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The View from the East End (55)

By Inspector Hopkins

December 31, 2006

The Character of Holmes – part 6
Holmes and Humility

by Inspector Hopkins 

As I mentioned last time, humility is a trait that we do not often associate with Sherlock Holmes. Indeed the newer reader will most likely be much more struck by the egotistical and somewhat conceited aspects of his personality.

Examples of these aspects abound throughout the Canon, and in his famous “Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana”, Jack Tracy did a thoroughly outstanding job of outlining these more dominant character traits.  Yet he paid little attention to the humbler side of Sherlock Holmes.  No discussion of his character would be complete unless we take this aspect into account.

He was indeed humble:

From time to time in the Canon, we see that Holmes rebuked himself for failing to recognize an important clue, or supposedly taking too long to do so. For example in The Man with the Twisted Lip he called himself  “one of the most absolute fools in Europe”, and that he “deserve[d] to be kicked from here to Charing Cross”. These comments were made after he sat up all night thinking about the case.

In Lady Frances Carfax, he also rebuked himself for taking as long as he did to solve the Lady’s disappearance. That time he wanted Watson to record the case as an example of “a temporary eclipse” of his mind, but that he still might accept some credit for solving the case. His remarks at the end of that story revealed both honesty and humility.

Once again referring to The Five Orange Pips, Watson reported that “Holmes was more depressed and shaken than I had ever him seen him” over the murder of young John Openshaw, a death for which Holmes blamed himself.

Holmes also referred to himself as a “fool” in both The Creeping Man and The Solitary Cyclist.

But wait, there’s more:

Let’s not forget the case of The Yellow Face, either. Holmes asked Watson to whisper “Norbury” in his ear “if it should ever strike [him]” that he was getting “a little overconfident in [his] powers”. This clearly indicated that Holmes recognized his own fallibility.  Further, it showed that he knew that he was capable of making similar mistakes in the future, and that perhaps he just might be a bit conceited.

Finally, consider Holmes’s behaviour in the Bruce-Partington Plans. Recall that at the end of the story he set a trap for Oberstein’s unknown accomplice via an ad in the newspaper. Along with Lestrade, Watson, and Mycroft, he waited for this accomplice to arrive at Oberstein’s house. Upon discovering him to be Sir James Walter’s younger brother, Holmes stated, “You can write me down for an ass this time, Watson  . . . this was not the bird I was looking for.”

That remark had several significant elements contained within it. First, Holmes admitted that he was expecting someone else, i.e. that he made a mistake.  Secondly, he told Watson to record this mistake for his readers. Thirdly, he admitted his error in front of Mycroft and Lestrade. That was important because of the professional and sibling rivalry that existed between them. Lastly, consider the fact that only Holmes knew that he suspected someone else to be to the guilty party. He could have easily claimed that he expected Colonel Valentine Walter all along, and no one would have been any the wiser.

Put it all together and what do you get?

My Conclusion:

Holmes always enjoyed getting positive attention, but let’s face it, we all do. Despite the copious descriptions of his more egotistical and conceited nature, he did recognize his shortcomings and limitations. He freely admitted his mistakes to Watson, and he was definitely honest about them.  Thus, our hero had a well-rounded set of character traits.

But what else would you expect from the world’s greatest consulting detective?

Until next time and wishing every one of you out there a very Happy and Prosperous Sherlockian New Year, I remain as always,

Yours faithfully,