Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, served as a starting point for exploration into empire. Although Holmes is in many ways a relatively flat character, and the stories fantastic, there are certain elements in the stories that shouldn't be glossed over. One of these elements worth mentioning is the characterization of the "empire man". This characterization serves as a way to think about what English society thought of itself during the period. Another important element is the idea of "ironic backlash." Ironic backlash is the idea that the colonies have the power to fight back against their domination in subtle, and sometimes deadly ways. Ironic backlash, as it exists within the Holmes stories, serves as a metaphor for the potential backlash that England could (and eventually did) suffer at the hands of it's colonies. Lastly, the Doyle stories give us a sense of the trappings of empire. In Holmes' flat are numerous objects and trinkets from around the world (see picture). These items show not only the atmosphere of empire, but have something to say about the structure of power that allowed those items to be in a house in London, instead of their natural homeland.

In regards to the empire man, Doyle gives us a glimpse of his time period. In writing for a popular audience, he was forced to describe a man who is the embodiment of what the English felt was an ideal. Holmes is well mannered, immaculate in appearance and habit, and cunning. He is exactly the kind of person that one might imagine deserves to be in power. He represents the power and clarity of vision that the English at that time must have felt. He was on top of the world, and could be beaten by no man. His realm of expertise, like the realm of the empire, had no bounds.

Holmes represents the empire in other ways, as well. He is a person who is constantly in motion. Whenever possible, he is working in preparation of his next mystery, his next mastery, or his next conquest. However, when no such challenges confront him, Holmes falls into periods of melancholy drug use. This seems to be a direct metaphor for the empire, which must also maintain a constant expansion to support itself.

In addition, Holmes represents the paternal element of English society. He is a type of father-figure, wise and intelligent, who serves to maintain England's best interests. In "The Sign of Four", Holmes solves the mystery of the stolen Agra treasure only to return the treasure to the thieves' family. This treasure, which is essentially stolen from the colonies is taken for granted by Holmes as being the property of the English, rather than of the colonies from which it came. Holmes also represents this paternal idea in the many cases in which he comes to the aid of a maiden in distress. This paternal instinct is also deeply rooted in the concept of the "white man's burden". In this sense, Holmes is a metaphor for the English empire, striving to protect and educate the otherwise helpless savages in the colonies.

Doyle also makes some limited commentary on the empire itself. His strongest message is found in the examples of "Ironic Backlash" in the Holmes stories. In numerous stories, the colonial treasures seem to carry a kind of curse of their own which travels from the colonies to England. In "The Sign of Four", the Agra treasure manifests it's backlash against the mysterious man in the form of his eventual capture. In "The Speckled Band", Dr. Roylott's greed and "colonial character" catch up with him when he is killed by a swamp adder. In addition, stories like "The Ring of Thoth" and others incorporate the idea of ironic backlash in the form of a Mummy's curse.

Lastly, the Doyle stories exemplify the idea of colonial trappings. All around Holmes are objects that have been plucked up from the colonies and brought to England. This certainly shows the power of England, in that it has the disposable wealth to acquire objects from so many different places. Browne states that this is certainly due to an influx of wealth in England, and a change from a "production" to a consumer economy. (Browne) Also, Holmes as an empire man, has complete knowledge of the origins and uses of his trappings, and gains power from this knowledge. In a sense, these objects serve to create an atmosphere of empire. This feeling, be being put forth to the common person as normal, perpetuates the status quo of empire by making it seem natural and just. However, as we have seen in other portions of Doyle's work, these trappings can often carry their own curse.

As to the author's motivations, it is difficult to say what moved him to write, other than money. While there are elements of empire that are clearly shown by Doyle's work, they seem to be incidental, rather than explicit. They are reflections of a time, or perhaps reflections of a fictional time, rather than an concerted effort on the part of the author to send out a message. It is a good starting point for an exploration of empire, but does very little to explain it's motivations and rationales.


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