How to Think Like Sherlock? Try Literary Theory

What makes Sherlock so great (the BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch formulation, at least) is his [often rude, but, you know, endearing] insistence on not accepting the meaning of what he sees around him as simply “given.”

On the job, Sherlock’s peers (if he even has peers?) are usually surprised by his conclusions because they’re based on evidence that was previously masked by its seemingly banal appearance or by the presuppositions of its examiners.

Case in point:

[Trigger Warning: brief depiction of a corpse and discussion of his possible suicide/murder]

Like all detectives, Sherlock is a reader of texts. For him, the whole experienced world is full of—perhaps even constituted bySIGNS made up of signifier (what appears on the surface) and signified (what it brings to mind; its meaning).

But Sherlock is very aware that signs can have more than one signified. In the clip above, the signifier of a dead man in a locked apartment is seemingly understood to mean a suicide. Watson and the detective-inspector, Dimmock, both accept this sign’s dominant meaning as given, even obvious:

Dimmock: We’re obviously looking at a suicide.

Watson: That does seem the only explanation of all the facts.

Sherlock: Wrong. It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts. You’ve got a solution you like, but you’re choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it.

At the heart of perhaps every detective story is semiotics, the examination of signs and signification. As defined by semiotician and literary theorist Roland Barthes, the field of semiotics takes in, in addition to language of all sorts, “images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these” to examine and interrogate their cultural content or meaning.

Acutely aware that signs are polysemous (having multiple meanings), Sherlock also knows that culture and ideology—expressed as “common sense”—work together to guide us in choosing certain meanings over others. A dead man in a locked apartment is a text that, as Sherlock points out, can be read in multiple ways. But the meaning that arises dominantly in this case is: suicide.


If all images, gestures and objects of everyday life have content, conveying some culturally constructed meaning or signification, then Sherlock is deeply suspicious of whatever content arises first.

You could say Sherlock is a literary theorist.

Yale University Professor Paul Fry has defined literary theory as “a negative movement of thought mapping the ways in which it is legitimate to be suspicious of communication.”

Let’s break that down.

“a negative movement of thought”

“Negative” here doesn’t mean grumpy cat. Think of it in this context as meaning NEGATE-IVE.


Sherlock can’t get any more negate-ive than when he flatly replies with “Wrong,” to his comrades whom he sees as misinterpreting the sign to be “obviously” signifying a suicide. If interpretation of the world-as-texts operates in either the mode of YES/AFFIRMATIVE or NO/CRITICAL mode, then Sherlock most often operates in the NO mode. When Sherlock sees a sign communicated to him, bringing with it a certain dominant meaning, his first reaction is to pause (however briefly) in favor of a more critical movement of thought: a NEGATE-IVE one.

So too with literary theory. When given the choice of taking as given the apparent meaning of a sign, theory says, “Hold on a sec.” Applied literary theory is therefore called “criticism,” or, alternatively, “nope.”


“mapping the ways in which it is legitimate”

Sherlock, like literary theory, doesn’t just willy-nilly criticize stuff (though it may feel like they do). Theory is about figuring out the ways in which texts can have meaning, and coming up with a theory for how and why they do.

Theorists have come up with all sorts of ways in which they argue it is legitimate or reasonable to go about interpreting texts and describing how they work: hermeneutics, formalism, Marxism and structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, semiotics, postcolonialism—these are all sets of theories explaining, among other things, how and why humans communicate the way they do as well how and why meaning is created, influenced, distorted, and recreated in the process.


In other words, these theories are sorta like maps representing certain understandings of communication’s inner topology, its outlines, contours, roads, borders, and blank spots.

“to be suspicious of communication”

So now we come full circle. Sherlock is suspicious of appearances.

But he’s also suspicious of (not to mention incredibly impatient with) how other people interpret those appearances, in the dialectic between the interpreter and the interpreted.


A semiotician/theorist understands that language and meaning don’t just emerge naturally out of objects and gestures and images; we construct both the sign and its meaning together—socially. And if meaning is constructed, then it can be deconstructed, distorted, obstructed, and/or misconstrued by both those proliferating it and interpreting it.

Sherlock is suspicious because he knows what all GETS IN THE WAY of coming to “the bottom of things.” Likewise, literary theory is concerned with how such elements as medium, thought, knowledge, class, power, and even speech itself influence and intrude in the apprehension of meaning. It interrogates what we normally take for granted about communication in all its forms.

As Fry adds to his definition, literary theory can be thought of as a “counterforce to that which is commonly supposed to be true, posited as true, [or] spoken as true.” But, importantly, this endeavor shouldn’t be taken as simple skepticism or an effort to reject truth itself; rather, it’s a critical and earnest attempt to expose it where it may be obscured under appearances.

And though it’s true that Sherlock’s social skills aren’t the greatest, that’s what he’s doing, too. And anyway, we all should probably cut some slack for the high-functioning sociopaths in our lives.


Due to some feedback, I thought I’d provide a few resources for those wanting to learn more about theory and/or about specific theories and their applications.

  • Shmoop is a fun resource for getting a quick-and-dirty introduction to the main literary theories and theorists. On the “Literary Criticism” page, scroll down to “Schools of Theory.” (Semiotics is the main one I focused on here.)
  • TheLitCritGuy is an anonymous blogger from the UK doing REALLY GREAT writing on literary theory. Check out his blog and please do follow him on Twitter @TheLitCritGuy.
  • Professor Fry’s class, “Introduction to Theory of Literature” is high quality and totally free to watch on YouTube or listen to on iTunes. Additionally, you can download and read the edited transcripts here. Without any literature background, it may be challenging, but it’s very much worth taking the time to go through it.

Any other resources you know of? Let me know in the comments.



2 thoughts on “How to Think Like Sherlock? Try Literary Theory”

  1. I was thinking, if Sherlock Holmes was a non-fictional character, at first I was thinking that he might get half of his cases right and half of his cases wrong, but I think that was a bogus thought process (in hindsight). I was thinking that perhaps it is just a suicide, or perhaps the simplest answer is more often the correct one, and that Sherlock would constantly allow outliers to lead his deduction rather than the trunk of the tree evidence and common sense. But the more I thought about it, that idea kind of fell apart. Sherlock, even a non-fictional version, would likely attack the assumption but if every attack against the simplistic thought was not sticking he would, via the process, determine that yes, it is as society would assume, in this case. Anyways, just wanted to share. 🙂 Would you agree, or do you think that a non-fictional Holmes and his extra-sensitive deduction could be led astray by random outlier conditions occuring at the same time? Or would he be willing to see things in the simplest sense (as they most often are) if his process led him there?


    1. Interesting–yeah, hard to say about the real world. The BBC Sherlock’s reasoning, I learned while researching this, is actually ABDUCTIVE, not deductive. “Abduction is a form of logical inference that goes from data description of something to a hypothesis that accounts for the reliable data and seeks to explain relevant evidence.”

      Sherlock’s reasoning is almost a superpower in that show… so I’m skeptical of there being the cognitive possibility of a real-world Sherlock. (Of course, a hypothetical real-world Sherlock is still by definition a fictional Sherlock…).

      BUT if there were…. I don’t know. I bet he’d still do well. I mean, even the fictional Sherlock has his false leads… 😀


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