Sherlock’s All Seeing Eyes

D.A. Miller defines the panopticon in The Novel and The Police as “a circular prison disposed about a central watchtower…” in which “… surveillance is exercised on fully visible “prisoners” by unseen “guards “”. The quotations added by Miller state the fact that the panopticon does not necessarily exist only within a prison setting. It can also exist through people, one of those people being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a detective, or as Watson calls an “amateur bloodhound”. He is able to accurately make assumptions about people based on the smallest things. He correctly declared that someone was a retired marine sergeant from his tattoo, beard, and the air in which he walked. No one is safe from Sherlock’s profound abilities of deduction. Just one look at a person and he can accurately guess a person’s deepest secret, or so it feels. Sherlock becomes the panopticon in this sense. If you know about his abilities, you will always be on edge that he is watching you and, therefore, you are always watching yourself. But in the end, it does not matter, because however careful you are, Holmes will still find out information because that information “is most characteristically exercised on “little things “”. 

This becomes most apparent with the retired marine sergeant. The tattoo of an anchor is the most visible marker that Sherlock sees but that only tells him of a previous profession that was on the seas. The two “little things” as Miller calls them, are his beard and the way in which he walks. If the sergeant were to cover up his tattoo, Holmes can still deduce that he was a retired sergeant of some kind. Holmes’ version of the panopticon is the scariest because it is invisible. No one can know when he is judging you and you never know if your small ticks or visible differences will be under his scrutiny.


Works Cited:

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Penguin Books. 1887.

Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. University of California Press. 1988.


4 thoughts on “Sherlock’s All Seeing Eyes”

  1. I love this application of the concept of the panopticon to a single character! Sherlock Holmes is so powerful and observant that he can serve as the panopticon himself. I appreciate your addition that he is even more subversive than the original panopticon due to the “invisible” nature of his perception. This emphasizes the concept that people will police themselves if they already expect to be policed by another, but they are not so careful without that awareness; this is precisely how Holmes is so successful. I wrote about the importance of things in The Moonstone, and Holmes himself is a great example of why paying attention to “things” can be so helpful.

  2. I love your use of the panopticon to describe Holme’s ability to decipher key character traits and information about a person based on, as you and Miller put it, the “small things.” This made me think about how we read other characters when they are around Holmes. Are they aware of his “sixth” sense to identify small clues and do they act differently/more reserved around him? Watson is aware of Holme’s detective instincts as he’s constantly in awe of Holmes when he makes a discovery or connection, so maybe we can ask how this impacts Watson’s representation of himself in the novel and if he is more reserved and cautious with Holmes.

  3. I love the concept of the panopticon applied here! I think that Sherlock Holmes’s uncanny ability to deduce a person’s character just by looking at them is characteristic of many real-life detectives. Although it is a skill that is developed over time, I would argue that only certain people are gifted with it from birth or childhood. This is the reason why even amongst his detective peers, Sherlock Holmes is revered for his ability to make one observation and deduce one’s entire existence from it.
    Panopticon…I’m gonna have to look into this more later on! Good stuff!

  4. I very much enjoyed this post. I found it personally very fascinating how you were able to convey the way that Sherlock Holmes functions within the story as equal to that of an all knowing God figure without stating that explicitly. I personally found it very enjoyable how you were able to reflect in your writing how this mechanic effects the way the overall story is written and the other characters interact with Sherlock Holmes. I also very much enjoyed your analogy of the watchtower and feel that you could easily further develop this post if you so chose.

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