A Study in Scarlet

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Observation and Deduction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Observation and Deduction Theme Icon
Injustice and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Revenge and Murder Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Study in Scarlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Observation and Deduction Theme Icon

Observation and deduction are the lifeblood of A Study in Scarlet, especially in terms of the novel’s format and characterization of Sherlock Holmes. Much of the novel (all but five chapters out of fourteen) is presented as “reminiscences” from John Watson’s journal, a record of his observations of both the case and Holmes. The first interaction between Watson and the consulting detective represents the essence of the Holmes-Watson dynamic throughout the story: Holmes is attentive to clues to which others are oblivious, allowing him to quickly deduce information (in this case, Watson’s recent return from Afghanistan), and Watson is astonished by Holmes’ abilities.

The narrator devotes an entire chapter to “The Science of Deduction,” in which Watson makes his own observations of Holmes, attempting to determine the nature of his roommate’s occupation based on the strengths and weaknesses in Holmes’ knowledge. However, Watson finds himself unable to deduce what Holmes does for a living. By contrast, in his article “The Book of Life,” Holmes claims that he can ascertain another person’s history simply with careful observation (hence his deduction that Watson was an army doctor in Afghanistan).

Holmes’ observational and deduction skills are crucial to his characterization, as these skills originally belonged to the real-life person who inspired Doyle’s creation of Holmes: Joseph Bell. Doyle’s former mentor, Bell was a surgeon with keen deductive reasoning skills. Like Holmes, he often made deductions about people based on his observations of minute details. While Watson’s purpose in the novel is mainly to admire Holmes’ skills (and thus Joseph Bell’s skills), he also serves as a foil to Holmes. Unlike Watson, who makes observations about Holmes but cannot analyze them, Holmes skillfully employs both observation and analysis in his detective work. However, it is not merely the analytical skills that distinguish a great detective but also the ability to use them carefully. For example, though Lestrade spots the word “rache” at the crime scene first, he incorrectly jumps to the wrong conclusion that the writer had meant to write “Rachel.” Holmes, on the other hand, observes the exaggerated German styling of the lettering and deduces that the murderer had written the German word for “revenge” in order to throw the police off his trail.

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Observation and Deduction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Observation and Deduction appears in each Chapter of A Study in Scarlet. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Observation and Deduction Quotes in A Study in Scarlet

Below you will find the important quotes in A Study in Scarlet related to the theme of Observation and Deduction.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes — it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge….Yes, but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.

Related Characters: Stamford (speaker), Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

While catching up with Stamford, an old colleague, Watson becomes interested in an acquaintance of Stamford’s who has expressed a desire to find a roommate. Stamford, however, warns Watson about Sherlock Holmes’ eccentricities. To Stamford, Holmes is too “cold-blooded.” His remark that Holmes would poison a friend without hesitation for the sake of his “passion for definite and exact knowledge” is not unlike Holmes’ use of Watson’s name in a newspaper advertisement to draw the murderer to their home. Though he apologizes to Watson for doing so, he does not consult Watson beforehand and justifies his behavior with the greater probability that the murderer will arrive. Obsessed with murder cases and his “science of deduction,” Holmes does not seem to have any moral or social qualms about such matters, and seems not to know or care about what is usually considered acceptable in society at large.


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Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes and Watson have just met and are gauging their compatibility as roommates by discussing their faults. Holmes’ comment that he “get[s] in the dumps” for days at a time is perhaps a reference to depression, drug use (which Watson dismisses in this novel but which is confirmed in later Holmes stories), or to Holmes’ deep dissatisfaction with everyday matters that do not concern the “scarlet thread” of murder with which he is obsessed. Though Holmes purports to confess “the worst” of himself, he does not — despite his keen observation skills — confess his arrogance, which emerges several times in the novel.

Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving… I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

Related Characters: John H. Watson (speaker), Sherlock Holmes
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes and Watson have just settled into their apartment. Watson, who has little to occupy himself, is fascinated with Holmes and closely observes him, noting how Holmes fluctuates for days at a time between periods of lethargy and energy. Watson dismisses his suspicion of drug addiction, as Holmes doesn’t seem the type, but later Sherlock Holmes stories such as “The Sign of the Four” confirm Holmes’ drug use.

Another explanation for Holmes’ extended periods of lethargy could be depression, which may be caused by the lack of interesting cases for him to solve. As he hints later on, he views murder as the “scarlet thread” in an otherwise “colourless skein of life” — that is, murder and the mystery surrounding it is the one truly interesting part of life. It is only when Holmes decides to take on Drebber’s murder case that he is able to shake off his lethargy and spring back into action.

