The Bachelor in Victorian Literature. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I. Introduction

II. The Victorian Age
- The Role of Men

III. The Bachelor in the Victorian Age

IV. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
- Sherlock Holmes
- Dr. John Watson
- Similarities and differences
- Interaction with women

V. Conclusion

VI. List of Literature

I. Introduction

‘But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgement.’[1]

With these words Sherlock Holmes comments rather derogatorily on the marriage plans of his close friend and fellow bachelor Dr. John Watson when the latter reveals his engagement to Mary Morstan to him. While Watson’s existence as a bachelor is about to end after the novel ‘The Sign of the Four’, Sherlock Holmes never had any intention to change his lifestyle from being a bachelor to become a husband and father. He never was married or engaged in any form and obviously didn’t miss it. It is due to that attitude that the character of Sherlock Holmes became one of the most famous and best known examples of the bachelor in Victorian literature. But what exactly is a bachelor and how was this term defined during the time when the Sherlock Holmes stories were written?

In this term paper I will point out how the life of unmarried men was depicted in Victorian literature and which images and stereotypes arose when it came to the term ‘bachelor’ in general. In order to do this it is essential to take a closer look at the society during the time the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were invented – the end of the 19th century.

Which characteristics were typical for a bachelor of that time except for being an unwed male? In order to show how the bachelors stood out and differed from their married fellows it is necessary to examine the role of Victorian men in general. Which moral values were associated with the life of a bachelor and did they differ from the generally accepted values of the time? What was their status in society?

After this quite general examination I shall take a closer look at the two bachelors invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Were Sherlock and Watson typical bachelors of their time? What were their reasons for being unmarried and how were their attitudes and interactions towards women? Did they simply had no luck with the ladies or were there other reasons for them to be unwed? I will try to answer these questions on the basis of the Sherlock Holmes novels ‘A Study in Scarlet’, ‘The Sign of the Four’ and the short story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’.

II. The Victorian Age

‘The Victorian Age’ or ‘The Victorian Era’ refers to the timespan of Queen Victoria’s reign. The longest regency in British history covered more than sixty years and lasted from June 1837 to January 1901. It was the Golden Age of the British Empire – the largest imperium the world had ever seen. The empire where the sun never set expanded over roughly of the globe and made Britain the most powerful and influential country in the world at the time.

It was the era of gas-lit streets shrouded in the thick, grey fog of countless factory chimneys, the time of stiff and uptight men wearing long black top hats and chokers and pretty, reserved ladies wearing bustles. During this long period of time a large number of developments and inventions were made. On the one hand the reign of Queen Victoria was generally a time of great prosperity and progress. Since it was the time of industrialization, science and technology developed rapidly. The steam engine, the expansion of the gas networks for lighting and heating or the realization of photography are only a few examples for pioneering developments during that time. Charles Darwin published his famous work ‘The Origin of Species’ and several other works of world literature were written, e.g. ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide’ by Robert Lewis Stevenson or ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But on the other hand it was also the time of great misery, exploitation and tremendous class differences between a very thin and very wealthy upper class and a very broad and extremely impoverished working class. Whilst the middle-class earned the most from the developments of the time the working class fell by the wayside. Due to rapid urbanization whole districts of greater cities became hopelessly overcrowded, resulting in slums like the East End of London where thousands of people dwelled like sardines in a tin. The child mortality rate was extremely high and child labour a regular occurrence. The working class was exploited in the countless working houses and factories where the working conditions were hard and hazardous with extremely long working hours up to 12 hours a day. The Victorian Age was a very ambiguous time with great prosperity and absolute poverty going side by side. One had to be lucky to be born in the right social class: ‘The quality of daily life in Victorian England rested upon the underlying structure determined by social class […].’[2]

- The role of men

‘The political and legal power was entirely in the hands of a small minority: men who held property.’[3]

The Victorian Age was the Era of affluent men from the middle and upper classes. Men were undisputedly in charge and the image of how a real man had to be like was well-defined. Men had to be powerful. The man was the patriarch at home – the dominant and superior part in every marriage. He earned the money, controlled and organized the lives of his family members for their benefit and could decide on their behalves. The man was the head of the family and household and superior in all questions connected to these spheres:

‘[…] the home was central to masculinity, […] where the man attained full adult status as a householder.’[4]

But besides all advantages and privileges men had in society as well as in marriage there were also certain expectations and responsibilities they had to fulfill. First of all, men from the middle and upper classes were expected to marry well, which meant they had to marry from their own social class or if possible even higher. When they had managed to get decently married they had to care for the well-being of their wife and children. The man was not only the head of the household who could decide everything on his own, he was furthermore the family’s ‘protector’. Being the protector included earning sufficient money to guarantee and secure a comfortable and carefree life. It was within his responsibility to raise the required money to earn a decent living and to maintain the social status of his family. Women were expected to support their men in every way they could, which usually meant being a good mother and wife and take care of the household. While men made ‘their living and their reputation in the word’[5] women were expected to be grateful towards their men, stay at home and ‘tend the hearth and raise the children.’[6]

Nonetheless, ‘The Victorians established the ‘common sense’ of a proposition that, to be fully human and fully masculine, men must be active and sentient participant in domestic life.’[7]

Consolidated men had a dominant and powerful position within the Victorian society but there were also certain obligations and responsibilities connected to these advantages which they had to fulfill and keep up with.


[1] Doyle, Arthur: The Sign of the Four, Penguin Classics, p.142

[2] Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England, 1996, p. 13

[3] Mitchell, Sally: Daily Life in Victorian England, 1996, p. 14

[4] Tosh, John: A Man’s Place – Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, 1999, p. 2

[5] Tosh, John: A Man’s Place – Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, 1999, p. 1

[6] Tosh, John: A Man’s Place – Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, 1999, p. 1

[7] Tosh, John: A Man’s Place – Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, 1999, p. 2

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Bachelor in Victorian Literature. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
University of Paderborn  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Hauptseminar: The Bachelor in British and American Literature and Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Darstellung und Bedeutung des 'Bachelors' in victorianischer Literatur, bespielhaft aufgezeigt anhand der Charakere Sherlock Holmes und Dr. Watson in Sir Arthus Conan Doyles Werken 'Eine Studie in Scharlachrot', 'Das Zeichen der Vier' und 'Ein Skandal in Böhmen'.
bachelor, victorian, literature, sherlock, holmes, watson
Quote paper
Selina Schuster (Author), 2012, The Bachelor in Victorian Literature. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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