Who is this?
It’s only a silhouette – no detail, no color, not even facial features- and yet you can still identify who it is.
Yay! It’s Sherlock Holmes!
Sherlock Holmes holds the record as the most-portrayed fictional character on screen; Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes in second. It’s estimated that 72 different actors have played the 125-year-old detective, the most recent addition being Jonny Lee Miller from CBS’s Elementary. Early actors went the way of the silhouette – which is a statue in front of the Baker Street Underground Station in London – complete with deerstalker and Inverness cape, but more recent actors, such as Robert Downey Jr. and my future husband Benedict Cumberbatch, have forgone the look in favor of steampunk Victorian and the most badass coat in the history of outerwear, respectively.
How is this relevant, you may be wondering. More specifically, how is this related to education?
Before you even started reading this blog, you were probably able to identify the above silhouette as Sherlock Holmes. At the very least, you recognize it. It’s so classic and so universal that that symbol is stamped onto the spines of mystery novels in libraries everywhere. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his image.
The fact is Sherlock Holmes is everywhere. Not only is he the inspiration for the majority of detectives and detective duos in books, movies, and TV shows, his original stories have been remade hundreds of times, three having premiered in the last three years alone. Wikipedia even has an entire page dedicated to Sherlock Holmes and pop culture.
Before I go further, I should dispel the rumor that he never existed. Sherlock Holmes is not and was not a real person; he was just the fanciful creation of a bored doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle waaay back in Victorian-era England. Neither is/was Dr. Watson, his faithful companion and biographer, although his character was based on Doyle himself. They were characters in a book, nothing more. Made me sad when I found out.
But you’d never know that by simply asking people. I would bet that 1/3 would say, perhaps with a trace of trepidation, that he was a real person. Why is that? Because Holmes has so deeply ingratiated himself into pop culture that children can recognize that the above image represents “mystery.” And the idea of a police consultant? That came from him, too – the world’s first consulting detective.
So how is this related to education? Because the original stories are classic literature. Yeah, they may not be ground-breaking works in terms of style or themes, but they have produced one of the most iconic characters in history, so they’re worth having a look at. I first studied the stories in seventh grade as part of a mystery unit around Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote one of the first detective stories, because Poe inspired Doyle and his creation. I also studied two of the stories last semester, in my British Literature class and World Literature class, because Holmes is both classically English and universally amazing.
The stories are also very representative of Victorian literature and Victorian England as a whole. Through Dr. Watson, Doyle professes some of the common beliefs and ideals of your upstanding Englishman: the rise of the middle class, the pros and cons of colonialism, the fear of the “other,” the ideal woman, Freudian theories (although these were probably by accident). But Doyle also created an ideal hero. Holmes is more than a detective; he is an agent of justice. He makes it clear that he is not a policeman, so therefore he is not bound by a policeman’s rules, i.e. the law.
Here’s an example. Imagine you were being stalked by someone; what would you do? Most likely, you would go to the police and tell them you were being stalked. The police would hand you a restraining order and grimace, because that’s all they can do to help you. Until the stalker puts your safety at risk, he or she is off limits in the law’s eyes. How would that make you feel? Safe?
The difference between Sherlock Holmes and the police is that the police follow the law and Holmes seeks justice. He will always believe you, solve your problem, and make things right. If you were able to take this problem to Holmes, he would not rest until the stalker was behind bars or out of the country and you were safe. Wouldn’t you feel better with a guy like that on your side?
And, better still, he is not an ideal hero; Holmes has flaws just like every other human being. He’s arrogant, melodramatic, and easily bored. His wit is sharp and caustic, particularly to the bumbling police force, but Dr. Watson is not beyond his sting. Not only is he above the law, sometimes he is the law. And, perhaps most damning, he’s a cocaine addict for about a third of the stories. Because Holmes appears in 56 short stories and four novels, Doyle had loads of time to develop his and Watson’s characters, to really humanize them in a way that hadn’t really been done before. However, because Holmes stands for such lofty ideals, these flaws endear him rather than offend and alienate his readers. That’s why people keep coming back to the stories, people keep writing about him, and he keeps cropping up on our screens.
Most people don’t know all this, but I think it’s important that they do. Doyle has contributed so much to pop culture, not only in his legendary characters, but in the style of his stories and even some of Holmes’s methods– many great strides in forensic science have come about thanks Holmes and Doyle. And, while the stories may not be strictly canonical or the best thing since Shakespeare and sliced bread, they have a lot to offer readers, both young and old. I’m hoping that, someday, I’ll be able to teach these stories in my classroom, and I really hope my students will enjoy them.
If this sparked your interest, all the stories are available for free on the internet, and there are dozens of film and television adaptations on Netflix and Youtube. And if you haven’t already, you should definitely watch Sherlock, ’cause Watson has to blog too!
And so I leave you with this: