Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Dancing Men


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Dancing Men in July/August of 1898. Watson does not give us a date, but does mention that the case takes place a month after the end of June. Baring-Gould bases his year assumption on Mr. Hilton Cubitt's statement that he met his wife one year prior during the Jubilee. The Diamond Jubilee would have taken place in 1897, making 1898 the year.

There is, however, a problem with Baring-Gould's date. The interaction between Holmes and Watson is not reminiscent of a later case. Indeed, the story begins with Holmes deducing to Watson's amazement; a scene very reminiscing of Holmes and Watson's early relationship. As the Golden Jubilee took place in 1887, we therefore suggest that this case took place prior to the hiatus (and, indeed, Watson's marriage) in July/August of 1888 (a period of time which holds no recorded cases). The story was first published in December of 1903.


The Subtext:

Throughout this series, we have attempted to examine Holmes and Watson's relationship in chronological order. As we have dismissed Baring-Gould's date (and indeed, set this story some ten years prior) its context does not fit within our current timeframe. In order to fully examine the subtext contained within, we must examine its true place within Holmes and Watson's chronological relationship.

We date The Adventure of the Dancing Men in July/August of 1888. This would place the events in the story some time before the events contained within The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. Recall that Holmes and Watson have been living together for seven years, and that Watson has not yet married (or, indeed, even met Miss Morstan). There is evidence to suggest that a physical relationship existed between the two men as early as January, 1888 (but in all likelihood, physical relations began before this date) and so we can safely say that Holmes and Watson were likely quite familiar with one another during this story.

That being said, Holmes was likely still quite reserved, Watson quite unnerved, and it should be noted that a little over a month after the events in this story, Holmes and Watson quarrel, leading Watson to fall instantly in love with a female client, who later became his wife (we refer here, of course, to Miss Morstan from SIGN).

Having sorted out the issue of chronology, we can now turn our attention back to the story.

The story begins with Holmes' startling deduction regarding Watson's financial intentions. Watson, naturally, is quite amazed, and we see here a scene which is very familiar given Holmes and Watson's early relationship. Indeed, it was during this period of time when Holmes was still trying (quite desperately at times) to impress Watson (a Holmesian form of courtship, no doubt). It is in, however, Holmes' explanation to Watson that we are given our first hints of subtext. Indeed, Holmes tells Watson:

"Your cheque-book is locked in my drawer, and you have not asked for the key."

Curious, is it not, that Watson (who, by all outside accounts is merely Holmes' roommate) should entrust Holmes with his chequebook. While this statement has led scholars to suggest everything from a gambling problem to a drinking problem, we suggest here that it was Holmes who controlled the money in Baker Street; Holmes and Watson dividing domestic responsibilities, seemingly at random, as most couples of the day would have done.

This domestic scene is soon interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Hilton Cubitt, who relays the story of the dancing men, and requests Holmes' aid in discovering the meaning behind these child-like drawings which have been scrawled on various surfaces across his property. Holmes agrees, but can make no move without further evidence, and so, several weeks pass before the case is able to move forward.

He made no allusion to the affair, however, until one afternoon a fortnight or so later. I was going out when he called me back.

"You had better stay here, Watson."

In decoding Holmes and Watson's earlier adventures, we noted a reoccurring theme in Holmes' increasing dependency on Watson. We see this again here, for already Holmes is unwilling to move forward on the case without Watson's aid.

Upon Watson's question as to Holmes' reasons for wanting him to stay, Holmes explains that he has had a wire from Mr. Cubitt and is expecting him, and his dancing men, imminently. It is during Mr. Cubitt's narrative that we are treated to another theme commonly found in early Canon. Watson, ever observing Holmes, tells us:

...and I could see by his eyes that he was much excited...

Watson's seeming obsession with Holmes eyes did not disappear entirely in the later Canon, but it is entirely more prevalent in the earlier stories.

It is quite interesting to note, too, Watson's ability to read Holmes' mood, a talent Watson seems to have acquired quite early on. Indeed, as the story continues, we begin to see the profound connection which formed between the two men even in the earliest phase of their intimacy.

Sherlock Holmes preserved his calm professional manner until our visitor had left us, although it was easy for me, who knew him so well, to see that he was profoundly excited.

While Watson could not claim to know Holmes as well as he would after Holmes' return, it is quite obvious that their bond was already quite strong.

That is not to say that Watson has set aside his seeming obsession with Holmes, for it is here, in the earlier days of their intimacy, that Watson seems most obsessed with the man.

For two hours I watched him as he covered sheet after sheet of paper with figures and letters, so completely absorbed in his task that he had evidently forgotten my presence.

That Watson should spend two hours watching Holmes work is quite indicative of how enthralled Watson had become.

We do note, however, that Watson has been working with Holmes for some time (seven years, in fact) for he seems to know Holmes (and Holmes' methods) quite well. So well, in fact, that Watson tells us:

I confess that I was filled with curiosity, but I was aware that Holmes liked to make his disclosures at his own time and in his own way; so I waited until it should suit him to take me into his confidence.

We must also commend Watson for his patience.

This insight continues, as does Watson's obsession (and observation), Watson seemingly incapable of taking his eyes off of Holmes.

Seldom have I seen him so utterly despondent.

We must note, too, that the above statement is highly suggestive of an earlier date. Holmes' black reaction to failure was far more prevalent in the earlier half of his career.

Holmes' black mood comes in response to the news that Mr. Cubitt is dead, his wife suspected in his murder, but lying gravely injured herself. While quite distraught over the death of his client, Holmes is able to rally, and soon begins investigating Mr. Cubitt's death. In short order Holmes is able to put the pieces together, and, after sending off a note to a nearby farmhouse, Holmes tells Watson:

"As to you, friend Watson, I owe you every atonement for having allowed your natural curiosity to remain so long unsatisfied."

We must note here Holmes apology, for it would appear as though Holmes already depends enough upon Watson (and Watson's companionship) to strive to keep Watson happy. We must note, too, Holmes' use of the word friend, which is again very indicative of Holmes and Watson's relationship during the late 1880s.

Further proof of Holmes' dependence on Watson can be seen just as the case is coming to a close. Holmes, in explaining his presence to the local inspector, states:

"I at once came to Norfolk with my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, but, unhappily, only in time to find that the worst had already occurred."

And we cannot help but note that Holmes is particular to mention arriving with Watson. Truly, Holmes, at this point, is quite unwilling to work without his Watson.

Nor is he willing to pass on an opportunity to amuse himself at Watson's expense. It is shortly after the arrest of the true killer, whom Holmes has summed using a note encoded with the dancing men, that Holmes, tossing the note to Watson, states:

"See if you can read it, Watson," said he, with a smile.

Again, we are privy to the teasing nature common during the earlier years of their intimacy. We must also note Holmes' faith in Watson's intelligence, for while he does jest, we cannot help but note Holmes' certainty; that Watson could, in all likelihood, decode the message, were he given enough time.

And so the case comes to an end, Holmes suggesting they return to Baker Street, and the comforts of domestic life:

"And so, my dear Watson, we have ended by turning the dancing men to good when they have so often been the agents of evil, and I think that I have fulfilled my promise of giving you something unusual for your notebook. Three-forty is our train, and I fancy we should be back in Baker Street for dinner."

Finally, we must examine Holmes' promise of finding something unusual for Watson's notebook. Although Watson has only published the one novel, Holmes was only too aware of Watson's intention to document more. Indeed, Holmes seems quite pleased to have earned a biographer, in addition to a friend and companion.

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