Clayton: Wells and Doyle

Epistemological my dear Watson: Structures of deduction in H.G.Wells’ Time Machine and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Owen Clayton, Lancaster University

Winter 2003

Holmes - DoyleSuch is his cultural power that Sherlock Holmes became the first fictional character to receive an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry, for ‘using science, courage and crystal clear thought processes to achieve his goals.’1  Those ‘crystal clear thought processes’ represent the ideal of scientific rationalism, whereby ‘language is merely an instrument’ in the search for absolute truth.2  Both the Time Machine and the Sherlock Holmes stories are concerned with epistemology, that is, what can be known, how and who by. I will argue that there are parallels between the personalities and methods of the Time Traveller and Holmes, to such an extent that they are almost interchangeable. This essay will demonstrate the truth that semiological systems such as Holmes’ methods of detection are culturally specific rather than universal as he assumes them to be. I will suggest that the Time Traveller fails in his attempts to categorise the world of the future not due to insufficient data, but because his semiological system of deduction, as with Holmes, is built upon the shifting sands of culture and that, therefore, Holmes’ own epistemological system would likewise come apart in the same situation.

Holmes is ‘the most perfect reasoning and observing machine’ and like a machine is incapable of love, seeing it as a defect like ‘Grit in a sensitive instrument’, the scientific imagery enhancing his image as man-machine.3   His personality is an extension of his methods, to the point of forgetting ‘irrelevant’ information such as the composition of the solar system (‘Study in Scarlet,’ 15). Holmes lives to work rather than works to live, demonstrated by his ‘congenial’ acceptance of ‘death’ at the Reichenbach Falls (‘Final Problem,’ 446). Likewise, the Time Traveller in H.G.Well’s The Time Machine gives his life to his craft, vanishing into futurity at the end. The proliferation of light in his sitting room, with lamps, candlesticks and a fire, provides a metaphor for the knowledge with which he is ‘illuminating’ his guests.4  Their superior reasoning ability and attempts to push back the limits of what is known makes them both appear to use magic: the Provincial Mayor repeats the Time Traveller’s ‘mystic’ (5) words while Holmes is ‘like a magician’ who can ‘see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart’ (266; 215). However, what seems like magic is in reality scientific. The Time Traveller’s magic becomes science in the form of a machine and Holmes’ ‘magical’ intuition is the result of his ‘train of thought’ running ‘so swiftly through my mind that I had arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps’ (‘Study in Scarlet,’ 17-18). It is essential that ‘There were such steps’ underwriting the magic because, in Late Victorian society, only science conveys enough authority to make both character’s revelations believable.

Both main characters use science but add their own original, creative elements. The Time Traveller designed the comfortable chairs his guests sit on (3), while Holmes is a master of disguise, a phenomenal actor and a talented improvisational musician (16). The Time Traveller and Holmes share a restless, almost superhuman energy. The Time Traveller ‘could work at a problem for years but to wait inactive for twenty-four hours – that is another matter’ (41), while for Holmes, ‘Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him’ (14). Both could be seen, as Michael Plakotaris sees Holmes, as a NietzscheanUbermench, a superior form of humanity.5   Holmes and the Time Traveller are set apart from the rest of humanity and this breeds elitism within the texts. The Time Traveller splits humanity, in a foreshadowing of its later evolutionary splitting, by referring to ‘Scientific people’, implicitly drawing a distinction between holders of knowledge and the ignorant. Holmes refers to ‘the great unobservant public’ (273) and is described as someone who ‘loathed every form of society’ (273; 117).  His individuality, having a disregard to middle-class morality concerning cocaine and even releasing criminals, sets up a contrast with the herd-instinct of the ‘swarm of humanity’ (201). Apposite to the universality promised by emergent science and the belief that ‘all life is a great chain’ (17), this generalising of humanity is present in both texts. Thus, characters in The Time Machine are essentialised according to their profession, for example the Editor, appropriately named ‘Blank’, thinks ‘in headlines’ (16). Likewise, Holmes can detect someone’s profession because ‘a man’s calling is plainly revealed’ (17) and the Engineer is able to bandage his thumb only because the action is related to his job, ‘It is a question of hydraulics’ (17; 231). Holmes using past cases, often from different countries and eras, to predicate the truth about his current one, demonstrates the supposed universality of science, what Roland Barthes calls ‘a certain absolute spirit’ (17). The Time Traveller also uses science to unify potential divisions, ‘There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it’ (4).

