“"Experience," said Holmes, laughing.”Indirectly it may be of value, you know; you have only to put it into words to gain the reputation of being excellent company for the remainder of your existence."
—“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”
One of the more fascinating examples of Holmesian literary scholarship concerns “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.” Writing in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1997, Jacques Batail notes the marked similarities between Holmes’ role in the story and the development of Freud’s “talking cure.” In “Engineer’s Thumb,” Watson, tending to a client who has presented with a severed digitus primus, notes with some alarm that the man has undergone some severe mental trauma and as a result is quite hysterical.Watson, after hearing a bit of the man’s story, “refers” his client to Holmes, who, like Freud, without leaving the sitting room at 221B, keenly interviews the man.
As discussed before, Conan Doyle was likely familiar with Freud’s early medical work, but the interesting point of Batail’s contention is that “Engineer’s Thumb” was written in 1892. Reference to the “talking cure” and the nascent writings of psychoanalysis from both Freud and Josef Breuer were not to appear until 1893, and at this time only in Viennese medical journals. The book containing the famous case study of “Anna O.,” Studien über Hysterie was not to be published until 1895. Moreover, one of the most tantalizing elements of Batail’s article concerns a later conceptual development of Freud’s. In an essay from 1919, Freud discusses the idea of the uncanny (unheimlich) as a literary condition in which the ordinary is made somehow strange and unfamiliar. This condition is most certainly an apt description of the events befalling the wounded engineer and certainly the psychic distress and paranoia that descend upon him. Writing, as it were, within the “thriller” genre, Conan Doyle may have sought to incorporate elements of the fantastical and vaguely threatening already found in writers like Poe, but also in the subject of Freud’s essay, E. T. A. Hoffman, whose 1816 story Der Sandmann, which had received a celebrated translation into English by John Oxenford, who anthologized the story in his Tales from the German in 1844. Following Batail’s psychoanalytical interpretation, whether Conan Doyle was directly inspired by Hoffmann or not, there is more than a passing resemblance between the events and mood of “Engineer’s Thumb” and what Freud would come to call the uncanny.
Did Conan Doyle’s gentleman detective anticipate the revolutionary advances in psychology that were shortly to occur on the Continent? Did Holmes practice a kind of psychoanalysis on his clients, enabling him to make such brilliant deductions? A closer reading of “Engineer’s Thumb” suggests not. On the contrary, much of the similarity between Sherlock’s sofa and Freud’s proverbial couch are largely coincidental, and the differences between the methodologies are vast. For instance, in stark contrast to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Holmes’s methods and the factual bases for them are quite transparent in “Engineer’s Thumb.” There is no free association involved, no digressions, and no return of a repressed detail that unlocks a greater mystery. There are limitations, of course, between what the client knows and what Holmes deduces, but, as “Engineer’s Thumb” shows us, these are carefully arranged facts, not fragments (or figments) of the unconscious, that must be explored and uncovered.