Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Engineer's Thumb

Dates :

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb in September of 1889.  Watson tells us that the story took place in the summer of 1889, and mentions that he is writing the story some two years after the events first took place.  As the case was first published in March of 1892, this would imply that the case took place sometime before March of 1890.  As September can still be considered a summer month, and September of 1889 is the closest summer month to March of 1890, we have no reason to doubt Baring-Gould's date.


Doctor Watson, having been woken in the early hours of the morning by the arrival of a patient, finds himself treating a young hydraulic engineer.  Mr. Victor Hatherley, weak from loss of blood, has been brought round from Paddington station by another of Watson's patients.  Mr. Hatherley reveals, along with the gapping wound where his thumb once was, a most unusual tale regarding a hydraulic press that he was called upon to inspect, and the resulting near brush with death which came at the hands of his clients.  Watson, intrigued by this young man's story, remarks that Sherlock Holmes is exactly the man to help, and, upon completing the bandaging of Mr. Hatherley's wound, escorts his patient to Baker Street.  There, what is murky and clouded to Watson and his charge is quite clear to Sherlock Holmes, and they soon find themselves on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters.

The Subtext:

While not as subtextually heavy as most of the other cases, The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb does present several elements which will prove of interest to the student of subtext.  It is telling, however, that in spite of the absence of interaction between Holmes and Watson (and hence the subtext usually found within each case) the story does present several subtextually heavy themes.  We will examine each of these in turn.

Of all the problems which have been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for solution during the years of our intimacy, there were only two which I was the means of introducing to his notice—that of Mr. Hatherley's thumb, and that of Colonel Warburton's madness.

We begin with Watson's language, and here we note Watson's use of the word intimate.  This is a particularly unusual place for Watson to use this word, and yet, Watson includes it.  This begs the question: Why?

It is obvious that Watson, recently married, wished to remind his audience of the bond between him and Holmes.  In fact, it is entirely possible that Watson, having married and left Baker Street, worried (needlessly, of course) that his place at Holmes' side might no longer be recognizable.  Public recognition was quite important to Watson, for it validated the role he played in Holmes' life.  That Watson should still wish the public to associate him with Holmes is not only indicative of Watson's need for notoriety, but of Watson's need for validation.  Clearly, public accolade, in Watson's mind, replaced praise Watson might have received from Holmes.

We might also examine this introduction as a means of Watson reaffirming the closeness which once existed between him and Holmes.  Recall that Holmes had vanished over Reichenbach Falls in the prior year (1891), and that Watson was still chronicling Holmes' cases.  It is quite likely that Watson felt the need to reassure himself that, once, he was Holmes' closest and most intimate companion.  It is also quite possible that this need stemmed from Watson's inability to move on from Holmes' death (as evident by the shear number of stories published after Holmes' death).

I had returned to civil practice and had finally abandoned Holmes in his Baker Street rooms, although I continually visited him and occasionally even persuaded him to forgo his Bohemian habits so far as to come and visit us.

We see a shift in the story here, and yet, we come back a second time to Watson's choice of language.  Note that Watson speaks of abandoning Holmes in his Baker Street rooms.  Watson mentions, too, his continual visits, and the effort he expended convincing Holmes to reciprocate these visits.  There is quite a bit of guilt in this statement; quite a bit of regret, too.  In fact, one can easily imagine that Watson despised having to leave Holmes on his own.  It is very likely that Watson, especially during the first few months of his marriage, found an excuse to drop by Holmes' rooms on a daily basis (though whether Holmes was home at the time, we cannot say).  We can see, too, Watson's numerous attempts to convince Holmes to come for dinner.  Obsessive behaviour, and not indicative of a man newly, and happily, married.  That Watson should worry more over Holmes' well being than his newly formed marriage is quite telling.

We turn now to the introduction of the story, and the arrival of a patient.  Victor Hatherley is a hydraulic engineer, and is currently missing the whole of his thumb.  The mending of this wound is quite gruesome, and yet, upon hearing the man's tale, Watson's reaction is quite unusual.

"Ha!" cried I, "If it is anything in the nature of a problem which you desire to see solved, I should strongly recommend you to come to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, before you go to the official police."

