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The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

''The Musgrave Ritual'' is one of Arthur Conan Doyle's personal favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. In this lesson, you will learn about the story's main themes as well as its distinctive stylistic and structural features.

Holmes and Watson in ''The Musgrave Ritual''

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote numerous stories featuring his famous detective Sherlock Holmes, but ''The Musgrave Ritual'' (1893) sticks out as a favorite of both the author and readers. ''The Musgrave Ritual'' begins on a humorous note, with Holmes' assistant Watson telling readers that although Holmes was an extraordinarily careful and observant detective, the home they share was extremely disordered. Watson tells readers how he asked Holmes to clean up the house one night, but Holmes became distracted after seeing a few items that reminded him of the Musgrave case. Holmes then tells the story of the Musgrave Ritual, and the story returns to the original setting only at the very end. This structure makes ''The Musgrave Ritual'' a classic example of the frame story or story-within-a-story with a story being told by Watson containing another story told by Holmes.

Holmes and Watson
Holmes and Watson

This structure also highlights a theme that is present in ''The Musgrave Ritual'' as well as the other Sherlock Holmes stories: the close relationship between Holmes and Watson. The Musgrave Ritual was a case that Holmes covered before he worked with Watson, but the story emphasizes the differences between the two characters: Holmes is described as careful and rational, while he considers Watson more emotional. Nevertheless, the two make an effective pair for the purposes of the cases they pursue.

Holmes' Detective Skills

''The Musgrave Ritual'' also concentrates on showcasing Holmes' detective skills. He is particularly skilled at deductive reasoning or drawing larger conclusions from small pieces of evidence. For instance, in ''The Musgrave Ritual,'' the ''ritual'' is a riddle passed down from generation to generation of the Musgrave family. Reginald, the head of the Musgrave estate, thinks that the riddle is just a meaningless family tradition. Holmes, however, notes details like the phrase ''North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under,'' and deduces that the riddle is actually a set of directions to find something valuable. The Musgrave's butler, Brunton, and maid, Howells, have both disappeared from the estate after Brunton is caught reading the riddle. Holmes concludes that the disappearances are probably related to the hidden item.

Holmes cracks the riddle and follows the directions to a hole covered by a heavy stone. Inside the hole are an empty box, a few coins dating from the reign of King Charles I, some pieces of wood--and Brunton's dead body. Holmes deduces that Brunton asked Howells (his ex) to help lift the stone, and they used pieces of wood to help prop it open while he climbed inside. After Brunton passed the hidden items to her, he was trapped inside after the stone fell back accidentally, or when Howells removed the wood props in a moment of jealousy or greed. Holmes deduces this just by looking at a few items!

The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual
The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

Howells' footprints are found leading to a lake, but when it is dredged, nothing is found but ''a mass of old rusted and discoloured metal and several dull-coloured pieces of pebble or glass.'' To the police, this seems like a dead-end. After Brunton's body is found with the old coins, however, Holmes uses his keen sense of analysis to put two and two together: the metal and glass are actually the damaged crown and jewels of King Charles I, that had been hidden before he was executed. Musgrave confirms Holmes' theory when he tells him one of his ancestors served as an assistant to Charles' son. Holmes presumes that this assistant died before he could explain the riddle.

Society in ''The Musgrave Ritual''

Conan Doyle's story also stresses themes related to the depiction of British social classes. The Sherlock Holmes stories do not give a detailed account of the detective's background. However, we do know that he is educated since he and Reginald attended university together. The Musgraves are an old aristocratic family, with an estate, Hurlstone, and ''a considerable class of servants.'' These servants would ordinarily be considered lower-class and uneducated, in contrast to the aristocrats.

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