Many interesting topics were raised during the Great Sherlock Holmes Debate last week. One of them was the question of whether Sherlock Holmes was a role model for young people. Should we really encourage kids to be reading stories about a man who was---even his fans must admit---something of a misogynist, a drug user, chronically unemployed, mean to his friends, and, well, just plain weird at times! Is this someone we want the youth of the world looking up to?
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say...YES! Because fiction isn't fact. Novels and short stories aren't real life. But that's why they're good for us, because they allow us to think about real life in new ways and re-examine the things that we value. Fiction gives us a mirror, not one that reflects us as we are, but one that tosses back ideals and aspirations, that challenges us to face reality in new ways.
In all honesty, most of us are glad we're not Watson. Sure, we might nurture a longing to be in those foggy streets, following Holmes closely, wrapped up in adventure and intrigue. But how many of us would endure Holmes's abuse, including the screeching violin, the random target practice, the horrific chemical retorts and the constant smoking? I've always argued to my class that Watson is the best friend in the world and Holmes is the worst. During the debate, I made the analogy to the TV show House---everyone loves to watch House work his magic, but no sane person would want to work for him, and everyone I know feels so sorry for Dr. Wilson. I really think Holmes is the same; we think we'd be good companions, but if Holmes suddenly appeared, in the flesh, we might all take a pass on sharing rooms with him because of what we already know about his habits.
Therefore, no, Holmes isn't someone to imitate in real life. We don't want young people or anyone else we care about to live as Holmes did, and we certainly don't want them using drugs or burgling houses. But to leave it at that would miss the much larger point about why it is we love Sherlock Holmes, and what it is about him that does make him a role model, for everyone.
Sherlock Holmes uses his mind. He's not a hero in the traditional sense; he isn't especially strong (though don't take him on in a boxing match!) and he isn't handsome (no matter how Paget drew him or who plays him in the movies) and he isn't out rescuing fair maidens or winning battles or saving planets. There's very little about Holmes that is heroic, in any way that we're accustomed to. But because of how deftly he uses his mind, he solves problems and stops crimes and brings bad guys to justice. He doesn't need a cape or muscles or dashing good looks, he doesn't need supernatural powers---he just uses the thing that we all have, though we sometimes forget it....a brain.
That's why I think Sherlock IS a great role model. How many times have we bemoaned our own lack
of looks or strength or dashing? We may face life with little in the way of money or status. We may be stuck in situations that bring us down. But as long as we can think, there is hope. We may not have Holmes' instinctive genius, but we can train ourselves to be better observers, we can work hard at being better thinkers, more aware of the world around us. True, we may not find purloined diamonds or point fingers at dastardly murderers, but by recognizing that in this fiction is a certain truth---the mind is a powerful thing!---we can make our lives better.
So yes, I think Holmes is a role model and we should be getting copies of these stories into the hands of young people. I do think we owe new readers some explanations; we should talk about the time period and we should definitely point out that drug use and tobacco use are not good things. But you can't erase the past or change an established character, and you shouldn't attempt to sanitize Holmes any more than you should clean up Shakespeare; give readers credit for not being stupid. They'll get that this is part of a time period, and quite frankly, by giving Holmes flaws Doyle made him into such an interesting character. If he hadn't had those flaws, he'd be as boring as all those other so-called heroes that nobody reads anymore.
And finally, I'll take this stand---please put the Sherlock Holmes stories into the hands of girls and young women! Seriously! Yes, I know Holmes doesn't trust our sex, and there are times I'd personally like to smack him 'upside the head' as we say here in the South, but I suspect Irene Adler has already done that for me. I know a lot of my life has been influenced by the fact that when I was young I decided I would much rather be like Holmes and accomplish things with my brain than be like the majority of female characters who somehow get by on their looks and sex appeal and spend most of their lives waiting for a man to save them. The only 'babe' I want to be is a Baker Street Babe. I can't imagine how dull and insipid my life would have been if I'd only been given romance novels and 'chick lit' when I was growing up.
So yes, I think Holmes is a role model---not for how he lives or even for the particular adventures he has but for what he teaches us about the power of the mind. This is what great fiction does. It offers inspiration, not mimicry.