A Study in Scarlet Analysis
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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A Study in Scarlet Analysis

In A Study in Scarlet, the first novel to pair Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle established the template for almost all of the duo’s subsequent detective adventures. Doyle constructs Watson’s background in such a way that it is logical that he would seek out Holmes: Watson needs a new place to live, and his friend happens to know that Holmes is seeking a flatmate. In making Watson a stranger to Holmes, he provides a reason for Holmes to explain his methods and techniques to his curious new acquaintance.

The author wastes no time in involving Watson in a mystery and establishing Holmes’s astonishing intellectual and technical superiority to the Scotland Yard police—another hallmark of the subsequent stories. Holmes’s eccentric personality and unabashed condescension, which simultaneously attract and repel the more prosaic Watson, are also established in this first case.

Another hallmark of the Holmes-Watson tales is the introduction of exotic locales, which for the English include the Western United States. The sensationalizing of equally exotic customs is also a distinguishing feature. In this story, Utah and the Mormon faith fit Doyle’s assessment of those characteristics. The Mormon community is portrayed as oppressive, with polygamous marriage depicted as something that was forced onto women rather than being their choice.

A Study in Scarlet also involves a tragic love story, yet another trend in the Holmes tales. In this story, Hope and Lucy are in love but are unable to marry, and the two struggle to escape Lucy’s forced marriage to a Mormon—a struggle which results in one lover’s death. Hope’s culpability in killing two men, although not exactly justified, is lessened by his offering them a chance that they might survive: he offers them two pills, only one of which is poison. Additionally, in his struggle against Stangerson, Hope technically kills him in self-defense. At the end of this mystery, Holmes’s powers of deduction are proven to be almost absolute, but he is limited by the evidence. In tying up almost every loose end but one—the identity of the old woman—Doyle leaves a dangling thread for Holmes to pick up in a future case.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Afghanistan. Southwest Asian country over whose control Great Britain and Russia clashed in the nineteenth century and in which the novel’s narrator, Dr. John Watson, served as a British army physician in the late 1870’s, before the period in which his narrative proper begins. Only a few pages of his narrative discuss Afghanistan directly; however, these passages indicate how powerfully place shapes men. Watson’s time in Afghanistan transformed him. After he was shot, he contracted enteric fever and returned to London almost an invalid, forever marked by his military service.

The first thing Sherlock Holmes says to Watson when they meet is, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” Able to recognize all types of soil at a glance, Holmes can instantly deduce where people have recently been. He can also recognize other signs of regional origin such as tattoos, spices, or dialects. Doyle based Holmes’s ability to make such judgments on the ability of one of his medical school professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, who made similar observations about his medical patients. This ability also shows Doyle’s uneasiness with Britain’s role as an imperial power, and his belief that Britain’s time in foreign lands would change all those who went, and would return to threaten Britain itself.


*London. Capital of the British Empire. The London in which Holmes and Watson live is a microcosm of the empire. It contains a population of British citizens who have lived in London their entire lives, peoples whose residential addresses immediately reveal their class origins. However, because of the strict class hierarchy in British society during the period in which the novel is set, London is also a place of separate and distinct cultures, where...

(The entire section is 1,317 words.)