Decoding the Subtext: The Blue Carbuncle
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle in December of 1887. It is noteworthy to point out that Baring-Gould admits to being alone in his choice of dates. Other chroniclers have suggested dates in December of 1889, and 1890. Watson does not give a year, telling us only that the case began two days after Christmas. Watson also tells us that he is visiting Holmes, implying that Watson is presently married and living away from Baker Street. Indeed, Holmes mentions Watson's wife in passing, further evidence to support a later date. The story was first published in January, 1892.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is a festive tale, providing the reader with an inside glimpse at Christmas in Baker Street. Here, Holmes has apparently passed the holiday season contemplating an old, battered hat, which was brought to him by Police Commissionaire Peterson. It was accompanied by a goose, which Holmes sent home with the Police Commissionaire, so that it might fulfill its Christmas destiny. What begins as a small problem of intellectual interest, soon becomes a much more sinister problem when Peterson returns to Baker Street, this time with a precious blue stone in hand, which he claims to have found inside the goose's crop. Holmes immediately recognizes the stone as the famed Blue Carbuncle, which was recently stolen from the Countess of Morcar. Armed with his battered hat, Holmes sets about finding the thief, a task which will lead him throughout wintry London, and end with a decision that both shocks and appals Watson.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle begins with Watson visiting Holmes over the Christmas season. Indeed, the entire tale takes place two days after Christmas, and, despite Watson's marriage, he seems quite keen to pass the holiday season away from his wife.
This is a reoccurring theme in Canon, and yet, there is something increasingly significant in Watson's abandonment of his wife at this time of the year. We will return to this, and the rest of the story, in a moment. First, however, we are going to deviate to touch on a point of interest, one which occurs in the first paragraph of the story.
He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown...
Many students of subtext have mistakenly pointed out Holmes' choice of colour in dressing gowns as evidence of homosexual subtext. It should be noted that the colour purple (or more accurately, lavender) did not become a symbol of gay pride until the late 1960s, well after Holmes' time. "Purple Power" was a slogan used during the Stonewall riots, and afterwards, the colour purple became associated with gay pride and was used as a symbol to indicate an individual's sexual preferences. Victorians had their own symbols, which included, but were not limited to: green carnations, poodles, red neckties and red handkerchiefs. Holmes' purple dressing-gown, then, is simply that; a dressing-gown.
Returning to the story, Watson, having arrived at Baker Street, automatically remarks that Holmes is occupied, and questions whether or not he is interrupting. Holmes' response, we will see, is quite telling.
"You are engaged," said I; "perhaps I interrupt you."
"Not at all. I am glad to have a friend with whom I can discuss my results.
Time and time again we see Watson worrying over whether he is interrupting Holmes, and time and time again Holmes reassures Watson that he is glad for Watson's company. This is interesting, for despite Watson's constant worry, he continues to visit Holmes, and despite Holmes' constant need to give reassurance, he is more than willing to do so. The formality that formed between the two men during Watson's absence from Baker Street is very indicative of the discomfort both men felt at living apart. It is temporary, however, for soon after Holmes' reassurance Watson settles into his usual role of helper and chronicler.
Here we also see Holmes' ever increasing loneliness. Prior to Watson's marriage, Holmes could turn to Watson at any moment for companionship, and yet, after Watson's marriage, Holmes depended upon Watson visiting (in Watson's own time) in order to satisfy any social needs. This lends new weight to Holmes' statement that he is glad to have a friend with whom I can discuss my results. Indeed, Holmes is telling us here that he is simply glad to have someone to talk to.
I seated myself in his armchair and warmed my hands before his crackling fire, for a sharp frost had set in, and the windows were thick with the ice crystals.
Here is a curious situation. Watson, having arrived at Baker Street and ascertained that his visit is welcome, does not choose to claim his old chair. Indeed, he claims Holmes' chair (Holmes, the reader will recall, is currently sprawled upon the sofa). This is curious, for one would imagine that Watson, either by habit or some sense of propriety, would immediately choose the chair reserved for him. That he does not, and in fact, that he chooses to sit in Holmes' chair, is perhaps an indication of Watson's need for a connection with Holmes.
Watson, comfortably seated, then begins asking after the hat Holmes has been studying. Holmes, always keen to test Watson's skills at deduction (indeed, we have seen Holmes and Watson play this particular game countless times) immediately hands Watson his lens and states:
Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?"
It is clear here that Holmes is eager to engage in a discussion with Watson, for one can easily imagine the banter, which usually came as a result of such an inquiry, was a source of great amusement for Holmes. Again, we are privy to Holmes' loneliness, for he seems unusually excited to test Watson's skills.
Watson, of course, is unable to deduce anything from the hat, a confession that prompts Holmes to state:
"On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences."
Note that Holmes does not tell Watson that he is incapable of reasoning, but rather, that he is too timid in drawing his inferences. This suggests that Holmes is quite aware of Watson's capabilities, but recognizes Watson's inferiority complex, which constantly causes Watson to understate his own abilities. Watson is far more intelligent than he would have us believe, and Holmes appears to both know and value this aspect of Watson's personality.
