Sherlock Holmes Was A Failure (Sometimes)

Illustration by Sidney Paget, via
Illustration by Sidney Paget, via

Sherlock Holmes. A logician, a Spock of the 1800s, a man who was surely always right. Except when he wasn’t. Before reading all of the original Holmes stories as they appeared in the Strand Magazine, I always assumed the famous character was always correct in his deductions. He was a superhero of sorts, in my mind. In having just finished this wonderful collection, however, it struck me that Sherlock was very clearly described by the author as often wrong.  Watson references unfinished or unsolved cases more than once throughout his narratives. If you don’t catch those sentences, you’re absolutely sure to catch Sherlock’s ability to err in The Adventure of the Yellow Face, where he himself whispers to his dear friend Watson:

…if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my hear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.

After having just been proven very very wrong, Holmes does not shrink in the face of a big plate of humble pie. He takes it with grace, and a little humor, as well as a nod to being more prepared in the future.

The introduction my particular collection of Holmes stories cites Arthur Conan Doyle’s spirituality as the reason he decided to end Sherlock’s life in The Final Problem. It seems that the increasing sums of money he was receiving to write caused him to worry a little about his own soul. A man like that, then would be very aware in the fallibility of humans, no matter how gifted they were.

So Holmes was like any other human, and just like you. We each are wildly gifted at something, though in real life it’s not as dramatized or shiny as it is in good fiction. And just like Holmes, the value of our gift is not contingent on our inevitable human mistakes. Sherlock himself knows his amazing mind should not be wasted, and makes a career of using it to help those who need puzzles solved, often after these puzzles have sent them into “brain fever.” So even when he fails, he attacks each new case with the same fervor.

Sherlock Holmes was never meant to be the picture of perfect reasoning. He was simply meant to be extraordinarily good at it. As a society, we wish our heroes to be unbreakable, and therefore we forget the moments where he fails. But take heart, dear friends, heroes are not made from perfection, but perhaps in their humility, their powers become more amazing. 


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