Sherlock Holmes and Psychoanalysis

by Mark Wallace

Jeremy Tambling’s Literature and Psychoanalysis (Manchester UP, 2012) is intended to show how psychoanalytic theory can be used to interpret literature. One of the case studies in the book is the Sherlock Holmes story “The Empty House” (TEH), the famous story where Holmes announces he didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls after all. That he is, in fact, still alive. Gasp! Tambling’s use of this text interests me because I use Sherlock Holmes as the paradigm of the pre-Freudian character, one who is unrepresentable according to contemporary, Freudian-influenced ideologies of subjectivity. Despite the fact that many new Holmes adaptations continue to appear, I contend that they are inscribed with the tensions between the Doylean conception of the character and our understanding of being human. This is particularly true of Sherlock, where the character is subject to trauma, repression, desire, self-doubt, ambivalence and all of these Freudian concepts that Doyle gets by without.

So, when Tambling returns to the stories themselves for psychoanalytic readings, my starting position is that Holmes is one character on whom psychoanalysis is wasted. But of course, I’m talking about the character, Tambling is talking about the story. And indeed, Tambling seems to tacitly accept that the character doesn’t respond to the psychoanalytic treatment: Tambling’s key terms in the discussion of TEH are identification and repetition, and all he really says on Holmes is that “We cannot identify with Holmes” (17). Well, it would need an empirical study to show that people have identified with Holmes, but I’m pretty sure that Tambling’s statement is a great exaggeration. It would be closer to the mark to say, “We cannot identify with Holmes, insofar as we are Freudian subjects“. This is part of the greatness of the character: the challenge he presents to dominant Freudian discourses of the subject.

So, having dismissed the character of Holmes in that manner, Tambling goes on to demonstrate the centrality of his key terms. The notion of repetition centres around the theme of “hunting and being hunted” (17), as Tambling notes – so it is rather this idea that may be seen as central, as opposed to the more general effect of repetition. Tambling in fact lists the instances of hunting in the story, and argues quite convincingly thatbasically the whole story is organized around (man)hunts. He doesn’t quite tie this in to his psychoanalytic reading, though, not in a way that was clear to me, anyway. But this was the element of his reading that most interested me, and made me think over the Holmes canon in total, as I had not really considered that enjoyment of these stories was centrally linked to such a primal pleasure as hunting. While not always to the same extent as TEH, hunting is quite central to the stories, albeit perhaps no more so than rationalism, justice, or even friendship.

Finally, then, Tambling’s point is that we enjoy because we identify, and that detective stories also satisfy our compulsion to repeat – and what could be more Freudian than that? His argument presents some difficulties, though, not least the manner in which they sideline Sherlock Holmes himself as a character. The nature of the character really must be taken into account, when we consider just how much Sherlockians focus on the character himself. But, if my suggestions are correct, the psychoanalytic approach is not the best one for that task, for the character is in himself a great challenge to psychoanalysis.