I am a proud Sherlockian and for those of you who are not citizens of a geek fandom, that is simply someone who is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, whether it is the BBC television show, Benedict Cumberbatch in general, or the original works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was first inducted as a Sherlockian when I happened upon the BBC show on Netflix, having already watched every Disney movie and Bigfoot documentary available. The show inspired me, for it provided a fresh, modern take on classic tales without making a mess of them as many have done (cough cough…Elementary…). After watching every episode at least twice and knowing it will probably be at least a decade before season four, I picked up a gigantic copy of the original stories and have been lugging it around with me for the past few weeks. (That in itself is a feat as it weighs at least five pounds; my biceps are getting huge!)
This morning as I read one of Mr. Holmes’ many adventures, “The Engineer’s Thumb,” I found myself more confused than poor Mr. Watson. You see, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing is impeccable and his tales chillingly pleasant, I often find myself wondering why he chose the plot lines that he did. After all, why write about an ordinary murder when death by boomerang is more surprising and also fits the evidence? Why purposefully leave a case unsolved or allow a criminal to escape? But most importantly, why don’t these frustrating details hinder my enjoyment of these stories? I personally love Sherlock Holmes, but it seems that the neatly-packaged resolutions of Nancy Drew might be more pleasant to the average reader. These questions and more have tantalized my brain for the past week, and so, following my hero’s example, I have deduced that the answer is elementary.
This brings me to my deduction: classic literature endures not because its plots are smooth and its resolutions entirely satisfying, but because it is distinctly human. In the case of the Sherlock Holmes tales, if every mystery had been sensational and every loose end tied up, it would not be believable. No human life is exiting all of the time and no human life has every problem resolved perfectly. The same statement is true of Anna Karenina, Gone With the Wind, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Vanity Fair, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, and nearly every other piece of true literature. None of these renowned books has the perfect fairy-tale ending that audiences today expect and none of their plots are completely fantastic. If they had such endings and plots, they would be predictable and dull and probably not survive more than a generation. But they do not! AK made the terrible choices characteristic of humanity’s sinful nature, GWtW was wrought with tragedy and unstable relationships, TPoDG certainly did not end well, VF was riddled with unfortunate and unpredictable circumstances, and even the beloved fairy tales we heard as children were in actuality filled with gore and sorrow. None of these great books have complete “happily-ever-afters” or crystal-stair plots, but they did not need to. What makes a story a classic is its ability to reflect, even through fiction, the human condition, which is not generally solved by wit or relieved by magic.
However, none of this is to say that these stories are dull! They would not have lived through generations of frivolous human readers if they were. Rather, as Sherlock Holmes states, “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent… it [makes] all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” Thus, unlike certain modern tales of predictable sensationalism and tidy endings (hint hint…Twilight…), these classic works will endure as long as mankind because they are the mirror of man’s humanity and, according to current psychology, we are attracted to what is representative of ourselves.