“What is the meaning of it, Watson?”: A Reflection on Meaninglessness, Despondency and Freedom

by Mark Wallace

One of the great moments in the Sherlock Holmes canon comes at the very end of “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box“, and features the great detective in an unusually pensive and apparently depressed mood. It is at the end of a particularly trying and tragic case:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Sidney Paget. Sherlock Holmes illustration

Illustration by Sidney Paget from the original publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories

In this case, even the chance to exercise his deductive powers in the interests of justice doesn’t serve to shield Holmes from the bleaker truths of human existence and human relations.

Such bleakness, while not charactersitic of Doyle, is somewhat of a feature of the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. A classic example that has remained with me from first reading the book in my youth comes from W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915):

the sage gave [the king]the history of man in a single line; it was this: he was born, he suffered, and he died. There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.

Also worth noting is the protagonist’s response to this “history of man”:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty.

This is an interesting philosophico-psychological twist: meaninglessness can bring, not just despair as it did (albeit not on a permanent basis) to Holmes, rather it gives one a sense of freedom and power.

Holmes tortured

Jeremy Brett playing Holmes in despondent mood at the end of the film The Master Blackmailer (1992)

Perhaps the reader disturbed by Holmes’ despondent reaction in “The Cardboard Box” should imagine him reading Of Human Bondage, and thereby coming to terms with the meaninglessness of his endeavours. By 1915, Holmes had already retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. He could have done worse things with his free time than reading Maugham’s long, semi-autobiographical novel, and so could the contemporary reader, who perhaps does not pay enough attention to the rather unfashionable Maugham, a writer who has for a long time now been “eclipsed” in the public attention.