Conan Doyle versus James Joyce

Arthur Conan Doyle wants to surprise the reader in his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, whereas James Joyce in “Eveline” actually does; this critical essay examines short stories from a pedestrian writer and a great writer. Conan Doyle’s story plods along predictably, taking up many more pages, where Joyce’s text employs literary techniques, like the manipulation of temporality, to take the reader to unexpected places, relatively quickly.

Conan Doyle frames his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, as Watson recounts his Sherlock Holmes case notes, “of the seventy odd cases”. (Doyle 144) This device is used in the hope of building expectation in the reader, through the use of introductory descriptive terms such as “unusual….fantastic….promise of secrecy… more terrible than truth…” (Doyle 144) Conan Doyle employs Dr Watson as our fixed, internalised focalizer and first person narrator, to tell us the story. The narrative discourse then introduces the main character, Sherlock Holmes, by means of the recounted dialogue between our narrator Dr Watson and Holmes. ““Very sorry to knock you up, Watson,” said he…” (Doyle 145) This form of narrative discourse, recounted dialogue between the principal characters is maintained throughout the entire short story, interwoven only with occasional recounted direct observations by Watson the narrator. “The lady gave a violent start…” (Doyle 146) The constraints imposed by this style of writing, in this instance, divorce the reader from having any real empathy for the characters and thus reduce suspense; we are always outside of the character’s feelings looking in.

Conan Doyle versus James Joyce

In contrast to this, the Joyce text, “Eveline”, has an anonymous, omniscient, third person narrator telling us what the internalised focalizer, the eponymous character Eveline, senses and feels. (Abbott 73) Joyce uses temporality within the short story to generate suspense by withholding crucial information about the importance of timing to the unfolding of events. The story begins and we are informed, “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.” (Joyce 37) Thus it is evening, within the chronology of storytime, and this remains the main point of temporal reference until the very last part of the story. The character Eveline, then, through an analepsis, reminisces about her childhood and the reader is transported back in time. (Abbott 165) Important information is given to the reader in this flashback, “Her father was not so bad then… Everything changes.” (Joyce 37) We learn that Eveline’s mother is dead and that much has changed in the character’s conception of what was home.

These internalised musings of our focalizer, Eveline, continue, and the important thing to note in terms of how information is presented to the reader, is the lack of urgency in storytime, and the amount of narrative time it takes to convey all this background information about the character’s life. For five pages of text we are inside Eveline’s thoughts about her family, her home, her boyfriend Frank. Joyce introduces some intertextuality when Eveline remembers Frank taking her to see The Bohemian Girl, an opera composed by Michael Balfe, which has at its heart the themes of childhood and home. Eveline vacillates in her evaluation of these memories and their meaning to her. “She tried to weigh each side of the question.” (Joyce 38)

James Joyce suddenly shifts the setting and we are in the midst of the gripping final act ‘the decision’, which Eveline has been meandering toward in her musings. The action has been transposed to the busy station, it is all now very real, “He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her…” (Joyce 42) The free indirect discourse within the character is now counter posed by Frank’s insistent commands coming from outside her.

“- Come!
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart….
– Come!
No! No! No!
– Eveline! Evvy!” (Joyce 42)

This has the effect, upon the reader, of leaving a dream and being awakened in the middle of a crisis. Joyce has hidden the urgency of the situation through his use of temporality, storytime and narrative time giving few clues to how things are going to end. It is a powerful ending, “She set her white face to him, like a helpless animal.” (Joyce 43)

In comparison, the plot, or ordered structure of information provided to the reader, within the Conan Doyle text, begins with the appearance of a distressed character, called Helen Stoner. (Brooks 254) Stoner tells her story, containing elements of terror and tragedy, to our detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, and his associate and chronicler, Dr Watson. There are strong elements of the ‘hero saves heroine’ masterplot at work here. (Abbott 19) Stoner’s story fills in the necessary background information, which the reader requires to begin to make some sense of the story, and to hopefully infuse the characters with meaning, so that we will care about what happens to them. Stoner introduces the reader to the story’s villain, Dr Grimesby Roylott, a name which contains the words ‘grim’ and ‘grime’. Conan Doyle’s use of language suggests impending violence, as we are told that this man, “beat his native butler to death”, in India, and is, “absolutely uncontrollable in his anger”. (Doyle 147-148) The next important kernel of information provided by the text is the mysterious death of the sister, just prior to her impending marriage, and this sets the ‘who, why and how dunnit’ puzzles for both Sherlock Holmes and the reader. (Abbott 22) Vague clues and red herrings are scattered throughout this part of the text with references to “a band of gipsies”, “The Speckled band!” and the reader is only given partial information. (Rimmon-Keenan 126-7) (Doyle 150) The story builds to an exciting climax with our heroes, risking their lives, saving the heroine and causing the death of the villain. The reader is given closure with a summing up of all the ‘hows’, but no real surprises outside of the usual detective story formula.

It is, however, the temporal predictability, and the failure to get the reader to truly feel the plight of the characters within the Conan Doyle story, which sets these texts apart in terms of their author’s literary skills. Joyce takes the reader inside Eveline, imbuing this conflicted character with tangible feelings, and then surprises us with the story’s outcome, because we really care about her. The Conan Doyle narrative remains on a far too predictably linear timeline, as it approaches its le dénouement, and we are always at arm’s length from the characters to suffer any real suspense.

©Robert Hamilton


Abbott, H. Porter, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 2008.
Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Doyle, Arthur, Conan, The Adventures and Memories of Sherlock Holmes, Vintage, London, 2009.
Joyce, James, Dubliners, Jonathon Cape, London, 1967.
Rimmon-Keenan, Shlomith, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, (2nd ed), Routledge, London and New York, 2002.