Hard to believe that we have been together a month already. The midterm is looming–only two weeks away–and on this front, there is important news: the class unanimously voted to write a take-home essay instead of a sit-down exam, so we changed plans accordingly. I will know more about the take-home essay by next week, but I am anticipating a short essay (6-7) with a choice of writing prompts. Hope this sounds good.
With Sherlock Holmes on deck, we started with a two-minute mystery supplied by Donald Sobol (see Writing Response 3) The goal was to test all of your observational powers and demonstrate the lasting appeal of the detective genre. Congrats to Dan and Heather, both of whom were correct in solving the crime. I also suggested that savant-like observational skills is part of a stereotypical depiction of autism, a character type that is based on Sherlock Holmes but shows up again and again, particularly in young adult works with autistic characters (see Curious Incident and Colin Fischer, for example). From here, we moved to the central argument of the class: namely, that when we diagnose fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes with autism, we reveal and reinforce stereotypical understandings of the neurodevelopmental disorder. Being extraordinarily observant is only one part of the stereotype. In her outstanding critical article and the Sherlock Holmes autism diagnosis, Sonya Loftis fleshes out the stereotype more fully. It includes:
- Savant observational skills
- Obsessive interest in a narrow subject
- Social cluelessness
- Emotional distance
We then broke into groups, with each group examining one of the subareas above and finding a) Two examples that reinforce the stereotype and b) one example that seems to complicate it. Our findings are compiled below:
SAVANT OBSERVATIONAL SKILLS
Sherlock Holmes displays his savant observational skill at least twice. The first time we noticed it was when he was able to tell that the get away horse had one new shoe and three old shoes. This can be found at the beginning of Chapter Four:
“There’s no room for a mistake,” he answered. “The very first thing which I observed on arriving there was that a cab had made two ruts with its wheels close to the curb. Now, up to last night, we have had no rain for a week, so that those wheels which left such a deep impression must have been there during the night. There were the marks of the horse’s hoofs, too, the outline of one of which was far more clearly cut than that of the other three, showing that that was a new shoe. Since the cab was there after the rain began, and was not there at any time during the morning — I have Gregson’s word for that — it follows that it must have been there during the night, and, therefore, that it brought those two individuals to the house.”
The second time we noticed it was when he realized that the pills – the pills he had never seen until after that moment – were the murder weapon and then proceded to demonstrate what the pills did. This can be found in Chapter Seven:
“And there was nothing else?” Holmes asked.
“Nothing of any importance. The man’s novel, with which he had read himself to sleep was lying upon the bed, and his pipe was on a chair beside him. There was a glass of water on the table, and on the window-sill a small chip ointment box containing a couple of pills.”
Sherlock Holmes sprang from his chair with an exclamation of delight.
“The last link,” he cried, exultantly. “My case is complete.”
“I will now cut one of these pills in two,” said Holmes, and drawing his penknife he suited the action to the word. “One half we return into the box for future purposes. The other half I will place in this wine glass, in which is a teaspoonful of water. You perceive that our friend, the Doctor, is right, and that it readily dissolves.”
“This may be very interesting,” said Lestrade, in the injured tone of one who suspects that he is being laughed at, “I cannot see, however, what it has to do with the death of Mr. Joseph Stangerson.”
- Ability to determine that Watson served in Afghanistan. ““How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment” (6).
- “I wonder what that fellow is looking for?” I asked, pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of a message. “You mean the retired sergeant of Marines,” said Sherlock Holmes. “Brag and bounce!” thought I to myself. “He knows that I cannot verify his guess” (12). Sherlock correctly observes that the man was a retired sergeant.
Our one complication was that contrary to Watson’s thought that he wasn’t knowledgeable about literature but Sherlock proves that he is. His focus is not so narrow as to be only observational when it comes to crime and crime solving – Sherlock Holmes has other interests as well.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” (p 9)
- He doesn’t care about the “facts” in the statement above. Also, he impatiently interrupted midway through a conversation.
“Well done!” said Holmes in an encouraging voice. “Really, Gregson, you are getting along. We shall make something of you yet.” (p 27)
- Normally, you’d make it clear that you were “joking” about something, but Holmes said it in an encouraging voice meaning that he truly meant what he said as a compliment which another person wouldn’t consider a compliment.
” How on earth did you know that?”I asked in astonishment. “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. “The question now is about hemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?” (6-7)
“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”… ” It might be made a textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid” (11-12).
(Watson compliments Holmes)
My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty. (p 18)
- Holmes was “blushing” at the compliment, meaning that he realized he was being complimented, which is a normal reaction to a compliment like that.
“‘I have no time for trifles”, he (Sherlock) answered brusquely; then with a smile, “Excuse my rudeness. You broke the thread of my thoughts; but perhaps it is as well”. (12)
- p. 6 (CR) “No; he is not a man who is easy to draw out, though he can be communicative enough when fancy seizes him.”
- p. 9 (CR) “I was on the point of asking him what work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one.”
- p. 10 (CR) “Leaning back in his arm char of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts that possessed him…”
The two proofs show the negative stereotype about being on the autism spectrum, emotional distance in particular. The first proof is Stamford talking about Holmes and how, essentially, he is a tough nut to crack, unless talking about something that interests him. The second proof is Watson describing an encounter where he was uncomfortable asking any further questions because he knows Holmes would react adversely.
The complication shows that Holmes expresses himself through music, and in the presence of other people.
Our first textual proof is in the passage where Watson is describing Holmes’ limits, claiming “he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”, and our second textual proof was that he know over a hundred kinds of pipe and ashes by heart. As a bonus, we also found he has a habit of walking around London scoping out different kinds of dirt, which can be related to his crime solving and investigations
Our complication is that Watson claims that Holmes has no knowledge of Literature or Philosophy, but quotes a French Philosopher in chapter 6.
Follow Up Discussion
In our following discussion of the text, we talked about the above issues at length. I introduced two more possible complications that make the easy diagnosis of Holmes as ASD just a little murkier: They are as follows:
- The unreliable narrator. John Watson (especially in the television series Sherlock) displays symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His own deviation from the neurotypical norm, in other words, cancels out our immediate assumption that he, as narrator, is our NT stand-in.
- Criminality. The Mormons are the real villains of the story (Jefferson Hope is a largely sympathetic criminal). Doyle shows them to be greedy, lustful, murderous, and controlling. Doyle was certainly playing on popular opinion (even in England) particularly after the sinister events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857. To stretch things a bit, if the Mormon followers are considered “crazy” by mainstream Protestant Christians, then there is a link here between criminality and neurodivergence. Holmes himself (again, especially in the television series) is always on the cusp of criminal activity. In other words, the poorhouse (which gives way to the state mental asylum) is filling up quickly: the poor, the insane, and the criminal are all housed there.
Lastly, one student asked a very good question last night: Are we supposed to be seeing these characters as autistic, or not supposed to be seeing them as autistic? My answer was to suggest that while viewing Sherlock Holmes as an autistic character could be empowering to ASD individuals and community (what a character!) , there is also a peril in seeing autism only as it is depicted in the character of Sherlock Holmes and his many, many imitators. Until next week.