Victorian Opinions in Sherlock Holmes

Within the story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, some of the true thoughts of Victorian people about other cultures and ethnicities are brought to light. A topic constantly mentioned within the story is the topic of foreign people, especially Indian people. The act of traveling to “the tropics” was thought by the female protagonist to have changed her stepfather, making his behavior more violent and strange, and the “Indians” in the backyard are also thought to be uncivilized (Doyle, 42). As well, the “speckled band” was really a snake from India, further continuing the idea that Victorians did not find comfort in things considered to be foreign. As the Victorian Era was also known as an age of conquest in Britain, many of the citizens believed that their country was the only country that was truly civilized, and looked down upon other peoples as being savage. This idea is explored within Doyle’s story, as characters such as Helen say lines that are unkind towards others, such as “It must have been those wretched gypsies in the plantation” (Doyle, 44). The sensation genre was known to try to elicit strong reactions within the readers of these stories and novels, and so a story involving foreign people from a different continent may have elicited fear and a sense of wonder about these people. The story involves the notion held by many that foreign people and their lands were uncivilized, and so including a foreign animal as the murder weapon may have caused the people reading in Britain to further validate their opinions that foreign lands were dangerous and their people uncivilized.

5 thoughts on “Victorian Opinions in Sherlock Holmes”

  1. This fear of the outsiders or foreigners can also be seen in A Terribly Strange Bed. A Terribly Strange Bed occurs when Mr. Faulkner is in a different setting than his regular home or country. The fact that he is almost killed in a foreign country makes it that much terrifying for readers to think about going and interacting with foreign places. This only emphasizes the fear, and simulates sensations, that Victorian people may have of meeting with the unknown outside of their homes.

  2. This really stood out to me when I read the story as well. Today we would consider the use of the word “gypsy” to be racist in and of itself, let alone all the ways that those people, India as a whole, and the supposed influence of Indian culture upon Dr. Roylott are portrayed. There are similar themes in ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’, where the French are portrayed as inherently devious and scheming while the Englishman is an innocent victim. The English at this time are living with an incredibly nationalistic sense of collective self, and because of this anyone who is not part of England is inherently dangerous, strange, or downright lesser.

  3. I totally agree that the idea of exotic and the unknown are key in the sensation novel for a Victorian reader. I always found this strange because whenever i hear of a culture unfamiliar to me I am intrigued rather than having strong reactions of sensation. I guess that shows how different time periods can be. Nevertheless, I fond your review helpful. In the future I would love to see some more analysis of the text you paraphrased. I am very interested to see what questions you asked yourself. A question I asked myself was: Was the use of the snake intentional? I feel there are many other creatures that could be more sensational.

  4. This is definitely an interesting perspective, and one I’ve touched upon in my post, where I talked about the idea of exotic foreign cultures being a mystery to Victorians. Which is funny of course, because they were out colonizing pretty much all of the known world (slight exaggeration) and had made British imperialism in those lands a major thing, and of course desired to establish their superiority both racially and culturally, and this of course translated into their literature at the time in forms like these. It’s just subtext for dominance that’s maybe a bit lost across time, but definitely one that reoccurs a lot here and elsewhere too.

  5. This fear and fascination of outsiders that you mention here can also be seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles. The question of imperialism is something that has now come up in two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s pieces of work, with Watson as the narrator. It comes across as Watson being cautious, racist, and skeptical of all other countries and cultures, but really it is Conan Doyle placing these thoughts of imperialism and racism upon Watson’s character. Moments like these throughout the Speckled Band as you have mentioned, and throughout The Hound highlight how large of a role imperialism played in Britain in the Victorian Era and just how it effected sensation novels. Writers began to use their own misunderstandings, the unknown, and what they saw as mysterious people/land from these other countries and places to use as comparison and/or to represent the scary scenes within sensation novels.

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