The methods of both men are observation and deduction through a process of elimination. The Time Traveller’s speech is littered with scientific discourse, his profession seeping from him, for example ‘I won’t say a word until I get some peptone into my arteries’  and ‘I had to be frugivorous also’ (17; 28). He conducts a methodical investigation into the nature of the world of the future and the language of the Eloi, ‘presently I had a score of noun substantives and then I got to demonstrate pronouns, and even the verb “to eat”‘ (29). This mirrors the slow evolution of a typical Holmes case, which follows ‘a chain of logical sequences without a break or flaw’ (62). Once this truth is reached, the criminal is defined. Both characters see definition as control: once the Time Traveller has named the Eloi they become ‘his’ (29); likewise for Holmes a danger ‘would cease to be a danger if we could define it’ (276).

We must examine the reasons behind the Time Traveller’s failure to discover absolute truth. Holmes sees the failure ‘to reason from what you see’ (203) as the primary reason for failure among ‘the great unobservant public’, particularly Watson.  Yet if the Time Traveller and Holmes are both super-reasoning men-machines, this cannot be the reason in this case. Certainly failure on Holmes’ part can only come from ‘insufficient data’ (228), as his own reasoning is flawless, ‘Deceit was an impossibility in the case of one trained to observation and analysis’ (16). If Holmes’ deductions are flawless and universal, it follows that the Time Traveller’s must be as well.

The theories the Time Traveller suggests are persistently proven incorrect by the facts, yet his knowledge advances with each incorrect deduction:

      1. He worries that ‘cruelty had grown into a common passion’, but is pleasantly surprised by the childlike nature of the Eloi. (23)
      2. He wonders how advanced human beings will have become but has his confidence in the inevitability of human progress undercut by the Eloi believing that he came ‘from the sun in a thunderstorm’. (26)
      3. He then proposes that necessity has been conquered and ‘the whole earth had become a garden’ (32) and is then surprised by the giant wells. The use of ‘garden’ is ironic as a garden, like the world of the future, appears natural but is in fact highly constructed and artificial.
      4. He concludes that the wells are the Eloi’s ‘sanitary apparatus’ but is later proven ‘absolutely wrong’ (42) by the appearance of the Morlocks.
      5. His wonder at ‘how things were kept going’ becomes a conviction that the Morlocks are the Eloi’s latter-day proletariat. (44; 50) This conclusion modifies when he realises that the Morlocks prey upon the Eloi.

Just as Holmes relies on ‘Data! data! data!…I can’t make bricks without clay’ (277), the text of The Time machine implies that this is the Time traveller’s main problem, that as William Bellemy has argued, ‘A balance between reason and the passions is finally achieved only as the result of constant ongoing analytic effort.’6  One problem with this argument is that ignores the culturally specific system whereby he repeatedly draws incorrect deductions.

Like the Time Traveller, Holmes is forced to re-define his conclusions in the face of fresh evidence. He admits to Watson in ‘The Five Orange Pips’ that his assessment of what is irrelevant to his work, specifically politics, is inadequate. This leads him to re-shape his ‘brain-attic’ metaphor to such limits that it becomes ridiculous, with an extension being added as a ‘library’ for all the information he once tried to forget (182). The end of this story brings the Dues Ex Machina of the ‘Lone Star’ vessel sinking, providing the justice that Holmes failed to do, and breaking the internal logic of Holmes as infallible. As Watson grudgingly admits, some cases have simply ‘baffled his analytical skill’ (175).

