Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: A Case of Identity


Baring-Gould dates A Case of Identity in October of 1887. While Watson does not give a date, he does reference The Sign of Four and A Scandal in Bohemia as past events, implying a date sometime after Watson's marriage in SIGN. This would imply a date of October 1889. Other chronologies have suggested a date of October 1888 and 1889. A Case of Identity was first published in 1891.


Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent is the statement that opens A Case of Identity. It is said by Holmes, and this pronouncement would prove quite prophetic, as moments later a client arrives, one Mary Sutherland, whose unusual tale is far stranger than anything Holmes could have conceived. Still, the case proves elementary, and Holmes manages to solve it solely by examining a type-written letter.

The Subtext:

"My dear fellow," said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

So begins A Case of Identity, and the above passage contains several points of interest. Ignoring the use of my dear, for we have touched on this in previous stories, one must examine Watson's reference to Baker Street as Holmes' lodgings. It is obvious here that the two men are now living apart (Watson's marriage having precipitated Watson's removal from Baker Street) and yet it is curious to note how often Watson finds himself in Baker Street. One cannot help but wonder why Watson never thought to spend any time at home with his wife.

Clearly, he preferred Holmes' company to hers, and yet, it seems reasonable to assume that Mrs. Watson would have demanded at least a little of her husband's time. Using this assumption, it is evident that Watson either ignored her wishes in favour of spending time with Holmes, or neglected to mention his whereabouts, leaving her with no recourse for finding him. Neither of these scenarios paints the picture of a happily married man.

The second feature of interest is the phrase: fly out of that window hand in hand. One must agree that this is a highly curious and, indeed, a highly suggestive thing for Holmes to say. That he might desire to engage his time hand in hand with Watson is indicative of the bond and affection that existed between the two men. Holmes, the reader will recall, was not one for displays of affection, and yet, time and time again we have seen his tactility where Watson is concerned.

Their discussion lasts for some time, and one gets the impression that this is a game they play often; Watson attempting to debunk Holmes' theories, Holmes plainly explaining them to Watson's amazement. Indeed, the entire exchange ends with:

"Take a pinch of snuff, Doctor, and acknowledge that I have scored over you in your example."

One cannot help but picture the gloating smile upon Holmes' face, or the rueful shake of Watson's head upon realizing that his friend is correct. This competitiveness on Holmes' behalf and acute patience on Watson's is one of the cornerstones of their relationship, bringing to mind long-time married couples who squabble solely for their own amusement.

Their banter is interrupted by the arrival of a client, still standing outside on the pavement. Holmes rises from his chair to glance out the window. Watson, we shall soon see, does not hesitate to follow.

He had risen from his chair and was standing between the parted blinds gazing down into the dull neutral-tinted London street. Looking over his shoulder...

From all accounts, the sitting room at Baker Street had at least two windows. One would imagine that the woman standing outside on the street corner could have been easily viewed through either, and yet, Watson chooses to stand directly behind Holmes and lean over his shoulder in order to peer out the window. One cannot help but question Watson's motives here. Was this merely unplanned curiosity on Watson's behalf, or did he have some more definitive reason for wanting to press himself against Holmes' backside?

Having made her decision to come inside, their client finally appears. Holmes, after extending the usual courtesies, introduces Watson. This is particularly interesting, as the client has shown no curiosity or confusion over Watson's presence. In fact, this introduction seems to come out of nowhere.

"This is my friend, Dr. Watson, before whom you can speak as freely as before myself."

The reader will recall that Holmes had previously informed us that, save for Watson, he had no friends. Curious, then, that Holmes frequently refers to Watson, or introduces Watson, as his friend. One can imagine the importance this title carries for Holmes, and why he so often felt the need to emphasize it.

I want to turn now from the story to discuss an adage of Holmes which can be used by the student of subtext when examining Canon. In the midst of Holmes' interview with Miss Sutherland, Holmes states:

"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important."