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order… It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

When Watson discovers with amazement that Holmes did not know that the earth travelled around the sun, Holmes explains his careful selection of knowledge with his famous brain attic theory — the idea that the brain can hold only a limited amount of information. Holmes claims to have “nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work.” Holmes’ ability to quickly access information related to his observations is key to his utilization of the “science of deduction.”

By comparing his own selective and organized acquisition of facts to the indiscriminate and disorderly intake of a “fool,” Holmes also implies, in his usual superior manner, that Watson’s intellect is inferior to that of his own.

Its somewhat ambitious title was “The Book of Life”, and it attempted to show how much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came in his way. It struck me as being a remarkable mixture of shrewdness and of absurdity. The reasoning was close and intense, but the deductions appeared to me to be far-fetched and exaggerated. The writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man’s inmost thoughts. Deceit, according to him, was an impossibility in the case of one trained to observation and analysis. His conclusions were as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid. So startling would his results appear to the uninitiated that until they learned the processes by which he had arrived at them they might well consider him as a necromancer.

Related Characters: John H. Watson (speaker), Sherlock Holmes
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

One day at breakfast with Holmes, Watson spots a magazine article, “The Book of Life,” on the table and begins to read it. Initially unbeknownst to Watson, the article was written by Holmes and details the science of deduction, the means by which Holmes is able to discover information about people. Watson is skeptical, as the article combines sharp reasoning with “far-fetched and exaggerated” deductions. Later in the novel, Holmes also exhibits this “remarkable mixture of shrewdness and of absurdity,” but however seemingly far-fetched Holmes’ deductions are, he always proves to be right. Watson soon discards his skepticism in favor of a deep admiration of Holmes, thus forging the foundation of their relationship in this novel — Watson’s continual astonishment at Holmes’ skills. Just as Holmes in his article portrays the master of deduction as a “necromancer” (a magician or sorcerer) in the eyes of “the unitiated,” so he actively encourages his reputation as “conjurer” by dramatically withholding information about his deductions from Watson and the other detectives.

“There are no crimes and criminals in these days,” he said, querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession? I know well that I have it in me to make my name famous. No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is the result? There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it.”

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

After Holmes explains to Watson his occupation as a consulting detective, he complains that there aren’t any crimes befitting his skills. Lamenting the inability to use his extraordinary intellect, Holmes displays his extraordinary arrogance, claiming that he is the best detective in history and that cases solvable by the Scotland Yard are beneath him. Importantly, Holmes also reveals his need for attention, his desire to “make [his] name famous.” Though in this scene, Watson perceives Holmes as conceited, by the end of their “study in scarlet,” Watson devotes himself to this very end, publishing his account of the case and Holmes’ skills as a form of literary justice for Holmes.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson, Lestrade, Tobias Gregson
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes has just spent 20 minutes going over the crime scene, with Lestrade, Gregson, and Watson watching his inscrutable and eccentric examinations and mutterings to himself. Though Holmes seems satisfied with his observations, he does not initially inform his audience of his findings and instead chooses to highlight that he, unlike the detectives, has “tak[en] pains” by carefully combing over the crime scene, and that therefore he, unlike the detectives, is a genius. Holmes’ extreme thoroughness is at once a tool that he applies to his obsession with solving complex murder cases and a way for him to show off his skill and intelligence. His delay in sharing information about the case in favor of displaying his superiority is a behavior that recurs throughout the novel, suggesting that his need to prove his intellect is perhaps a driving factor in his obsession with murder.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

“I shall never do that,” I answered; “you have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.”

My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.
“I’ll tell you one other thing,” he said.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Watson and Holmes have just discovered that Constable Rance unknowingly let the murder, who returned to the crime scene, walk away. Though Watson has many questions about the case, Holmes does not want to divulge his findings, as pulling back the curtains for Watson would cause him to find Holmes “ordinary.” Holmes wants to be viewed as a “conjurer” or, as he mentioned in his magazine article, as a “necromancer” who astounds his audience. In this respect, Holmes ironically shows himself to be rather ordinary, as the desire to be special and thus to receive more attention is by no means uncommon. Watson finds that he is able to use this flaw to his advantage, flattering Holmes to his face while showing us, the readers, his vanity — which Watson misogynistically attributes to women and which causes Holmes to divulge more about the case.