George Orwell argues that H.G.Wells incorrectly sees history as ‘a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man’7, yet the Time Traveller’s rationality seems a fragile thing. His Holmesian confidence in the controlling power of definition is shaken when he fears that he can’t physically escape from his situation and it is only with the ‘recovery of a prompt retreat my courage recovered’ (24). Here we see that a material base of physical power is needed for confidence in abstract, observational power. The Time Traveller experiences this as a revelation when he visits the Morlock’s underground dwelling, ‘Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by some unknown forces which I only had to understand to overcome’ (60). He attempts to put together individual signs but finds only aporia, ‘the heavy smell, the big unmeaning shapes, the obscene figures lurking in the shadows’ (57). Definition alone is an inadequate power base without physical tools of power, ‘without arms, without medicine, even without enough matches’ (57). Likewise, without tools of power he becomes frighteningly aggressive and irrational, ‘I had the hardest task in the world to keep my hands off their pretty laughing faces’ (39). He loses his belief in science as soon as it lets him down, crying ‘upon God and Fate’ for deliverance (38).

The Time Traveller doesn’t cease theorising but recognises the limits of subjective knowledge from ‘the unknown past into the unknown future’ (64). In his re-telling of his narrative to his guests, he repeatedly emphasises these limits, that his version is merely ‘how the thing shaped itself to me’ and that ‘My impression of it, is, of course, imperfect’ (82; 48). He uses the metaphor of a black tribesman from Central Africa walking around London to convey that the organisational workings of a new world ‘are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller’ (43). The Sphinx, a signifier of a complex puzzle, becomes a microcosm of the subjective interpretation he places on the world. At first, its smile is neutral, ‘the faint shadow of a smile’ (23) then when he is amused by the friendliness of the Eloi, it has ‘a smile at my astonishment’ (27) and when he discovers that the time machine has vanished, the statue becomes more sinister, ‘It seemed to smile in mockery of my dismay’ (37).

‘That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.’ (‘Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, 203)

This deduction from a hat in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is one of Holmes’ most remarkable. Yet it only works if the reader accepts certain assumptions, some of which are specific to Late Victorian England:

1. The man has a large head, therefore a large brain, and so must be intellectual.

2. The man definitely bought the hat and was not given it, meaning that he definitely could afford to buy it and so used to be ‘well-to-do’.

3. A loving wife always dusts her husband’s hat.

Points one and three are unspoken links in Holmes’ reasoning that point to the specificity of his semiological system. Roland Barthes says, ‘there is no culture without classification’8 and therefore no classification without culture or cultural conventions.

Many of Holmes’ assumptions revolve around generalisations about women, who in the majority are hysterical, irrational or silent. According to Holmes, women are ‘naturally secretive’ (126). ‘Womanly’ nature gets the better of Mary Holder who ‘with a scream, fell senseless on the ground’ and of Mrs St.Clair who faints ‘at the sight of blood’ despite the fact the she is ‘not hysterical, nor given to fainting’ (262; 192; 194). There is a polarisation of women’s ‘intuitive’ nature and masculine analytical deduction, ‘the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner’ (196), women being capable of impressions but not conclusions. Miss Hunter has been interpolated into this ideology, ‘They talk of women’s instinct; perhaps it was women’s instinct which gave me the feelings’ (282). Irene Adler, who was able to outfox Holmes, is singled out as ‘the woman’, the italics emphasising her uniqueness (117). As the heroes of both texts are self-madeUbermench, lack of struggle is seen as decadent and weak, and therefore in Victorian signification, female. The Eloi have ‘the same girlish rotundity of limb’ (31) while Lord St. Simon gives an un-masculine ‘little stately cough’ (‘Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,’ 247). Holmes fights for the restoration of a specific Late Victorian bourgeois order against anything that is seen to be a threat to that order. For example, beggars are dehumanised by Hugh Boone earning more money from it than ‘honest’ office work in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ and the clientele of the opium den are dehumanised through metonymy, becoming ‘bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back and chins pointing upwards’ (187).

