Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Cardboard Box


Dating The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is a challenging task. Watson gives us the month, stating that it was a blazing hot day in August. This has led Baring-Gould to choose August/September of 1889 as his date. The year, however, remains in question, and there are several arguments against Baring-Gould's date. To begin, Watson is clearly living in Baker Street, as Watson refers to the rooms and the blinds under the possessive our. In addition to this, no mention of Mary is made, suggesting that Watson was not married. The story does, however, reference SIGN, suggesting that it takes place after Watson's marriage. As the story was published in January 1893, and Holmes disappeared in 1891 (at a time when Watson was still married), this creates a good deal of confusion. It is your author's suggestion that the story takes place in 1890, during a time when Watson and Mary were temporarily separated.


In what is perhaps the most disturbing story in Canon, Sherlock Holmes finds himself called in on a case which will prove quite gruesome. Miss Susan Cushing, of Croydon, is quite disturbed to receive, via the post, a cardboard box containing two severed human ears, preserved in salt. Scotland Yard assumes some prank, as Miss Cushing has lodged to medical students in the past, but Sherlock Holmes is convinced the ears have a more sinister source. A thorough examination of the box and its contents, along with a visit to Susan's sister, Sarah (whom Holmes believes to be the intended recipient of the box) puts Holmes on the right track, and soon he is able to deduce that the ears belong to Susan's younger sister, Mary, and her extra-marital lover.

The Subtext:

Before we begin, recall that when The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes were published in the States for the first time, they did not include The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. The Cardboard Box was considered too scandalous for American audiences, as it dealt with adultery. As a result, the opening of the story was inserted into The Adventure of the Resident Patient. As such, we have already analyzed the first part of this story. For simplicity, this has been reproduced below, and a link to Decoding the Subtext: The Adventure of the Resident Patient can be found here.

The case begins, as most cases do, with Holmes and Watson closeted away in Baker Street. It has become a familiar setting, and The Resident Patient [Cardboard Box] gives what is perhaps one of the best examples of the domestic life which Holmes and Watson led between cases.

Our blinds were half-drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter which he had received by the morning post.

There is something decidedly comfortable in Holmes' behaviour and, indeed, in the way in which Watson describes him. It is obvious here that the two men have spent a good deal of time in one another's presence, and have reached the point in their relationship where they are comfortable merely enjoying one another's company.

Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study.

Here it is interesting to note that, despite the domesticity of the situation, Watson still longs for Holmes' companionship. This is evident in the above reference, as Watson, bored by the weather and lack of activity, and unable to engage in conversation with his friend, falls quickly into a brown study. This reference is a mark of how engaging Watson finds Holmes, and how quickly he reverts to a state of depression when Holmes' attention is lacking.

Fortunately for Watson, his study is quickly interrupted, for Holmes, perhaps sensing Watson's need for companionship, quickly turns his attention away from his letter and onto his friend and roommate. He does this in the only way that Holmes knows how; by making a startling deduction.

"You are right, Watson," said he. "It does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute."

"Most preposterous!" I exclaimed, and then, suddenly realizing how he had echoed the inmost thought of my soul, I sat up in my chair and stared at him in blank amazement.

Despite Watson's amazement, it should not surprise the reader to discover that Holmes is capable of reading the inmost thoughts of Watson's soul. Holmes knows Watson well, and can read him easily; a sign of just how intimately aware of Watson Holmes has become.

Watson, in traditional Watsonian fashion, immediately confesses his confusion and requests that Holmes explain how he was able to deduce Watson's thoughts. Holmes' answer is quite suggestive.

"You remember," said he, "that some little time ago, when I read you the passage in one of Poe's sketches, in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thought of his companion, you were inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour de force of the author. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of doing the same thing you expressed incredulity."

I am certain you will agree that there is something decidedly intimate in the act of one man reading anything, let alone Poe, to his male companion.

Watson, again in typical Watsonian fashion, denies this accusation. Holmes' response?

"Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly with your eyebrows.

It is quite curious to note that Holmes' observation of Watson is acute enough to not only discern Watson's emotions based solely upon the movement of his eyebrows, but recall the incident some time after it has occurred. Clearly, then, Holmes is in the habit of observing Watson quite closely.