Note that Watson's first reaction is not that of horror, but rather, that of glee.  Odd, is it not, that despite having just repaired a gapping hole in a man's hand, Watson should be so excited by the prospect of seeing his long-time friend and companion that he should let out a great laugh.  In fact, Watson is so excited to see Holmes again that he offers to rush over to Baker Street that very moment and arrange an introduction.

"I'll do better. I'll take you round to him myself."

We know, having witnessed Watson doctor to Holmes on numerous occasions, that Watson is not an incompetent physician.  We know, too, that Watson tends to put the welfare of his patients above everything else.  Does it not seem strange, then, that Watson should disregard the weakness of a man who has obviously lost a considerable amount of blood?  Mr. Hatherley was in no shape to traipse across town and call upon Sherlock Holmes, and yet, Watson practically dragged him from the room.

Recall, too, that Watson has told us it is early morning.  We can infer, based on the arrival of a patient, that Watson's surgery would then be open for the day, and yet, Watson throws aside the whole of his practice in order to rush over to Baker Street.  Incredible.

"We'll call a cab and go together. We shall just be in time to have a little breakfast with him. Do you feel equal to it?"

Watson's desire to see Holmes escalates, for in addition to jeopardizing Mr. Hatherley's health and abandoning his practice, Watson is now abandoning Mary in favour of breakfasting with Holmes.  In fact, the mere mention of breakfast is ample evidence that it is Holmes, and not the case, which holds Watson's attention.  If it were the case which held Watson's interest, he would not have mentioned breakfast.  Clearly, then, we can safely state that Watson has been looking for an excuse to see Holmes.  Mr. Hatherley's missing thumb could not have presented a better opportunity.

Sherlock Holmes was, as I expected, lounging about his sitting-room in his dressing-gown, reading the agony column of The Times and smoking his before-breakfast pipe, which was composed of all the plugs and dottles left from his smokes of the day before, all carefully dried and collected on the corner of the mantelpiece. He received us in his quietly genial fashion, ordered fresh rashers and eggs, and joined us in a hearty meal.

Watson's arrival in Baker Street is also quite noteworthy.  Note here Watson's statement that he expected to find Holmes in his dressing gown.  Aside from speaking to the familiarity between the two men (and, indeed, the intimacy), this statement is also quite amusing, for one begins to wonder if perhaps it was not merely the thought of breakfast which had Watson rushing to Baker Street so early in the morning.

Holmes' reaction is quite telling, too, for he seems quite pleased to discover Watson upon his doorstep.  His manner is quite chivalrous, and one gets the impression that Holmes is going out of his way to make Watson feel welcome.  In fact, one can easily imagine that only Watson would warrant the serving of a large weekday breakfast.

Holmes sat in his big armchair with the weary, heavy-lidded expression which veiled his keen and eager nature, while I sat opposite to him, and we listened in silence to the strange story which our visitor detailed to us.

Having finished breakfast, the trio are now seated around the fireplace, the scene a familiar one.  It is interesting to note that, despite Watson's marriage and abandonment of Baker Street, he is still quite welcome around Holmes' fire.  In fact, the entire scene is quite habitual, and it is delightful to note that, Watson's marriage aside, Holmes will forever reserve Watson's chair.

The story soon shifts as we hear the strange tale of the hydraulic engineer, Mr. Hatherley, and then follow Holmes on his quest to find Hatherley's strange house in the country outside of Reading.  Their pursuit comes too late, however, for, while they do discover the house, their criminals have vanished, along with all proof of their crime.  Holmes, oddly enough, is not perturbed.  In fact, with Mr. Hatherley's expression of disappointment, Holmes reminds Hatherley that the event can at least be considered experience.

"Experience," said Holmes, laughing. "Indirectly it may be of value, you know; you have only to put it into words to gain the reputation of being excellent company for the remainder of your existence."

One cannot doubt that Holmes speaks of Watson here, and a greater compliment he could not pay.  That Holmes should speak so highly of Watson's writing, and of Watson's company, is quite telling. We cannot doubt that he meant every word, for clearly Holmes did, and would always, consider Watson the very best of company.

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