The Time Traveller’s dinner guests act as his societal structure. He uses society to convey authority to his arguments, ‘Professor Simon Newcomb was expounding this to the New York Mathematical Society only a month or so ago’. His argument with his guests about time travel is already won by his signification as a ‘Time Traveller’ (3-5). In the future, this structure of confidence is gone and his isolation means that every observation and deduction made is entirely subjective and therefore ‘only a glimpse of one facet of the truth’ (32).  His journey therefore ironises the assumptions and conventions of his Victorian dinner guests. For example, he understands the evolution of the Eloi by seeing traditional male and female characteristics as culturally specific, ‘the strength of a man and the softness of a woman are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force’ (31). Yet he seems unable to escape these cultural assumptions, particularly in relation to Weena, the female ‘love’ interest whose name implies both weaning and weakness, linking the female back with ‘softness’. He humanises the Eloi, particularly Weena, as someone might do to a favourite pet. His sympathies for the Eloi rather than the Morlocks are based on his cultural assumptions of humanity, that the Eloi have ‘much of the human form’ (66) while the Morlocks, despite having advanced ‘mental operations’ (83) are dehumanised as ‘this new vermin’ (54). That his aggression, engineering and foreword-planning ability link him with the Morlocks is overlooked. He judges another world by the artificial conventions of his own, the artificiality of which both he and the text are blind to.

I have attempted to demonstrate that Holmes and the Time Traveller are both representative of the ideal of scientific rationalism and as such are interchangeable. The semiological systems of both characters depend on social conventions and assumptions, as indeed they must. When these no longer apply, the Time Traveller is unable to define anything with the same Holmesian confidence. This is not simply due to a lack of data, for conclusions he makes are based upon assumptions such as what makes a race ‘more human’. He recognises ‘the limitations of one’s ability to assign final truth to any idea’9 but does not see that these limitations are largely cultural. He has received data but interpreted it in a way that is specific to his society. Likewise, Holmes’s deductions, seen by the text as universal, are in fact based on the ideals of Late Victorian bourgeois order and justice. Therefore, should Holmes find himself placed in a similar environment, he would as unsuccessful at achieving absolute truth as the Time Traveller is.

Copyright © 2003 Owen Clayton


2 Roland Barthes, ‘Science and Literature’ in Literary Theories A Reader & Guide (Great Britain, Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p 25

3 Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, (Denmark, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992), p 117.  All further references to Holmes stories are to this edition.

4 H.G.Wells, The Time Machine, (Great Britain, J.M.Dent, 2001), p 8. All further references to The Time Machine are to this edition.

5 Michael Plakotaris, Murder in his Eyes: Sherlock Holmes and Panoptic Power (PhD, Lancaster)

6 William Bellemy, The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p 13

7 George Orwell, ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ in George Orwell Collected Essays(London, Secker & Warbury, 1961), p 163

8 Roland Barthes, ‘Science and Literature’, p 26

9 William Bellemy, The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, p 63



Anderson, Linda.R., Bennett, Wells and Conrad Narrative in Transition (Hong Kong, The Macmillan press Ltd, 1988)

Barsham, Diana, Arthur Conan Doyle and the Meaning of Masculinity, (Great Britain, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2000)

Barthes, Roland, ‘Science and Literature’ in Literary Theories A Reader & Guide (Great Britain, Edinburgh University Press, 1999)

Bellemy, William, The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971)

Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Denmark, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992)

Orwell, George, ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ in George Orwell Collected Essays(London, Secker & Warbury, 1961)

Plakotaris, Michael Murder in his Eyes: Sherlock Holmes and Panoptic Power (PhD, Lancaster)

Wells, H.G., The Time Machine (Great Britain, J.M.Dent, 2001),