Posted by: melissayang | September 29, 2010

more on the mask: towards a dissection of disguises

I was also intrigued by the number of times Conan Doyle employed the device of physical disguise in his stories, and was in the midst of creating this post when I noticed Siobhan’s entry on “Holmes and the Mask.” I am going ahead and post this as a separate entry; while we begin on the same premise, our focus/analysis veers in different directions. Rather than discussing the patterns of peeling away the mask to uncover truth, I am interested in taking a step back and working with the layers of and implications behind the physical disguises. First, in the stories we read, some disguises were found in:

–          “A Scandal in Bohemia,” where the King of Bohemia enters wearing a “black vizard mask,” under the pseudonym “Count  Von Kramm” to present his case to Holmes, followed by Holmes himself playing out the role of injured pedestrian to gain entrance into Irene Adler’s house, and solve the case.

–           “A Case of Identity,” where Mr. Windibank creates fictional alter-ego, the missing Mr. Hosmer Angel.

–           “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” where Holmes appears to be an old man at the opium den in the beginning of the tale, and later on, when the missing Neville St. Clair is revealed to be dressed and made up as professional beggar Hugh Boone.

–          “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” where the hidden child has her literal mask peeled off by Holmes.

Each  mask in its respective case (with the possible exception of the child) is a disguise donned intentionally, with conscious deliberation by the person who wears it. Each disguise adds dimension – however artificial – to the character who wears it. This issue of character dimension is interesting to me because both the heroes, Holmes and Watson, seem rather static through the run of stories. Holmes is infallible to the point of inhuman, and Watson is earnest and stable in his role of partner and dedicated scribe. The only times Holmes appears to be weak is when he is in disguise, and naturally, this is when he may be most powerful, because his suspect is not aware of his presence.

The artifice of the scenarios intrigues me, because it is, in some way, how the stories work: each premise is artificial and well-crafted to allow the reader to embark on an adventure with a sense of security in the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes will solve the case in the end. I guess the awareness that each story is artificial allows not only the story itself but the elements within it to be quite theatrical – with literal masks or cosmetics, and costumes as elements of disguise. Is the disguise only superficial, though, and used to further the narrative? Originally I had planned to address this topic of falsified appearances as false identities, but realized “identity” was probably not the right word to use, because of how superficial the scenarios – but because the disguises are consciously selected, they must say something about the characters, right? Do the disguises complicate the characters themselves, or are they just ways of changing how they appear on the surface? Does this even matter when looking at these stories,  or am I unnecessarily complicating these rather light-hearted, straightforward tales? Not having read many Victorian detective stories, I am unfamiliar with the trends the genre follows, and I am wondering whether physical disguises and masks are common in these tales, in general.


  1. There’s also the the disguise in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” While Holmes believes that his clergy disguise will be more than adequate, he’s unable to see beyond a hat to recognize a face that was supposedly “the face of the most beautiful of women”. I really like your point that we are at our most powerful when we are in disguise, though perhaps it’s these simple scenarios that allow for us to enjoy these characters. In mini artificial situations these hyper-complex dual identities can be light entertainment and not literary undertakings like Bleak House.

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