The Adventure of the Cardboard Box: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

''The Adventure of the Cardboard Box'' is a Sherlock Holmes short story. Although the case itself is simple and solved quickly by Sherlock, he provides a step-by-step explanation of the steps he took to solve the case. It provides unique insight to Sherlock's logical methods.

The Box

Although the plot of ''The Adventure of the Cardboard Box'' revolves around a cardboard box, it ends with an unanswerable question. Sherlock is mystified by the vicious circle of life. He wonders ''what object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?'' There isn't any intrinsic meaning in this repetitive cycle. It continues because people have a hard time breaking particular habits. Emotions and learned behaviors quite frequently tend to ignore logic and reason.

Sherlock becomes involved in this case of the yellow cardboard box at the request of Scotland Yard. A Miss Susan Cushing receives a package in the mail. It is wrapped in brown paper, and tied with string that Sherlock notices has a coating of tar. The box is filled with salt, and buried in the salt are two human ears. Miss Cushing has no idea who would send such a hideous package to her, or why. Scotland Yard is equally mystified, so detective Lestrade asks Sherlock Holmes if he would mind lending assistance.


Sherlock and Watson arrive at Miss Cushing's residence and examine the box and its contents. Sherlock notices that ''the ears are not a pair.'' He also determines that whoever sent this packet did not do so as a practical joke, which is how Scotland Yard initially views it. Sherlock concludes that the ears were removed after the victims were murdered. For Sherlock, the question is why these ears were mailed to Miss Cushing. He decides to ask her a few questions.

Miss Cushing explains that she has already spoken to the police. Sherlock reassures her that he will not take up much more of her time. He asks if she has any sisters, having already noticed a picture of her with two other women. Miss Cushing answers that she has two sisters, and one of them, Sarah, used to live with her. The other sister, Mary, is married to Jim Browner, who is ''a steward of a Liverpool boat.'' With this information, Sherlock tells Watson that the case is solved.

Sherlock's Explanation

Sherlock sends a telegram to an acquaintance in Liverpool to confirm information about Jim Browner, but for the most part declares that the case is solved. Watson is astounded at Sherlock's ability to analyze the clues and formulate a logical sequence of events. Sherlock proceeds to explain to Watson how he analyzes the evidence when he begins a case. In this instance, he begins with the ears and the question of why they were sent to Miss Susan Cushing.

For starters, the string on the packaging is ''of the quality which is used by sail-makers aboard ship.'' Next, both the ears are pierced. Since one ear belongs to a male, this quality is ''so much more common among sailors.'' Also, the shape and form of an ear is ''quite distinctive and differs from all other ears.'' The ear belonging to the female bears a strong resemblance to the shape and form of Susan Cushing's. This leads Sherlock to the conclusion that one of the victims is a blood relative of Susan.

Since Sarah previously shared her address with Susan, the package was meant for her. Therefore, one of the ears belongs to the third sister Mary. Jim Browner murdered her and the other victim. Sherlock sends Lestrade to make the arrest, after which Lestrade sends a message of thanks to Sherlock, noting that this case was ''an extremely simple one.'' It is only simple because Sherlock makes it appear that way, especially after he explains his logical progression through his observations and the evidence.

The Confession

The story doesn't end with Sherlock's explanation. Jim Browner offers his confession of events. He explains what led him to murder Mary and her male companion. Jim was happily married to Mary, until her sister Sarah arrived to stay with them. When her advances on Jim are rebuffed, she turns Mary against him. She essentially destroys their marriage when she introduces Mary to Alec Fairbairn. Their friendship creates immense jealousy in Jim. He forbids any further contact with Alec.

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