Posted by: siobhananderson | September 28, 2010

Holmes and the mask

After reading several of Conan Doyle’s short stories I’ve noticed an intriguing connection between several stories that share not only  an element of disguise, but more specifically the use of the mask. In both The Yellow Face and The Man with the Twisted Lip the mystery is solved through a discovery of false identity, a discovery initiated by the ripping away of a mask from a face.

With all of our discussions involving portraiture and the way paintings and photos both seek to conceal and reveal, it is no surprise that Conan Doyle uses a similar technique in the role of the mask.

The mask in The Yellow Face and The Man with the Twisted Lip provokes a mystery of two personalities maintained by one single character. Doyle seems fascinated by this idea of “double identity” and the unreliability of one’s ability to simply see and interpret. With Doyle we can no longer simply rely on Watson or Holmes’ ability to recognize another character for who they really are—no—there is the swift action of the ripping off of the mask, the peeling away of the layers in order to see the truth nakedly.

Holmes reveals the identity of Mrs. Munro's hidden daughter

Holmes rips away the mask revealing the true identity of the beggar Boone

The role of the mask in these stories reminds me quite a bit of the mysteries that are played out in Dickens’ Bleak House. For example with the portrait of Lady Dedlock (a woman with what one could call a “dual identity”) the painting shows only one side of her, her role as a dutiful and lovely wife to Sir Leicester. However, this painting is simply a mask, it reveals easily and covers almost completely any links to her past life. This link however is discovered by Mr. Guppy and later Detective Bucket through peeling away the layers of her past and eventually ripping away the mask–revealing her affair with Mr. Nemo and the resulting child.

It seems to me as though Victorian Visual Culture is truly obsessed in part with these notions of concealment and of truth-discovery. Photos and portraiture and masks are all interesting complications and lenses through which to interpret this obsession and I am looking forward to finishing up a few more of Holme’s adventures.


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