Introversion 101: The Trouble With Sherlock

I spent this weekend at Ad Astra, a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/etc. convention, and somehow, I ended up on six panels.  The first and the last, which technically had nothing to do with each other, have set me thinking.  The first panel was “Introversion is not a Bad Word”; the last was “So Much Sherlock.”

Introversion has been coming up a lot lately in various articles and books, as well as a TED talk by Susan Caine.  People are beginning to observe that introversion is not the defect many have assumed it to be for the last century or so; introverts simply have a different way of approaching the world and generating ideas about it.  The old Myers-Briggs cliche is that extroverts get their energy from social interaction, while introverts get theirs from being alone.   Cliche or not, it’s a pretty good definition.   As the people on the panel observed on Friday evening, extroverts also tend to develop their ideas by talking, while introverts develop theirs by thinking.  The results are the same in both cases, but the extroverts end up praised as indulging in “constructive conversation” and being “proactive,” while introverts are criticised as anti-social, not team players, and even slow on the uptake.  In a world dominated by extroverts, introverts are treated almost as handicapped.

My first panel dealt with this frustrating social situation.  My last was devoted to a discussion of Sherlock Holmes and the current revival of Holmes-focused stories.  One topic that came up more than once was our apparent need, especially in North America, to diagnose Holmes and other Holmes-like characters with brain damage or some sort of mental illness.

I have no problem with telling stories about people with mental illnesses; in fact, I think there should be more such stories and much less of a tendency to treat mentally ill people as diseased and contagious.  However, there’s a difference between a story of a person who happens to have a mental illness and a story of a brilliant but eccentric man or woman whose eccentricities are automatically explained away as something that in a less useful person–one who didn’t solve crimes every Monday evening at 8:00 p.m., for instance–would need to be cured or controlled.  Even if we just stick to television, we find this impulse everywhere.  In the BBC series Sherlock, some characters describe Sherlock as a psychopath; Sherlock calls himself a sociopath.  The title character of Monk has OCD, Walter of The Finder is brain-damaged, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is broadly hinted to have Asperger’s, and House of House is occasionally diagnosed by other characters with Asperger’s or sociopathy.  Temperance Brennan of Bones went through an extremely traumatic childhood and can probably been seen as suffering from PTSD.  It would not surprise me if in the pending American show Elementary, which transplants the Holmes story to New York, Holmes were portrayed as having something the matter with his brain.

On the Holmes panel, someone observed that Holmes wasn’t a sociopath; he was an introvert.  In both the original stories and the BBC series–even, in fact, in the Guy Ritchie movies–Sherlock Holmes goes inside his own head to reason out the answers to the problems with which he is presented.   His powers of deduction work because he does, in fact, think and act like an introvert.  A good contrast (again sticking with TV, since we’re already there) would be the Doctor of the British series Doctor Who, currently being produced by Stephen Moffat, who is also responsible for Sherlock.  In at least his last two incarnations, the Doctor has been the epitome of an extrovert; he is a genius who needs to talk everything out, and he draws his energy from his relationships.  Holmes is the opposite; in the original stories, he frequently keeps his deductions to himself until the big reveal at the end, and though he does have a sort of symbiotic relationship with Watson, he usually has his ideas sorted out before he confides in his one friend.  He doesn’t tend to launch into long, rambling speculations during which he has a series of revelations.  The revelations happen before he opens his mouth.

I wish we could just let Holmes be Holmes.  Yes, he’s outside the norm.  He’s eccentric.  He’s interested in the wrong things; he can differentiate between different types of tobacco ash but doesn’t know that the earth travels around the sun.  His fascination with puzzle solving borders on obsession.  But it’s his position outside the norm that allows him to be as effective as he is at what he does, and arguably, it’s why so many readers angrily cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand when Arthur Conan Doyle killed him off.  Without his eccentricities, Holmes would just be a very smart man with a cocaine addiction.  Moreover, without his introversion, Holmes would not be able to solve crimes at all.

Is it really necessary for eccentricity or introversion to be explained away as something that could, in an ideal world, be “fixed”?  Holmes marginalises himself; why do we have the urge to portray him as someone marginalised by disease or defect?  Does the impulse to stand apart even have to be a defect?  As Caine says in her TED talk, for millennia, we have revered people who remove themselves from civilisation and go out into the wilderness.  We call them mystics, sages, prophets.  I would take it further; look at folklore and mythology, and you can see that we also call them heroes.  The hero is the one who goes off alone into the dark.  There are very few stories about heroes who are the life of the party.  Yet nowadays, being the life of the party is “healthy.”  Internality makes one a little bit weird.  It’s more important to talk than to listen.  Mental illness is clearly the only explanation for the urge to go off alone into the dark.