Watson, however, is not convinced. He simply cannot conceive of how Holmes could know his inmost thoughts by a simple shift in his facial features. Holmes, of course, is more than willing to show off his talents, his boastful nature constantly coming to the forefront whenever he is in Watson's presence.

"Your features, and especially your eyes, Holmes clarifies, and again Holmes' demonstrates the close attention he tends to pay Watson.

Holmes' explanation continues as he retraces Watson's thought process. Here, he refers to a past incident with perfect clarity, suggesting that Holmes has stored long-passed conversations with his dear, and intimate, friend. For a man who is very selective in what he stores in his 'brain attic', it is interesting to note that his past interactions with Watson are considered important enough for storage.

The above passage, as mentioned, was taken from the analysis of The Resident Patient, which, in American versions, included the opening scene in The Cardboard Box. We turn now, then, away from the subtext of this scene and to the dating of this scene, for in finding its place within a chronology the story contains several interesting elements which are relevant to the student of subtext.

We assume Watson's month of August, but in order to determine the year, we must examine several aspects.

First, it is quite obvious that Watson is living in Baker Street, as Watson makes no reference to his wife, or to visiting Holmes. In fact, Watson refers, on several occasions, to the contents of Baker Street (our blinds were half-drawn...) with the possessive our. If this is the case, then we can assume Watson is not presently married.

However, the story also references The Sign of the Four:

"The case," said Sherlock Holmes as we chatted over our cigars that night in our rooms at Baker Street, "is one where, as in the investigations which you have chronicled under the names of 'A Study in Scarlet' and of 'The Sign of Four...

Note here, too, the reference to our rooms.

Recall that SIGN was published in February of 1890 and that Baring-Gould dates SIGN in September of 1888. Holmes refers to Watson having chronicled the story, implying that it has been published. If this is the case, then the earliest date for The Cardboard Box is August 1890. If Watson penned the story shortly after it occurred, then the earliest date (given that we are searching for an August) would be August 1889 (Baring-Gould's date).

Recall, too, that Baring-Gould dates The Navel Treaty several weeks before The Cardboard Box, and that in this case Watson was living away from Baker Street and clearly married. It is unlikely, then, that Watson, some three weeks later, should once again find himself living in Baker Street. Some time must have passed, implying that the date of August 1889 is incorrect.

We must then assume that The Cardboard Box took place no earlier than August 1890. However, Watson was still married at this time. The story was published in January of 1893, giving us the following dates:

August 1890
August 1891
August 1892

We can eliminate two of these dates by examining The Final Problem. The Final Problem takes place in April of 1891, meaning that Holmes had vanished over the cliffs of Reichenbach Falls before August of 1891. Holmes did not return until 1894. Watson, in The Final Problem, tells us:

It may be remembered that after my marriage, and my subsequent start in private practice, the very intimate relations which had existed between Holmes and myself became to some extent modified. He still came to me from time to time when he desired a companion in his investigation, but these occasions grew more and more seldom, until I find that in the year 1890 there were only three cases of which I retain any record.

Here we have caught Watson in a lie.

The Cardboard Box did in fact take place in 1890, and was not one of Watson's three. In fact, there were a good deal more than three, for Watson and Mary had separated (likely due to Watson's continual abandonment of Mary for Holmes) and Watson had returned to Baker Street. Watson, of course, could not have allowed this scandalous information to come to light, and so he downplayed his role in Holmes' cases and rearranged several dates so as to maintain the illusion that he and Mary were happily married. In fact, it was not until the spring of 1891, when Holmes, in France on a case, urged Watson to reconcile with Mary (as Holmes, at this point, knew of Professor Moriarty and foresaw his imminent death).

Watson and Mary's relationship, however, was never quite the same, and Watson was only too eager to run off with Holmes in The Final Problem. Whether Watson's return was met with Mary's death or a divorce, we cannot say.

The only remaining question, then, is why Watson felt the need to downplay his role in Holmes' cases. Watson had, on previous occasions, written Mary as a very understanding woman, and so one finds it quite curious that Watson suddenly felt the need to distance himself from Holmes. He could have just as easily feigned a continued happy marriage. Could it be, then, that upon returning to Baker Street Watson reclaimed, not just his place at Holmes' side, but his place in Holmes' bed as well?

With that thought, we will now return to the story.

