Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Sensational Sherlock - Part 2: Plot vs Character (plot spoiler alert)

In sensation fiction, plot comes before character: “plot and incident predominate” (Hughes, 19). The interest of the narrative is in the flow of events, not in the developments taking place within individual characters. In Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes is the protagonist and his mind is presented as the central wonder in the narratives. However, Watson’s object of study is not Holmes’s internal life and character; his motivations, sensibilities and psychology. Watson’s records of Holmes’s adventures focus on the detective’s actions, both physical and cerebral. In chapter 2 in part 1 of A Study in Scarlet, Watson tries to learn more about Holmes: “The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity.” Holmes is a mystery for Watson, and Watson endeavours to unravel this mystery by charting Holmes’s intellectual abilities and knowledge. Neither Watson, not the narrative, shows any curiosity to explore Holmes’s character in terms of his emotions or motivations. Watson remarks in Chapter 2 of The Sign of Four: “You really are an automaton – a calculating machine.”

The only emotions Holmes experiences are boredom (when not detecting) and mental exultation (when detecting). Holmes displays no pity for the victim, no horror and hardly even disapproval for the criminal and no motivation for his detective work other than the desire to experience the thrill it provides. Holmes is not interested in justice. Like any reader of sensation fiction, Holmes is only interested in experiencing the excitement of unravelling a mystery and pursuing a criminal. Detection in Conan Doyle’s stories shares the drug-like qualities of reading sensation fiction: they are both “called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease, and to stimulate the want that they supply.” (H. L. Mansel. “Sensational Novels” in Quarterly Review, 1862)

Detective work for Holmes is pursued for personal gratification and for the sensation of excitement that it provides. This activity is clearly addictive, since Holmes has even created his occupation of the consulting detective to “supply” his “craving” for the stimulation of detective work: “I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.” (The Sign of the Four, Chapter 1).

Another indication of the primacy of the plot in the Holmes stories is that Holmes and Watson do not change during the narrative: neither character develops. This is neatly illustrated in The Sign of the Four, which opens with Holmes injecting cocaine and ends with Holmes stretching his hand for cocaine bottle again. The case of the Agra treasure and Sholto’s murder has been but a short interregnum in the flow of the drug, and once the real stimulant (the mystery) is removed, only the artificial stimulant of cocaine remains (The Sign if Four, Chapters 1 and 12).

Holmes makes an ideal hero for a narrative where plot takes first priority. His character is centred on intellect and logic. He is driven by his innate, irresistible desire to examine evidence carefully in order to build a logical narrative and achieve the final unravelling of a mystery. The importance of the plot is built into the character of Conan Doyle’s protagonist, who gets his kicks out of figuring out a course of events, in other words, from determining a plot. As Radford writes about sensation fiction, in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four too, we have “the subordination of character motivation to fluidity of plotting, which is calculated to excite overwrought feelings.” (Radford, 10)

Sensation novels display “Unwholesome interest in deviant figures to elicit heightened uneasiness from the audience.” (Radford, 11) Deviant figures are useful in two ways. First deviance alone is sensational. It arouses the reader’s curiosity and an emotional response, whether it is fascination, repulsion or a mix of the two. Secondly, deviance is a short-cut to characterization. Characters in sensation fiction are generally shallow and often established using external characteristics (Hughes, 25). One step further, and deviance, oddity or simply disability serves as a quick identifying label for a character.
Leaving aside Holmes’s own eccentricities, both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four contain a number of odd, colourful characters. Enoch J. Drebber and Joseph Stangerson are Mormons, whose religion is presented as a morally corrupt tyranny. Drebber is a drunk and an abuser of women. The Sholto brothers are misshapen twins, Bartholomew spends his time behind high walls topped with broken glass in a chemical laboratory, Thaddeus is a timid aesthete with characteristics seemingly borrowed from Oscar Wilde. Jefferson Hope is a man obsessed with revenge, travelling the world in pursuit of his victim. Jonathan Small, too, is monomaniacal in his hatred of Sholto. He has a wooden leg. And perhaps the oddest character of all is Tonga, the Andaman islander “the little hell-hound” “as venomous as a young snake.” Watson and Mary Morstan are more or less the only utterly commonplace characters in these stories; everyone else is out of the ordinary.
Sensation novels use doubles. Hughes writes of “the generic principle of doubling” (Hughes, 20, also 21, see also Brantlinger, 23, 24), both in terms of events (think of the theft of the Moonstone and the re-enactment of the theft to solve the mystery) and in terms of characters (think of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White). In A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four there are several doublings. In characters, in addition to the double act of Holmes and Watson, we have the mirroring characters of the detective and the villain: Jefferson Hope and Jonathan Small both share Holmes’s expertise in chemistry and his obsession with the crime at the heart of the narrative. This depiction of both the detective and the villain as men as intoxicated and utterly obsessed with the same crime is a powerful element in the narrative and links up the overall moral ambiguity created by the texts, which in itself is a recognized characteristic of sensation fiction. Also, in The Sign of the Four, there are the Sholto twins, but also Tonga, Jonathan Small’s faithful companion who functions as a murderous outlet of Small’s passions. In A Study in Scarlet, Jefferson Hope prepares two pairs of pills to use as a murder weapon. In terms of narrative structure, both novels are built around scenes at 221b Baker Street – the first scene introduces the detective’s science of deduction and starts off the case; the second scene demonstrates the detective’s application of this skill and wraps up the case.
The characters in sensation novels are not in charge of their own destinies, instead they constantly struggle and do battle with circumstances thrown at them by the intricate plot: “circumstances rule characters, propelling them through the intricate machinations of plots that act like fate.” (Brantlinger ,13. See also Hughes, 22 and Pykett, 5) Because of this chaotic rule of coincidence and circumstances, the characters in sensation fiction often simply cannot behave logically and consistently. The plot dictates that they have to react to event sometimes in unexpected, uncharacteristic and implausible ways. As a result, “the characters in sensation fiction tend to be weak, vacillating, and inconsistent; they lack wholeness; they lack an integrating central core” (Hughes, 58). Seeking to explain the behaviour the characters, the narratives often resort to what Hughes calls “various provisional solutions to the problem of character motivation” (Hughes 59): most notably insanity, also idiocy, mental aberrations, all manner of irrational impulses, brain fever, somnambulism, monomania etc.

In Conan Doyle’s two stories such irrationality of motivation is most powerfully demonstrated in the nature of detective character (the overpowering “craving” for detection) and the behaviour of the culprits (their equally overpowering desire for revenge). The dictates of the plot also demand other actions of questionable logic and vague motivation from the characters: the word “rache” scratched on the wall with blood and the ultimate fate of the Agra treasure are examples of this. Despite Holmes’s apparently watertight reasoning from effect to cause covering all aspects of his investigation (see particularly A Study in Scarlet, Part 3, Chapter 7), there are a number of significant coincidences required by the plot. In both novels, the culprits, like the detective, happen to have knowledge of dispensing drugs. Jefferson Hope happens to die of a burst aneurism before he can be brought to justice. Both of these coincidences contribute to the moral ambiguity of the stories. Holmes’s assumptions about Small’s movements after Sholto’s death seem “a little weak” to Watson (The Sign of Four, chapter 10), but coincidentally Holmes is absolutely right in all his conclusions – in other words, the plot dictates that Small (and other characters) behave exactly according to Holmes’s logical deductions. There is curious paradox here: the culprits whose motives are beyond reason (monomaniacal obsession with revenge) must act logically in order for the plot to work and Holmes’s logical deductions to be successful. This is a neat balancing act by Conan Doyle.