of selflessness, emotional warmth, purity, and concern for others that typifies the ideal of the Victorian woman also consistently appears in works explaining manliness. . . . The closer men could approximate the angel, the better for humankind. (4-5)
With respect to the construction of gendered identities, then, one of the central projects of much Victorian literature could be described as rehabilitating Ulysseses into Telemachuses. And, as Nelson suggests, this “subversive quest” is activated in explicit opposition to the aggressive energies that fuel capitalist and imperialist enterprise, and that Victorian society codes masculine. But the adventure novel performs a different kind of cultural work; as Martin Green puts it, adventure novels generated “the energizing myth of English imperialism. . . . charg[ing] England’s will with the energy to go out into the world and explore, conquer, and rule” (3). The adventure genre’s project of providing ideological support for imperialism leads it, in other words, to endorse the very qualities of masculine aggression the domestic novel seeks to curtail. Green describes the relationship between domestic and adventure fictions as “polar” (58), explaining that while the adventure novel “prepared the young men of England to go out to the colonies to rule, and their families to rejoice in their fates out there” (38), the domestic novel “implicitly advocated a quite different career” (38)--a career in which adventurous ambitions are subordinated to domestic responsibilities.
These two genres thus have radically different investments, and these investments compel each to become heavily invested in the formulation of masculine subjectivity. But the disjunction between the ideologies in which they are grounded leads them to advance masculine ideals that are virtually antithetical. While the domestic novel typically asks men to approximate Telemachus, the adventure genre endorses the kind of masculine ideal embodied by Ulysses. And while Tennyson’s Ulysses himself remains untroubled by the contrast between his persona and his son’s, shrugging it off with the remark that “He works his work, I mine,” Victorian fiction tends to be much more vexed about this polarity.
It’s striking how often this tension over what constitutes healthy, desirable, or normative masculine identity drives Victorian detective plots, and what’s notable about Victorian detective fiction in that regard is the extent to which it has roots both in sensation fiction—which is typically invested in the domestic model of masculinity—and adventure fiction, which is obviously heavily invested in the imperialist model. So these two “parent” genres of the detective story are fundamentally at odds with one another about the precise question the detective story promises to investigate and elucidate: who poses a threat to society’s well-being and who may safely be pronounced “innocent.”
In the Holmes stories detection often functions not, as one might expect, to issue clear-cut pronouncements about where guilt resides but rather to reveal how difficult it can be to locate either guilt or innocence within the context of a social order which is inconsistent in the ways in which it trains its subjects to achieve different kinds of national goals. One of the most frequently remarked-upon curiosities about Holmes’s cases is how seldom they result in the discovery of actual crimes that are punishable by law;@ and one reason for Holmes’s repeated failure to apprehend suspects who are clearly, obviously “guilty” is--as the stories make plain--that guilt is an unstable or indeterminate concept in the world these stories inhabit. Behaviors that resonate as deviant or dangerous according to one code of conduct are discovered to be normative according to--if not positively encouraged by--another, with the result that, even when a suspect is found to have committed a crime, Holmes will sometimes deem his behavior excusable and determine that remanding him over for punishment would be unjust.@ In this respect, the Holmes stories evince a kind of fluid moral relativism that, far from encouraging readerly complicity with the disciplinary mechanisms of the dominant social order, invites interrogation of these mechanisms and calls attention to troubling inconsistencies in the codes of conduct different kinds of English men (and women) are encouraged to follow.
Such inconsistencies often become most obvious and most acute in Victorian fiction when the values and imperatives that inform England’s imperial project are brought into confrontation with those that govern English domestic life. These confrontations are frequent in the Holmes stories, and they are particularly noteworthy given Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifelong fervent support of and advocacy on behalf of the British empire. Over and over in these stories men who have spent time in the empire and who have been socialized according to its imperatives are shown to be discordant if not disruptive or dangerous figures when they return to settle in England.
