Recently I have been researching (and writing!) about the ways in which objects give away identity in Sherlock Holmes. Most obviously, of course, this is seen in the way that Holmes uses objects as clues: any given object can reveal a person’s personality, status, wealth, morality, etc. to Sherlock Holmes, the great reader of objects. Theoretically, the ideas surrounding objects, what they mean, what they represent is far more complicated; not to mention the big question ‘what is identity?’
I have found it interesting to look at the ways in which objects that are not explicitly read by Holmes can also act as clues for us readers about who this person is, their attitude, and even their guilt. Take for example ‘The Veiled Lodger’, Holmes goes to visit Mrs Ronder (the veiled lodger) and before they have met Watson describes entering the house where she lives:
We followed her [Mrs Merrilow] up the straight badly-carpeted staircase and were shown into the room of the mysterious lodger.
It was a close, musty, ill-ventilated place, as might be expected, since its inmate seldom left it. From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, by some retribution of Fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage. She sat now in a broken armchair in the shadowy corner of the room.
(Doyle, The Veiled Lodger, p. 189)
What is fascinating about Watson’s description is not the obvious comparison of her home to a cage, but the condition of the house and the chair as objects, whose function in the text go beyond their materiality. Instead, Watson is presenting us clues of Mrs Ronder’s state of mind and body. We know that she detains herself within a house (or self-made cage), that much Watson spells out, but from the descriptions of the ‘badly-carpeted stairs’ and the broken armchair, we are also knowledgeable of the fact that she has chosen a home that is in a bad state of repair, or at least is aesthetically displeasing, and so her choice must have connotations.
The space around her is reflective of her: she is physically in disrepair; her face is a ‘grisly ruin’ from being attacked by the lion and so she is no longer aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. The space she occupies is also reflective of a prison: she is an ‘inmate’ and is therefore punishing herself for her part in the murder of her husband. Had she just been hiding from society, a more entertaining or happy place could have been just as appropriate; one with a comfortable chair, even. As it is, she has chosen somewhere both secluded and punishing. This is also reflective of her state of mind: she has a shadow cast over her physically but this is also a recognisable symbol of depression. This symbolic state of mind is confirmed when Holmes receives a package of prussic acid with the note, ‘I send you my temptation’, i.e. she has decided not to commit suicide.
These simple readings of objects can reveal so much, and the short-story form is particularly symbol-heavy, as writers had to build up a picture of a person quickly and so Doyle would have had to use objects that were culturally symbolic, i.e. something the majority of readers would have recognised as being ‘xyz’. I believe this extends to the presentation of all kinds of objects in the canon, from the ivory box in ‘The Dying Detective’, to the garden gate and geranium bed in ‘The Three Gables’, and readings can be especially fruitful when looking at the depiction of collectors of objects, be it butterflies, Chinese pottery or even money. The kinds of things people collect is very telling of their personality and are not always ‘read’ by Holmes in the course of the story. The implications are there instead, to be picked up by us, the reader and pseudo-detective.
Feel free to comment with any more examples you can think of!