The Appearance of Madness As A Way To Hide Purposeful Cruelty (The Speckled Band)

“Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbors, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat, he shut himself up in the house, and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with who might cross his path. Violence of temper approaching mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics” (The Speckled Band, p134).

The character of Dr. Grimesby Roylott on the surface looks like a mess of contradictions with the social norms of Victorian Britain. He’s the last heir to an old and once wealthy family which has withered down to just him. He’s a gentlemen, a landowner (a gentleman), and a doctor. In any other story, these would be qualities of a protagonist that will bring their fallen family back to prosperity with a steady hand. Furthermore, all of these titles are either high on the social status hierarchy or because of serious education (which requires money), and in Victorian Britain, a moral aspect is applied to where you are on the class hierarchy. The higher class you are, the ‘better’ you are as a person, a thought process which still lives today, though transplanted to amount of money instead of family name. By these standards, Dr. Roylott should be a polite, upstanding, good man, and this set up of what he should be is precisely why the reality of him– violent, wandering, antisocial– is so jarring.

What I want to specifically dig into is the way that Miss Stoner, the I’m quoting, blames her stepfather’s extraordinary violence on him having lived in India for many years. It is important to note that Miss Stoner and her sister were born in India and had never been to Britain until they moved there with their stepfather and mother years later– and yet Miss Stoner doesn’t see herself as tainted by “the tropics” in the way Dr. Roylott is.

My thought is that Miss Stoner suggests that Dr. Roylott has “mania,” from living in India because it is an easier, more gentle excuse for his behavior. To admit that he is simply a cruel man who wants power over others is a much more difficult thing to accuse a man than madness if he is from such a distinguished family. Madness is easier to forgive, because the mad person is not in control of themselves.

When we first meet him in the story, he threatens Holmes and bends a firepoker with his bare hands as an intimidation tactic, and I cannot see these actions as anything other than planned and rational. Dr. Roylott wants to be able to do whatever he wants and so he has cultivated a reputation of mad and violent man so that no one can get in the way of his decisions. He reaps fear in people, and uses that to control them.

It is important to note that Dr. Roylott’s purposeful building of a erratic reputation wouldn’t work if he was not in the position he is currently in. If he was poor, or lacking in land, or female, this apparent madness would not be tolerated. He would have been removed to a madhouse. But he is in the perfect position of authority to be violent without fear of consequences: he surely knows all the expectations he is subverting and he is purposely taking advantage of them.


2 thoughts on “The Appearance of Madness As A Way To Hide Purposeful Cruelty (The Speckled Band)”

  1. I think your analysis is interesting, but a little misguided. Yes, Roylott being a doctor and a lord and a ‘madman’ is jarring, but this is an authorial choice that is meant to upset the reader (as is the exoticizing connection to India), not a depiction of the dangers of giving a lord power. His cruelty and violence is meant to evoke the reader into cheering when the cruelty and violence is returned on him, as the rightful system of power is returned to order, not as a critique of said system. Your analysis is accurate, but it forgets that Roylott is a plot device, not a person.

  2. Dear Famine and Death,

    I think that Death has made an astute observation so I’d love to elaborate on it.

    Sherlock Holmes has never been a critique of class. He can’t be! He’s in a magazine that is published periodically and if you’re pinching pennies to make ends meet you’re not going to buy a magazine.

    It may seem like a critique of class on the surface level because in many stories bad things happen to, or are done by, people of the upper class. That’s only because, as Death pointed out in their post, linked at the bottom, the cis white heteropatriarchy only cares about stories when it’s about other cis white hetero-patriarchs.

    Sincerely yours from the Jersey Shores,
    Carmine “Red” Zingiber

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