The Myth of an Unfeeling Sherlock Holmes

Cross posted from PepperWords

I think it's popular to characterize Sherlock Holmes as a man so logical he is almost inhuman, mechanical in his skill. But I also think this degrades the richness of character that is Holmes. It may be easier to sift him down to one or two traits, physical and intellectual: the hat, the pipe, the hawkish profile, and the quicksilver mind. But he's so much more than these things.

For one, keep in mind that Doyle's original stories are told through the filter of one Dr. Watson. (And again it's common to reduce Doyle's Watson to something of a buffoon who does nothing but utter his amazement at all Holmes does, but that is a ridiculous caricature when one is also supposed to believe the man is a veteran and a surgeon—he cannot be those things and also quite so stupid.) If Watson finds Holmes unfeeling at times, it is only based on Watson's own perceptions of Holmes's actions. He and Holmes are good friends, true, but Watson does not know the whole of Holmes's heart. How could he? Watson can only conjecture and assume.

The truth is Holmes is not some emotionless automaton. He has feelings, certainly, but he chooses—one might dare Holmes has, in fact, schooled himself—not to wear them on his sleeve. Surely in his line of work, Holmes has long since found it detrimental to allow his emotions to color his logic. Perhaps, too, in his very youth he found his feelings to be something he needed to control, and now after years of internal wrestling, Holmes has become very good at pinning them down.

Holmes is the type to take a feeling and examine it in private. "Is this useful to me?" He is, after all, a student of the human heart as well as mind—as many crimes stem from passion as from clever thinking. Holmes can take his own emotions and hold them up against what he knows of how people think, behave, and yes, feel. If his own feelings are different, if he is different, he is very aware. (He likes to trumpet his superior intellect, but perhaps he is covering just a bit for a small deficit of feeling.) Holmes might very well experiment with himself by testing his emotions. But it is a private game, not one Watson would be privy to.

We know that Holmes can be euphoric when in the grips of a good case, and certainly also when triumphant. He can be depressed when bored. He gets frustrated, even angry. Agitated. It's no stretch, then, to guess he feels affection, and even love. He may find such emotion distasteful, inconvenient. He may cut it out and put it away somewhere inside him. But it's there, as much as any other feeling.

Love is a vulnerability. A soft spot. It doesn't do to show a chink in one's armor. Holmes holds all his abilities up as a shield, he clads himself in the armor of intellect. But for him, even more than cocaine, love would be a terrible vice. His naturally addictive and obsessive nature would suffer under the weight of it.

Holmes is a man who knows his own limits.

He is good, better than most, would be pleased to show and tell you as much. But some lines are dangerous to cross. And for Sherlock Holmes, to make a private love into a public show of affection? That's his line.

And so Watson, and subsequently his readers, may labor under the idea that Holmes is unfeeling. But it isn't true. Holmes' heart is not untouched, nor is it untouchable. It's just hidden.

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