The Adventure of the Specked Band: A Psychoanalytic Reading

“It is from these dream-thoughts, the [latent content], and not from a dream’s manifest content that we disentangle its meaning,” wrote Freud in his guide to interpreting dreams.  Literature can be read and understood using the same guidelines.  Recognize that a text’s “manifest content,” its explicit certainties, is essentially a holding cell for the text’s true meaning, its “manifest content,” Freud would say, it is then “our business to discover [true meaning] by comparing the original[, the actual hard-text,] and the translation[, its hidden subtleties].”  In other words, the dead center, obvious pictures are of lesser meaningful value than the story’s hidden intricacies.  Start Digging. 


On their home from Stroke Moron after the death of Dr. Roylott, Holmes shares with Watson how he came to his conclusions:

 I can only claim the merit that I instantly reconsidered my position when, however, it became clear to me that whatever danger threatened an occupant of the room could not come either from the window or the door. My attention was speedily drawn, as I have already remarked to you, to this ventilator, and to the bell-rope which hung down to the bed. The discovery that this was a dummy, and that the bed was clamped to the floor, instantly gave rise to the suspicion that the rope was there as a bridge for something passing through the hole and coming to the bed. The idea of a snake instantly occurred to me, and when I coupled it with my knowledge that the doctor was furnished with a supply of creatures from India, I felt that I was probably on the right track. The idea of using a form of poison which could not possibly be discovered by any chemical test was just such a one as would occur to a clever and ruthless man who had had an Eastern training. The rapidity with which such a poison would take effect would also, from his point of view, be an advantage. It would be a sharp-eyed coroner, indeed, who could distinguish the two little dark punctures which would show where the poison fangs had done their work. Then I thought of the whistle. Of course he must recall the snake before the morning light revealed it to the victim. He had trained it, probably by the use of the milk which we saw, to return to him when summoned. He would put it through this ventilator at the hour that he thought best, with the certainty that it would crawl down the rope and land on the bed. It might or might not bite the occupant, perhaps she might escape every night for a week, but sooner or later she must fall a victim. (

Taken at face-value, the bulk of the above text is dedicated to detailing the procession of events that led to Holmes’ discovery of the source of the girl’s mysterious death, from one peculiarity to the next.  He shares with Watson why the snake seemed to him the most befitting man for the job: Physically, it’s slim enough to pass through a vent and agile enough to climb down the bell-rope.  Next, it executes quickly and leaves little traceable evidence.  The small milk saucer would be just the right fit for an animal of its size, and the doctor, well-versed in Eastern training, is certainly familiar with the Indian snake.

However, it is the concealed latent content that provides the true meaning to this piece.  The snake presents itself as the perfect tool not because of its length and width and composite dimensions, but because it is the symbol of a professional dedicated to saving lives at all costs.  Roylott is a trained doctor, and, ironically, a clever murderer as well.  He manipulates the symbol of his profession and uses it to harm instead of, as it should be, to save.

The suitable symbolic qualities of the snake are masked by its physical traits, but the cognizant reader must explore that which lives between the lines as it relates to the actual text.  Snakes are good for slithering through tights spaces, but also for a dramatic display of irony.  A perfect case of more-than-meets-the-eye.

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