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Ritual and the Liminality of Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four ana The Hound of the Baskervilles Jesse Oak Taylor-Ide University of Wisconsin, Madison THE LATE-VICTORIAN PERIOD presented the need to confront an increasing dissolution of boundaries that had once been more concretely defined. In 1859 (the year Conan Doyle was born) Darwin published The Origin of Species, removing the concept of a solid divide between humans and animals. Similarly, the increasing flow of people to and from the far reaches of the globe turned London, the seat of British power, culture, and identity, into what Watson called a "cesspool in which the loungers and idlers of empire are inevitably dredged."1 Many of these "loungers and idlers" were British, many were foreign, and many seemed to blur the line between these two categories, either being of mixed blood, or having acquired foreign tendencies through sojourns in Marlow's "dark places of the earth."2 Within this "cesspool" of ontological uncertainty, Sherlock Holmes is generally understood, and indeed presents himself, as the ultimate rational being—the champion of the solid, masculine, British mind in the face of foreign mysticism and irrationality .3 He is in fact more complicated, serving as a mediator between late-Victorian British society and the irrational, supernatural, and foreign elements threatening it. This mediating role is mirrored within the liminality of his own character as he attempts to reconcile his often intuitive and meditative methods with his (and society's) espousal of the purely rational mind. Sherlock Holmes represents a marriage of distinctly oppositional epistemological frameworks—the reason and science associated with the British masculinity on the one hand, and the intuitive, the irrational associated with the foreign and feminine on the 55 ELT 48 : 1 2005 other. This essay explores the role of ritual transformation in Holmes's ability to integrate these apparent contradictions in two emblematic texts, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles. ♦ ♦ ♦ One of the most powerful oppositions running throughout the Holmes stories is that between humanity and nature. Tennyson's lines, "Move upward, working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die,"4 express the widely held desire to assert the clear distinction between the human and the animal. The fear that this line was not firm—that people have animal instincts that could erupt through fissures in the rigid structure of society, causing them to "revert to the animal"5—is played out in many of the Holmes stories, as well as other popular literature of the time, such as Stoker's Dracula and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Victorian social theorists from Marx to Mill equated foreign lands with prior stages of evolution.6 Thus, it is not surprising that in many of Holmes's cases, and every one that deals with the apparently supernatural , this struggle between the human and animal is directly connected to foreign lands.7 Often, as in The Sign of Four, these cases bring to light dark secrets lying behind apparently legitimate fortunes that were brought home from abroad, where the crime under investigation is in fact retribution for wrongs committed overseas.8 In others, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, characters are transformed through time spent abroad and endowed with "other-worldly" knowledge that can be put to nefarious purposes. Holmes's ability to bring the apparently mystical and supernatural threats stemming from these places of "darkness " into the "light" of rational explanation, then, serves to affirm the humanity of civilization, and is connected to the "civilizing mission" of colonialism. Unlike many of the criminals he pursues, Holmes rarely leaves Britain .9 Instead he highlights the degree to which "Britain" was becoming an increasingly hybridized entity through the influx of foreign influences . In order to counter these threats, Holmes goes through transformations similar to those associated with sojourns abroad through the use of ritual process. Social theorist Victor Turner describes such ritual processes as symbolic dissolutions of the self, departures from the societal structure. This leads to a period of liminality, or anti-structure, where the individual is "betwixt and between" worlds. Eventually, a reintegration into structured society follows, with the individual...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 55-70
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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