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Summary of "The Blanched Soldier"

Holmes surprises the audience with the news that this time he will be the narrator and that Watson will be absent from the story. 

James Dodd, a veteran of the Boer War, seeks Sherlock’s help, but has trouble starting the interview. After the detective impresses Dodd with his deductive powers, the soldier explains his friend, Godfrey Emsworth, was injured some months previously in South Africa and has since returned to England. Little word has passed between the two, which Dodd thinks is unusual given Godfrey’s friendly nature, but when he visits the family house to make sure things are all right, Godfrey’s uncooperative father tells him not pursue it. As he is leaving, the family butter refers ominously to Godfrey in the past tense, which Dodd infers to mean he has died until the butler bursts out he wishes it was so. Just before he exits, he sees Godfrey looking at him through a window looking deathly pale. Dodd stays one more day and, after discovering Godfrey is being contained in a house in the garden under the watch of an officious looking man, threatens Godfrey’s father with interference until he is satisfied Godfrey is safe.   

Sherlock agrees to accompany Dodd to the Godfrey’s family estate at the beginning of next week. The detective brings along an acquaintance of unspecified identity and occupation with them. After asking Dodd to review Godfrey’s physical condition for the sake of the acquaintance, they enter into Godfrey’s family estate. Godfrey’s father threatens them with police action, but Sherlock quiets him down after writing the nature of Godfrey’s condition on a slip of paper and handing it to them, pointing out that police presence will cause what he is trying to prevent by keeping them away. This gains them an interview to Godfrey himself, who seems glad to see Dodd though somewhat wary of a stranger in the person of Holmes.

Godfrey reveals that after getting shot, he was transported to a hospital populated with lepers. He hoped not to contract the illness, but after returning home he perceived its symptoms were beginning to affect him. The family determined to keep things quiet and had him shut into the attached house. Holmes reveals he deduced this from the commonality of the disease in Africa and Godfrey’s pale skin, which is a side effect of treatments of the disease, as well as details such as the butler's gloves being covered in disinfectant. At this point, Sherlock’s acquaintance appears and reveals that Godfrey’s sickness is not leprosy, but a skin condition that resembles it that may yet be cured. The acquaintance (revealed to be a dermatologist) turns to the detective and credits forces beyond human understanding for this happy coincidence.

Unless otherwise noted, all textual references refer to "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" from the collection: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.(1)

Topics for Discussion

Privacy Rights

Attention is drawn to privacy rights. Colonel Emsworth blocks Dodd’s investigation on the grounds, “every family has its own inner knowledge and its own motive,” and “such inquiries serve no useful purpose, sir, and place us in a delicate and difficult position.” (49) Emsworth declares his son has gone abroad and demands Dodd stay away under the threat of police action. Dodd suspects Godfrey is dead or in trouble, but has to capitulate under these terms. Later, when Sherlock invades the estate with him, the detective concedes that Emsworth has legal priority on his property, though he warns in insisting upon it the Colonel runs the risk of causing the event he fears. Sherlock also provides a summary of conditions under which ‘invalids’ of varying types may live at home during the Victorian period, the sort of the registry they must go through and the supervision they require for their safety and that of others. The narrative's elaboration on struggle between an individual's desire to affirm his friend's well being, a family's compulsion to manage its affairs discreetly, and the public welfare effectively tracks the competing interests debate about privacy rights tends to attract.

  • Is Sherlock's ability to reason through these difficulties to an idyllic conclusion limited to affirming once again powers of reasoning others can't aspire to, or does it make a deeper comment about how every person should approach issues of privacy? 
  • Victorian privacy law is highly tailored specific to different types of 'invalid'. Are either Doyle/Holmes drawing attention to it to illustrate the high degree of sophistication in Victorian society's policy toward 'invalids'? If so, is this observation, or admiration?

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Form is Content

The African sun flooded through the big, cutainless windows, and every detail of the great, bare, whitewashed dormitory stood out hard and clear. In front of me was standing a small, dwarf-like man with a huge, bulbous head, who was jabbering excitedly in Dutch, waving two horrible hands which looked to me like brown sponges. Behind him stood a group of people who seemed to be intensely amused by the situation, but a chill came over me as I looked at them. Not one of them was a normal human being. Every one was twisted or swollen or disfigured in some strange way. The laughter of these monstrosities is was a dreadful thing to her. (61)

Godfrey recounts his first impression of waking up in a leper hospital. The essence of his reminiscence could be summed up as, “Not England.” The sun he sees is not shared across the world, but belongs specifically to ‘Africa’. The first leper he sees is immediately described in terms of a mythical species, ‘dwarf’. The language the leper speaks is ‘Dutch’, and he does not speak it, but ‘jabbers’ it. His hands are compared to objects, and the lepers behind him also lack humane characterization. The perverse merriment they take in Godfrey’s discomfort puts distance between them and the soldier, and not one of them obtains human stature in his eyes. While Doyle later does some degree of justice to lepers in having Godfrey acknowledge they are unfortunate, that is peripheral to their use as a dramatic example of the terrible things that exist outside the Victorian experience.

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Function of Narrator

Holmes replaces Watson as narrator. One of the advantages of this role reversal is that Doyle can experiment with the conventions of the detective genre he has helped create. Holmes notes Watson's tendency to sensationalize their adventures, "pandering to popular taste" rather than restricting himself to the documentation of, "facts and figures," (44) going so far as to claim Watson's characteristic lack of deductive power plays into his strategies. Holmes complains it is hard for him to balance the need for engaging stories with his critical impartiality, so he chooses a case that relies heavily on other people to explain events in personally significant terms. Whereas the details of the foreign adventures of The Speckled-Band's antagonist are left mostly to the imagination, Dodd and Godfrey take the reader with them to an alien land, getting more "stage time" than Irene Adler or Professor Moriarty to elaborate on their experiences and motives. It is not to say that Watson's style is completely self-absorbed, but Holmes' relies more on others peoples' narratives to keep the reader's interest. Indeed, one can argue that is his relationship to Watson. Holmes stays true to his character, playing his cards close to the chest and putting off explaining why he brought along James Saunders until the very end, both to his client and the reader. 

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(1) Conan Doyle, Arthur. "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier." The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. London: Cox and Wyman Ltd, 1974. 44-65. Print.

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