It is arguably the generic hybridity of these stories that makes their central project of detection--elucidation of mystery, resolution of tension, clarification of the boundaries between acceptable and deviant behaviors--so compelling. Our desire for what Holmes promises to accomplish is infinitely sharpened by the stories’ presentation of their milieu as one wherein competing value systems generate a great deal of cultural uncertainty about what kinds of behaviors should rightly be regarded as posing a threat to society’s interests. The more actively and explicitly the Holmes stories engage the tensions and contradictions between imperialist values and domestic ones, the more welcome--and, indeed, important--Holmes’s interventions become, for he, at once so keen-witted and so radically alienated from society that he appears to have no personal investments in any one particular value system, embodies the possibility of a sane, impartial, and just negotiation between the various values, beliefs, and imperatives that the stories present as having collectively destabilized the very notion of normative, healthy “Englishness.” If the stories--or Holmes himself--consistently ratified one set of norms and interests over the other--if, for example, their resolutions always worked to demonstrate that the apparently deviant behaviors of imperialist actors were non-threatening and in fact beneficial to society--then the central tension that sharpens our desire for Holmes’s work would be lost, and the stories would be no more than clever exercises in empirical deduction.
Imperial crimes are shown to have domestic repercussions in several of the Holmes stories. Even more disturbing, however, is the effect imperial sensibilities are shown to have when they are introduced into the domestic milieu. One of the most frequently recurring sources of trouble in the Holmes stories is unregulated masculine violence and greed, and in stories ranging from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to “The Crooked Man” it is suggested that colonial experience encourages men to give free reign to such ungoverned tempers. “Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family,” explains Helen Stoner in “The Speckled Band,” “and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics” (135). More than the literal climate of the empire, however, has contributed to her stepfather’s dangerously ruthless temperament: his very purpose in embarking on an imperial career was to achieve the kind of material gain that was not available to him in England. As the last member of a once-wealthy family brought to ruin by successive generations who were “of a dissolute and wasteful disposition” (134), Grimesby Roylott, “seeing that he must adapt himself to the new conditions, obtained an advance from a relative, which enabled him to take a medical degree and went out to Calcutta, where ... he established a large practice” (134). The ready availability of such imperial work affords opportunities for success and power for those who are not in a position to earn them in England, but Roylott’s story suggests that it can be dangerous to make such opportunities available to those who have proven themselves unfit to prosper at home. Roylott’s colonial career comes to an end when, “in a fit of anger” (134), he beats his native butler to death and narrowly escapes being hanged for it. But, having tasted material wealth and having learned from his colonial experience that it can be easily gotten, he plainly feels a sense of personal entitlement that makes him utterly ruthless. That his hereditary temperament has been dangerously exacerbated by his colonial experience is indicated by his affinity for the more atavistic elements of the empire: he has “a passion for Indian animals” (135), which he allows to roam free on the grounds of his ancestral home, where they “are feared by the villagers almost as much as their master” (136).
