In modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is often cast as an atheist. We see this most prominently in the BBC Cumberbatch and Freeman adaptation, where Cumberbatch’s Holmes remarks that God is “a ludicrous fantasy designed to provide a career opportunity to the family idiot.” I think this quote summarises neatly my ultimate frustrations and disillusion with the series; the writers profoundly misunderstand the source material, or perhaps have intentionally warped it to conform to a worldview they perceive to be aligned with the zeitgeist. This atheistic sentiment is present in other adaptations as well. In the original Conan-Doyle stories, however, Holmes is a firm believer. It’s amiable Watson who has doubts about whether there really is a God.
This is a fascinating switch, and I think indicates a weakness on the part of modern writers interpreting Holmes. For the ultimate cold and rational “thinking machine” that is Sherlock Holmes to believe in a Creator is not an inconsistency in character, but precisely what makes his character so fascinating. Sherlock Holmes sees patterns that others can’t see, and is able to make incredible deductions from the smallest minutiae. Holmes stands in opposition to the idea of coincidence – everything, in his view, has logical cause and effect; everything has meaning. In a way, Sherlock Holmes is like God himself, an almost omniscient viewpoint, piercing the veil of distractions to see the unseen clues beneath. As much as it is an unexpected juxtaposition, it also makes sense that Holmes would conclude God really exists; he’s perhaps the only mortal person who shares His perspective.
The scene in which Holmes confirms his belief occurs in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, when he observes a small flower, “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.” In other words, it’s the existence of superfluous beauty that confirms the cosmos is not accidental; as with all other things, including the crimes Holmes solves, the universe has come into being for a reason.
Humans are, by nature, hypocritical and contradictory. In our modern world of social media backlash and “cancel culture” we believe that to be integrous, we have to be consistent, but such a hypothesis is fundamentally flawed because human beings cannot be consistent in this way. For a start, we grow and develop over time. Our opinions should alter with new experiences, otherwise, what was the point of having the experience? Likewise, just because somebody does a good thing, doesn’t mean they are a good person; the reverse is also palpably true.
Great writers such as Conan-Doyle understood this principle of human hypocrisy and also change. We might also look to Shakespeare for wisdom here. In Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, Anthony spends the first twenty minutes bemoaning the fact that he is burdened with his marriage to Fulvia, and can’t fully abscond with his true heart’s desire: the beautiful Cleopatra. But when his wife, Fulvia, unexpectedly dies, thereby seemingly freeing him to pursue his heart’s want, he suddenly feels bound by duty to honour his dead wife and break ties with Cleopatra. It seems contradictory or even irrational to us, but how well observed of human nature: that it is often in being freed and liberated from moral duty that we are sobered and clarified on the issue of our wrongdoing. Conan-Doyle similarly explores this in the contradiction of Holmes – the rational scientist – believing in a greater power.
If you want to write great characters, characters who feel real and three-dimensional, then we have to internalise this principle that human beings are deeply inconsistent. It’s clear that Shakespeare, in particular, found a certain joy in this. He loved his characters most when they were being completely hypocritical and unreasonable, as can be evidenced by the enduring popularity (and verbosity) of perhaps his most hypocritical character: John Falstaff. Shakespeare’s best characters sometimes contradict themselves within the same flow of speech, but this only adds to our profound love of them, and often leads to unexpected pearls of wisdom.
If we interrogate ourselves honestly, we’ll find we all have these little idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. By leaning into our own, we can learn to bring them out in our characters, and not only make those characters feel realer, but perhaps surprise ourselves with a revelation – like Holmes seems to surprise himself, looking at the rose, and intuiting all that it means.
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