Holmes, however, does not insist that Watson step beyond his comfort level, instead immediately pointing out all of the inferences which he has drawn from the hat. The entire exchange is riddled with playful banter, and one can easily picture the amused grin Holmes must have worn at once again being able to point out his skills to Watson.
"Well, it is very ingenious," said I, laughing; "but since, as you said just now, there has been no crime committed, and no harm done save the loss of a goose, all this seems to be rather a waste of energy."
The above is said in quite the teasing tone, and it should be noted that Watson is not the only one laughing during this exchange. Indeed, Holmes seems in excellent spirits, a mood which lasts until the Police Commissioner's return.
The arrival of Police Commission Peterson sees Holmes springing into action, for it appears as though the goose is no ordinary goose: most geese do not hide rare and precious blue gems within their crops. It is shortly after Peterson's leaving, and Holmes' statement that nothing more can be done until he hears something of the advertisements he has placed (through Peterson) in the evening papers, that Watson takes his leave. Holmes, upon Watson's announcement that he is to return to his rounds, comments:
"Very glad to see you. I dine at seven."
We already deduced that Holmes was quite glad to see Watson, and yet it is curious to note here Holmes' invitation. Recall, as was stated above, that this is the holiday season, and yet, despite knowing that Watson's wife will likely expect him for dinner, Holmes invites Watson to join him for the evening meal. Watson, of course, immediately agrees, without so much as a moment's consideration for his wife.
Watson returns to Baker Street shortly after six-thirty. There, he meets Mr. Henry Baker, the owner of the hat and goose. Holmes, remarking upon Watson's return, states:
Ah, Watson, you have just come at the right time.
This is curious statement, and one cannot help but wonder if Holmes was anxiously awaiting Watson's return. That Watson should arrive several minutes late from his stated time of return undoubtedly vexed Holmes; Holmes, as we have seen, relies and depends on Watson during all of his cases.
Mr. Baker, it would appear, knew nothing of the precious stone hidden within his bird's crop. Holmes is obviously quite disappointed by this news, and yet, he extends the necessary courtesies, sending Mr. Baker off with his hat and a replacement goose. Almost immediately following his departure, Holmes is eager to follow the trail Mr. Baker has provided.
"Are you hungry, Watson?"
"Then I suggest that we turn our dinner into a supper and follow up this clue while it is still hot."
"By all means."
Note that Holmes' first concern is the state of Watson's appetite. One can well imagine that if Watson's response had been different, Holmes would have first suggested that they finish dinner; Holmes, on countless occasions, has put Watson's needs above his own.
Watson, however, is more than willing to forgo a meal in order to assist Holmes in one of his cases.
Their trail takes them throughout the icy streets of London, Watson following Holmes through dozens of streets as Holmes works on forging his chain. Despite the briskness of the weather, and the late hour, Watson does not complain, content to follow Holmes to the ends of the earth if need be. Mr. Baker leads them to an inn, which leads them to a dealer in Covent Garden Market, which leads them to a town supplier on Brixton Road. They do not need to travel to Brixton Road, however, for soon a new avenue of investigation presents itself.
Holmes follows this new lead swiftly, with Watson in tow, and soon they are back in the snug embrace of Baker Street, this time accompanied by a Mr. James Ryder, the head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan, the scene of the Blue Carbuncle's theft.
Ryder confesses to having committed the crime, begging mercy in the most pathetic way possible. His plea holds some sway with Holmes, who, shortly after hearing Ryder's tale, tells him to get out, much to Watson's astonishment. Holmes is quick to explain, however:
"After all, Watson," said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature."
It is interesting here that Holmes feels the need to explain his actions. One cannot help but imagine that this was for Holmes' benefit, more than Watson's, for undoubtedly Holmes worried over Watson's opinion on the matter. That Holmes would feel the need for such a long-winded explanation is quite indicative of his need for Watson's respect and approval. Indeed, Holmes makes particular note to mention the season, hoping, one can assume, to appeal to Watson's romantic nature, something which is highly suggestive in and of itself.
While the above passage concludes the story, it is pertinent to remark now on one of Baring-Gould's theories. As we have seen above, Baring-Gould suggests a date of December 1887, suggesting that the wife in question was an unknown first wife. If we assume this date, and indeed, the existence of a first wife, then we must also note Baring-Gould's theory that this wife died in late December, early January of 1887/1888. If this is the case, then, not only do we have Watson abandoning his wife for Holmes (as he has done countless times), but we also have Watson abandoning a potentially ill wife in favour of Holmes. While this goes against Watson's very nature, and indeed, provides proof against Baring-Gould's date/theory, one cannot help but speculate on the potential for Baring-Gould's correctness. If, in fact, Baring-Gould is correct, and Watson is married, and the year is correct, then Holmes truly comes first in Watson's life. So much so that Watson is willing to abandon an ailing wife for Holmes' company.
Alternatively, we can assume Baring-Gould's theory on date and wife and make the deduction that it was not death which separated Watson from the wife in question, but rather a divorce; an interesting theory in its own right.