Here we must thank Holmes for providing us with so handy a key.

When analyzing Holmes and Watson's relationship, one must examine the little things. The looks and touches, which to the untrained eye appear quite innocence, are, in fact, laden with subtext. The subtle language used by Holmes and Watson when referring to one another, again, to the untrained eye, appears quite transparent, and yet, to the student of subtext, it becomes quite opaque, each word carrying hidden meaning. Subtext, by its very definition, refers to this hidden meaning. It is quite interesting, then, that Holmes should point his reader in the right direction.

Returning to the story, and the departure of Miss Sutherland, Holmes, upon her leaving, immediately returns to their game, asking Watson to describe their visitor. Watson does, much to Holmes' amusement.

Sherlock Holmes clapped his hands softly together and chuckled.

"'Pon my word, Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. You have really done very well indeed. It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method, and you have a quick eye for colour. Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details."

There is such pride in Holmes' voice. Such admiration; that Watson should try, knowing he is risking failure, and that Watson's talents have developed so far must have thrilled the Great Detective. Beneath all of this, though, lies affection, for regardless of how far off Watson's deductions are, Holmes holds Watson in the highest of regards, never tiring of Watson's blunders.

Naturally, Holmes feels the need to elaborate on exactly why Watson was wrong, and despite having been proven wrong, Watson does not appear hurt; indeed, he states:

"And what else?" I asked, keenly interested, as I always was, by my friend's incisive reasoning.

Watson, it would appear, is quite adoring of Holmes, and doesn't mind being proven wrong; not if it means being able to hear Holmes speak at length on his incisive reasoning.

The day comes to an end, and Watson returns for home, leaving Holmes to his thoughts and his pipe. The next day Watson admits to being occupied by his practice, and yet:

It was not until close upon six o'clock that I found myself free and was able to spring into a hansom and drive to Baker Street, half afraid that I might be too late to assist at the denouement of the little mystery.

The moment Watson's professional duties free him, he is in a cab, traveling to Baker Street. When cannot help but wonder what Mrs. Watson thought of this, for aside from slipping into their shared bed, likely after Mrs. Watson had fallen asleep, Watson has not seen her in days. He spends his days in practice, and his nights with Sherlock Holmes. I know of no woman who would tolerate this behaviour for long.

Upon arriving at Baker Street, Watson found Sherlock Holmes alone, however, half asleep, with his long, thin form curled up in the recesses of his armchair.

Note Watson's description of Holmes. The care in which Watson describes his friend. The attention to detail contained within this single passage. Watson, it would appear, despite legally belonging to another, is still quite obsessed with Holmes. Indeed, there is something decidedly stalkerish in his observation of Holmes.

Within short order, Holmes reveals that he has solved the case, and indeed, moments later Miss Sutherland's stepfather appears, and Holmes is able to retell how he went about fooling his step daughter in order to maintain access to her wealth (which he would have lost had she married). Holmes seems quite upset the man's conduct, going so far as to threaten the man with a horse-whipping.

"The law cannot, as you say, touch you," said Holmes, unlocking and throwing open the door, "yet there never was a man who deserved punishment more. If the young lady has a brother or a friend, he ought to lay a whip across your shoulders. By Jove!" he continued, flushing up at the sight of the bitter sneer upon the man's face, "it is not part of my duties to my client, but here's a hunting crop handy, and I think I shall just treat myself to--" He took two swift steps to the whip, but before he could grasp it there was a wild clatter of steps upon the stairs, the heavy hall door banged, and from the window we could see Mr. James Windibank running at the top of his speed down the road.

This is clearly a man who knows something of love; clearly a man who has experienced love. Holmes' anger at Mr. Windibank's behaviour is quite suggestive of the value Holmes places on love. One cannot help but question, then, who it is that fills this role in Holmes' life. In our analysis of A Scandal in Bohemia, we have discounted Irene Adler, so who remains, then, save Watson?

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