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Watson Falls Asleep: Narrative Frustration and Sherlock Holmes "Elementary," said he. "It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader." —"The Crooked Man" James Krasner University of New Hampshire CRITICS CONTINUE to puzzle over the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with many recent articles explaining its appeal to the reader in terms of its engagement with Victorian cultural anxiety. Historical readings by Rosemary Jann and Ronald R. Thomas argue that the stories justify and enforce familiar social codes of class, gender, ethnicity and nationality, thus offering the reader a sense of security.1 In her discussion of domestic space, Suzanne Fox also defines the stories' appeal in terms of comfort and reassurance: "Home as [Doyle] imagines it in them is a place of pure comfort, unmarred safety, utter control. They are romances, as it were, about the ideal of home, home as it can't but should be."2 By contrast Christopher Metress offers a two-part analysis of "The Adventure of the Second Stain" in which the reader's utter control, or social order, is complicated by a kind of duplicity on the part of the author. "The tales succeed," he argues, "because they both reveal and conceal, both fold over and lay open, the very anxieties threatening late-Victorian England."3 Metress suggests that the stories intrigue the reader precisely because they incite social anxieties in the very process of soothing them. The operation of anxiety, which tends to erupt just when it has been put down, functions narratively in the stories, moving the reader "to open up and then to close, to close and then to open up, the pages."4 424 KRASNER : CONAN DOYLE I would like to address the question of how anxiety functions in the Sherlock Holmes stories by focusing more on narration than content. Implicit in Metress's reading is that frustration lies at the center of the stories' narrative structure. The complicated dance of concealing and revealing operates not only with respect to socially marginal characters and events, but in every aspect of Holmes's detective work. While the detective story must always address the process through which the concealed becomes revealed, by portraying Watson and his relationship to Holmes as he does, Conan Doyle makes concealment and revelation doubly complicated. The stories are not structured around their protagonist 's detecting, but around their narrator's frustrated desire to behold and comprehend that detecting. Not only must Holmes reconstruct the story of the crime; Watson must construct the story of Holmes's reconstruction . Nor does Holmes make it easy. The invisibility of his mental labor, his insistence on meticulous logistical control, and his personal idiosyncrasies, leave Watson guessing. The stories can perhaps best be described as portrayals of Watson's many strategies for biding his time while nothing is revealed because Holmes either does not speak, or will not explain. As a result, Watson portrays Holmes almost entirely from without. The physical circumstances in which Holmes thinks, the objects and sensations surrounding his thoughts, and the way Holmes is himself embodied in the world become the major descriptive subjects of the novels and stories. Often we glimpse a furious anxiety to know lying behind the placid exterior of the narrator; his frustration is created by his combination of mental distance and physical proximity to Holmes's thoughts, and is passed on to the reader who must rely on Watson's irritatingly mundane capacities for narrative revelation. Nor is Holmes above taking pleasure in Watson's frustration by tantalizing him, and us, with tidbits, and poking fun at his failure to understand. Watson's desire to find out what Holmes conceals, however, is matched by an opposing anxiety for certainty and order, in Fox's words for "utter control." Historical readings...


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pp. 424-436
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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