Neurodivergent Representation in Sherlock Holmes

During today’s group discussion, I asked a question regarding Sherlock Holmes’s refusal to remember what he considers unnecessary information. Specifically, Holmes says, “You see, I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it” (Doyle 9). Obviously, being a jack of all trades is of not importance to Holmes, even though most men during this period valued well-versed education as a symbol of elevated social status. In addition to this oddity, Sherlock Holmes focuses his brain power on two specific fields: forensic science (5) and detective work (both of which go hand-in-hand). In fact, one could go as far as to say that Sherlock Holmes’s infatuation with detective work borderlines obsession. He applies most of his time and brain power to solving cases and developing new methods to do so. As a result, Holmes is viewed as “eccentric (3)” by those who know him–all except for Watson.

Davis brought up a good point about Sherlock Holmes’s potential neurodivergence. Although Arthur Conan Doyle makes no effort to diagnose Holmes with Asperger’s or any other type of condition (Asperger’s was not described in the DSM until the mid-twentieth century), he arguably represents the condition in the most digestible manner for his audience at the time. Not only is Holmes’s obsession with forensics indication of the likelihood of his neurodivergence, but also his communication style and his extremely close observations of people and his environment are tell-tale signs of his unique thought process, which Watson notices and grows to admire throughout the novel. What we may consider dry humor or flatness of character in Holmes’s verbal responses may actually be an indication of his inability to verbally engage other people in a usual, more inviting manner. In addition, Holmes’s attention span is very short, and Watson notes many occasions during which Holmes’s body language is notable for its unusual nature (Doyle 21).

This opens up a bigger discussion about the ways in which 19th century authors such as Doyle, Collins, and even Bronte attempt to portray disability without having the current language to name it. How could Catherine Earnshaw’s “personality” be analyzed as a result of trauma, and what language does Bronte use to convey such a framework? I think there is a lot to delve into here.


3 thoughts on “Neurodivergent Representation in Sherlock Holmes”

  1. The first thing I thought of when reading Sherlock’s characterization was noticing his neurodivergence, I agree with everything you’ve said here. I also agree that there is a lot more to delve into in terms of how Victorian literature navigated describing neurodivergence without the proper language. Though I am also interested in how different neurodivergence are described in different lights. Catherine Earnshaw for example is depicted as more out of sorts and crazy in her obsessions, but Sherlock Holmes is praised as a passionate, master detective. Even without the language, it seems Victorian authors had some opinions about which were maybe more tolerable or acceptable.

  2. With today’s increasing knowledge and awareness about disability and psychopathology, I agree with you both that it is not hard to see Sherlock Holmes as neurodivergence. Other than lacking the specific words and terms to identify different mental disorders, Victorians are also quite notorious for not wanting to talk about things that are out of the norms, despite the love of the sensational literature. Like sex and homosexuality, mental disorders are only hinted vaguely and not discussed about at all within Victorian novels. The most that the authors did seems to be to acknowledge the out-of-the-norms behaviors and then brush them off as quirks, hysteria, or trauma: Miss Havisham, Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Rosanna Spearman, or Sherlock Holmes. Thus, us modern readers can only rely on the (sometimes exaggerated) descriptions to tell what is actually going on with a character, other than women having hysteria or people being haunted by their traumatic past.

  3. I personally found your post to be very interesting. I was especially excited by the fact that you brought the DSM into discussion with the specific traits that Holmes portrays. If you were to pursue this topic more in depth, you could probably use the closest edition of the DSM to analyze Holmes’ characteristics. While it would be impossible to give him an official diagnosis it is still fun and fascinating to evaluate characters like him. You could also use his diagnosis to further evaluate how, not only Conan Doyle treats him within the story, but how the other characters treat him. You could further discuss how he is treated in the means of being ogled over while simultaneously being treated better or worse in various situations (eg. ablism) which you did already touch on in your post.

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