In a number of Holmes’s other cases, affective relations are perverted by imperialist greed: marriages are thwarted (“Speckled Band”) or proposed (“Boscombe Valley,” “Solitary Cyclist”) for the sake of imperial fortunes. The goals of empire are thus shown to endanger or co-opt the goals of love, while the entanglement of imperial histories with domestic ones often creates moral dilemmas which complicate the punishment/resolution of imperial crimes. But even if the Holmes stories generally privilege affective relations over imperial goals, they also demonstrate that affective problems can create imperial crises. In “The Second Stain,” for example, a woman’s indiscretion, coupled with her love for her husband, makes her vulnerable to blackmail by an international spy who seeks to exploit a letter “from a certain foreign potentate who has been ruffled by some recent colonial developments of this country” (487) to involve England in “a great war” (487) which could “well mean the expenditure of a thousand millions and the lives of a hundred thousand men” (488). The letter is in the hands of the woman’s husband; the spy compels her to steal it, for as she tells Holmes, “there is no woman in London who loves her husband as I do, and yet if he knew how I had acted ... he would never forgive me” (505-6). Again, then, affect and imperial affairs create a volatile mix, but this time, reversing the equation for the conflicts and crimes in the earlier stories, it is a woman’s love which threatens the security of imperial relations. Fortunately, however, another woman’s overdetermined emotions bring about a resolution to the crisis: before the spy can publish the letter, he is murdered by his estranged wife, a woman of “extremely excitable nature” who suffers from “attacks of jealousy which have amounted to frenzy” (497). The dangerous repercussions of one woman’s passion are thus safely contained by the deadly repercussions of another woman’s passion. But, again, as in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Solitary Cyclist,” the collision of imperial affairs and affective ones creates problems that seem irresolvable except by murder. For in each case, secrets must be kept on the one side of the equation if important relationships are not to be imperiled on the other. And it is precisely because domestic interests and imperial ones are so clearly antithetical that the intersection between them is so unstable and so fertile a site for the kind of criminal activity--at once so ostensibly mysterious and so morally ambiguous--that only an impartial and astute outsider like Holmes can penetrate, elucidate, and judge.
In the final analysis, then, the Holmes stories are less concerned with exposing the more problematic elements either of imperialism or of domestic relations than they are with demonstrating how volatile and dangerous the collision of the two can be--and how ill-equipped the British legal system is to deal with such collisions. In the aggregate, these stories betray considerable anxieties about the imperial project not so much because they identify that project as being “criminal” or breeding criminality in and of itself, but rather because they identify its goals and values as being so clearly antagonistic to those that inform English domestic life. Thus, while various individual stories may yield critiques of British imperial activity or of bourgeois domestic life or of both, the central concern these stories engage and worry at over and over is the tension between imperial and domestic sensibilities--a tension which, as Holmes’s investigations repeatedly demonstrate, not only drive even well-intentioned men to commit violent crimes of desperation but also tend to create the kinds of strange narrative convolutions, impenetrable motives, and bizarre mises en scene which baffle the conventional wisdom of the official agents of law and order, and which thus call with particular urgency for the explicitly independent, impartial--and often extralegal--intervention of Sherlock Holmes.
Thus, while Holmes himself is undoubtedly the kind of hero that the imperial adventure tradition finds more attractive than does the domestic/sensation tradition, he is not the sole source of the cultural work these stories perform. For, in order to sustain his masterful work, Holmes requires a theater which showcases his talents to the most impressive effect. And the theater which Doyle repeatedly found particularly well suited to his protagonist’s needs in this respect was one that staged dramatic conflicts between affective goals and imperial ones. Holmes may in many respects embody the adventure hero, but the work he performs is not that of advancing or valorizing imperial interests but rather that of negotiating between imperial imperatives and domestic ones. And the fact that it requires the almost superhuman Holmes to perform such negotiations--or even to recognize the need for them--only underscores how complicated and treacherous the entanglement of England’s imperial ambitions and its domestic aspirations has become, and how much pressure and tension this entanglement exerts on masculine subjectivity—at least as it’s presented in Victorian fiction.
Leslie Haynsworth holds a PhD in Victorian literature from the University of Virginia and is currently completing an MFA in creative writing at the University of South Carolina. Her work has appeared in Victorian Newsletter, English Literature in Transition, and Victorians Institute Journal. She is co-editor with Maria LaMonaca of Vexed by the Victorians: 21st-century Reverberations of 19th-century Fiction, an edited collection currently under review.

Works Cited

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan.The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries. New York: Signet, 1985.
Green, Martin. Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Nelson, Claudia. Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children’s Fiction, 1857-1917. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.

Orel, Harold. “Introduction.” Critical Essays on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ed. Harold Orel. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Ruskin, John. “Of Queens’ Gardens.” In Sesame and Lilies: Three Lectures. New York: J. Wiley, 1888.

Tennyson, Alfred. Ulysses. In The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.