Let the brilliant, eccentric problem solvers of fiction have both their brilliance and their eccentricity, please.  Why shouldn’t they be different because they want to be, not because they have to be due to some tragic accident of genetics?  In a way, “eccentricity” is only another word for “creativity”; the eccentrics of the world just look at things from their own beautifully wacky perspectives.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason we shouldn’t let them do so.  If we don’t want to live in a universe full of little clones who never deviate from the norm, we’ll stop trying to find something fundamentally wrong with Sherlock Holmes.

8 thoughts on “Introversion 101: The Trouble With Sherlock

  1. Here, here. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, though more from a personal point of view. I have been specifically told twice now that I came in second at job inteviews to more extroverted candidates. In one of those cases, I was also told that I was more qualified for the job…I just wasn’t as outgoing as the other person. The extroverts are seen as more successful, friendlier, and normal. I love the BBC Sherlock, but why can’t he just be unsocial? Why can’t House be a great doctor who happens to dislike or be uncomfortable around people? Why must movie characters living way out on their own be hiding from some horrible experience rather than simply happy alone? Why must something always be wrong with the introverts? Let Darcy be painfully shy…and nothing more. Like you say, there is nothing wrong with disabled heroes…but why must the choices only be “extrovert” or “mental?”

  2. On a number of occasions I’ve sat in meetings and had people point out students as being “quiet” or “introverted” and that we should be monitoring them. It really made (and makes) me angry. I must admit my responses were blatantly rude at times. Wrt one particular student I pointed out that I personally spoke with him all the time, and he seemed perfectly happy, but oh no – he wasn’t what they wanted in a student. Personally I don’t get why a student that does well, never has wild parties and is pleasant and polite is someone you don’t want – but for some people there was a problem there.

    I heard of a company that was doing personality profiles of applicants and only hiring introverts because they would be work-a-holics and “have no life”. That’s just so offensive to me. Personally I think I have a pretty damned good life, and do plenty of them outside work. I just got no interest in hosting a party for my 100 closest friends as a fun way to fill out the weekend.

  3. I love this article! And the comments so far, too. I only disagree that Sherlock Holmes (and I am referring to Doyle’s, as analysing each incarnation separately would take a bit of time) is interested in the “wrong” things; the things that he is interested in are perfect for him.

  4. Hey Kari,

    This was a great post.
    I don’t recall if Sherlock ever calls himself a sociopath in the books.
    In the show, he is more manipulative.
    Anyway, while I have enjoyed the BBC show so far, they have made some changes which I am disappointed by.
    What did you think of ‘the woman’ in the second season of Sherlock? I have to say I was annoyed.


  5. Hi, Preethi. Nice to hear from you. The word “sociopath” didn’t exist until 1930, so Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes most decidedly did not call himself one (in fact, Conan Doyle himself died in 1930).

    I don’t particularly like the way Irene Adler was handled, but I do prefer that portrayal to Hollywood’s. The story “A Scandal in Bohemia” makes it pretty clear that Holmes’s fascination with Adler derives from the fact that she’s the only woman who’s ever beaten him; it’s not sexual in nature. In that story, in fact, Watson comes as close to describing Holmes as “asexual” as he can without actually using the word (which did, in fact, exist by that point, though purely in the context of biology, not human behaviour).

    Admittedly, Stephen Moffat, one of the two creators of the show, is not known for his nuanced and sensitive portrayal of female characters.

  6. Hey Kari,

    I read West of Bathurst regularly. Glad to see some more information on Casey. 🙂

    I agree the BBC version is better than the movies but I am still a bit annoyed.
    As you said, Irene Adler beat Sherlock at his own game. She was smart and didn’t need anyone’s help.
    That is what made the story fun. I had read the story again recently which made watching the BBC episode
    a bit annoying. If the woman hadn’t been Irene Adler, then I would have like it
    because everything else in the episode was great.

    I think I like the first season the best.
    The second season seems rushed.


  7. It got to the point where there sort of had to be more information on Casey. Of course, it isn’t EVERYTHING.

    I’m not sure anyone has ever handled Irene Adler right. Personally, I think it would be great if she were simply never seen; she could just be this shadowy presence beating Holmes from behind the scenes. But no one can exist sticking her in the film and having her go sexy all over everything. Then, almost invariably, Holmes bests her. The point of Irene Adler is that Holmes DOESN’T best her, damn it.

    I actually liked the rest of the second season, especially the last episode. It’s based on one of the most controversial of the stories (Conan Doyle’s fans nearly lynched him after the release of “The Adventure of the Final Problem”), and I think it’s handled pretty well.

  8. The Granada version was a good portrayal of Adler–although the idea of doing a “Rebecca” with the character certainly has some appeal.

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