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 poor...

(The entire section is 745 words.)