Shortly after the events described above, Holmes reads to Watson from a letter he received that morning. The letter is from Inspector Lestrade, and requests Holmes' aid on a case. Holmes, unwilling to accept the case without his Watson, asks:

"What say you, Watson? Can you rise superior to the heat and run down to Croydon with me on the off chance of a case for your annals?"

"I was longing for something to do."

It is quite obvious from the opening scene that Holmes has had this note for some time, and yet, it is not until later that Holmes asks Watson to accompany him to Croydon. Recall, too, Watson's earlier boredom, which we can instantly assume Holmes noticed. Could it be, then, that Holmes waited for Watson to exhibit signs of boredom before mentioning the case? Perhaps in hopes that it might better the chance of Watson agreeing? Watson clearly mentions that he was longing for something to do, and we must assume that Holmes was able to deduce this. If this is the case, then it is quite remarkable that Holmes would intentionally manipulate the situation in order to ensure Watson's involvement. If your author is correct, and Watson and Mary are indeed separated, then one can easily imagine that this was the first case to come Holmes' way after Watson's return.

Watson having agreed, the pair soon head out to Croydon, where they meet with Lestrade and begin their investigation. Their first act is to inspect the cardboard box containing two severed human ears. Holmes need only glance at the gruesome relics before announcing that a serious crime has taken place. Watson, upon hearing Holmes' words, tells us:

A vague thrill ran through me as I listened to my companion's words and saw the stern gravity which had hardened his features.

We have assumed above that this is the first case Watson has participated in since his separation from Mary. If this is the case, then this statement takes on new meaning, and provides insight into why Watson and Mary were unable to maintain their relationship. Clearly Watson was not cut out for married life, for it is obvious that he was too consumed by the thrill of the hunt and the tingle of excitement he had come to associate with Sherlock Holmes to devote time and attention to his wife.

Watson is not, of course, the only one excited by their reunion. Holmes, although maintaining a subdued exterior, shows his excitement in his actions, and this is clearly seen a few moments later when, after interviewing Susan Cushing, Holmes and Watson head out, intent on seeing Susan's sister, Sarah Cushing. They take a cab, and Holmes' chivalry here is quite telling.

There was a cab passing as we came out, and Holmes hailed it.

"How far to Wallington?" he asked.

"Only about a mile, sir."

"Very good. Jump in, Watson.

How very gentlemanly of Holmes, that he should step aside and wave Watson into the cab first. It is obvious that Holmes is still quite uncertain as to Watson's intentions, and that he intends, through actions, words and deeds, to woo Watson back on a permanent basis.

The pair are unable to see Sarah Cushing, but news of her sudden brain fever gives Holmes the answer he was seeking. Solution in hand, Holmes' mind then turns to playful thoughts, Holmes announcing:

"Drive us to some decent hotel, cabby, where we may have some lunch, and afterwards we shall drop down upon friend Lestrade at the police-station."

Curious, is it not, that Holmes should wish to dine at some anonymous hotel. Holmes is usually quite particular concerning where he takes his meals, and yet, here he leaves the decision entirely to the cabby. Is it unreasonable, then, to assume that the reason Holmes was unconcerned with location had more to do with wanting a bed and less to do with wanting a meal? Watson does tell us, after all, that the afternoon was far advanced and the hot glare had softened into a mellow glow before we found ourselves at the police-station. Surely even a leisurely meal could not have taken the better part of the afternoon.

Soon after their 'meal' the story turns to Jim Browner and his account of the events which led to the murder of his wife and her lover. What is amusing here is that the statement is written, and that Lestrade has sent Holmes a copy. Holmes reads this copy out loud for Watson's benefit, and one can easily picture the two men sitting astride the fire, cigars in hand, perhaps still clad in their dressing gowns, and flushed from the morning's activities.

It is curious, too, that the case should revolve around the subject of infidelity and adultery. In fact, the case upsets Holmes a good deal, and one can easily imagine that, despite his happiness at once again having Watson by his side, Holmes felt some measure of self-reproach. The case ends in Holmes' confusion, and we hear in his words his uncertainty, his doubt, and most of all, his guilt.

"What is the meaning of it, Watson?" said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever."

Content contained within belongs to the author. Where outside work is reviewed/quoted, credit has been given. Please do not reproduce without permission. Site credits: Sidney Paget sketch used in the header, Arthur Conan Doyle quote used in the header, brushes compliments of Hybrid Genesis and Miss M.