Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Adventure of the Yellow Face


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Yellow Face in April of 1888. There is little evidence to refute this date, and so it is considered by most scholars to be accurate. The story was first published in 1894.


Returning from an impromptu stroll, Holmes and Watson discover that they have missed a visitor. Holmes is quite put out by this, as it has been some months since he last had the occasion to exercise his most singular gifts. Fortunately, the visitor has left his pipe, and from this alone Holmes is able to draw a rough summary of the man he would soon come to meet. Indeed. Grant Munro returns a short time later, requesting Holmes' advice in the matter of his wife, whom he has reason to believe is concealing something from him. In a rare turn of events, Holmes theory proves not to be the correct one, and the answer to Mrs. Munro's late night visits to a country cottage prove to be far more innocent than anyone could have suspected.

The Subtext:

Watson prefaces The Adventure of the Yellow Face with a rather curious note. He states:

In publishing these short sketches based upon the numerous cases in which my companion's singular gifts have made us the listeners to, and eventually the actors in, some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures

While one can easily understand Watson's stated reasons for focusing on Holmes' successes, rather than his failures, one cannot help but question whether there is not something more in Watson's motives. Watson admits in The Sign of the Four that he began writing Holmes' cases in an effort to please Holmes. One can therefore assume that Watson felt that this was best done by focusing on Holmes' triumphs. Indeed, Watson has also told us that Holmes was not immune to flattery. It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that Watson's choice of tales is directly related to Watson's need for Holmes' approval. Indeed, Watson, through the subtle art of flattery, appears to use his stories solely to appease Holmes, perhaps as some misguided form of wooing.

Sherlock Holmes was a man who seldom took exercise for exercise's sake. Few men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen; but he looked upon aimless bodily exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself save when there was some professional object to be served. Then he was absolutely untiring and indefatigable. That he should have kept himself in training under such circumstances is remarkable, but his diet was usually of the sparest, and his habits were simple to the verge of austerity.

Here is a curious statement which raises a very interesting question: How did Holmes and Watson keep in such good training, despite the passage of months between cases? It is clear that neither seemed prone to exercise, and yet, when there was a criminal to catch, or a trail to follow, both men were well up to the task. Clearly there was some other form of physical exercise which kept the pair in peek physical condition, and yet was never committed to paper. Note too Watson's familiarity with Holmes' body (muscular effort) and Holmes' stamina (untiring and indefatigable). I am certain I need not state the obvious here.

One day in early spring he had so far relaxed as to go for a walk with me in the Park, where the first faint shoots of green were breaking out upon the elms, and the sticky spear-heads of the chestnuts were just beginning to burst into their five-fold leaves. For two hours we rambled about together, in silence for the most part, as befits two men who know each other intimately.

The case for a physical relationship gains evidence, as Watson's description of their walk clearly contains a distinct air of romance. Note Watson's description of the first faint shoots of green, and his reference to sticky spear-heads. Then there is his reference to chestnuts bursting into their five-fold leaves. The innuendo buried within this description is undeniable. Strengthening our case, Watson then tells us that for two hours we rambled about together leaving one to wonder upon the definition of ramble. Indeed, Watson clarifies his meaning within the same sentence, reminding the reader that the pair know each other intimately. Truly, this is one of the more blatant examples of subtext found within Canon. So obvious is it, in fact, that one hardly needs to resort to decryption in order to glimpse the true meaning behind the passage.

The pair eventually do return to Baker Street, only to discover that they have missed a client. Holmes, playing the role of wife, rather than companion, glances at Watson reproachfully; indeed, Holmes' statement is also quite telling.

Holmes glanced reproachfully at me. "So much for afternoon walks!" said he.

One gets the impression that Holmes, while irritated by the loss of a client, is quite reproachful of himself for putting Watson and his wooing before his work.

Fortunately for Holmes, the gentleman has left his pipe, and Holmes is once again able to turn his thoughts away from Watson and onto the art of deduction (how befuddle Holmes must have been, having his entire world turned upside down by one infuriating, and yet endearing, man). He begins by examining the pipe, attempting to deduce the character of its owner merely through observation. Here, Watson tells us:

My friend threw out the information in a very offhand way, but I saw that he cocked his eye at me to see if I had followed his reasoning.

Even in Holmes' analysis he cannot seem to escape the need for Watson's involvement. Truly, Holmes is being painted as quite smitten.

Sadly for us, Holmes and Watson's interaction takes a back seat to the case at hand. The case concludes itself quickly, though, and the final passages of the story once again belong to the Great Detective and his lifelong companion.

Holmes and I followed them down the lane, and my friend plucked at my sleeve as we came out.

"I think," said he, "that we shall be of more use in London than in Norbury."

Not another word did he say of the case until late that night, when he was turning away, with his lighted candle, for his bedroom.

"Watson," said he, "if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you."

Here we are given a wealth of subtext, all within a few short sentences. First there is Holmes, plucking at Watson's sleeve and suggesting that they return to London. They have just witnessed a touching, loving scene (the reunion and acceptance of a family) and Holmes instinctively knows when to step aside. He has been proven wrong, and yet, despite this, he seems quite content, happy at having witnessed the touching reunion of the Munro family. Note too that there is no pressing case; nothing but the idle boredom of everyday living awaiting them in London, and yet Holmes instinct is to return there, his desire for home enough that he refers to its usefulness.

Then there is Holmes' request, that Watson some day whisper Norbury in his ear. A more intimate request one cannot imagine. This is a humbled Holmes, and it is Watson who bore witness to his humbling. One can easily imagine Watson's soft, sympathetic smile, tinged with amusement. One can easily imagine, too, Holmes smirk when Watson rose from his chair and followed Holmes into his bedroom.

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