Oranges and Geese: Metaphors and Plot Devices in the Canon

By Robin Rowles

Fruit and geese were foods in Victorian times, just as they are today. However, within the adventures of the Sherlock Holmes stories, occasionally they have other uses: metaphors and plot devices.

They are metaphors. Fruit is used to make comparisons, so the reader immediately has a mental image of the person or situation being described. Thus, in ‘The Red-Headed League’, Jabez Wilson states that Fleet Street, which is on the way to Pope’s Court, was thronged with men of every colour of red. The fruit metaphor is reinforced when Wilson describes Pope’s Court as ‘a coster’s orange barrow’. ‘Coster’ is short for costermonger, the name for street vendors who sold fruit and vegetables from a handcart or trolley. Wilson continues his description: ‘Every shade of colour there – straw, lemon, orange, brick, Irish-setter, liver, clay’. Note how ACD introduces the citreous fruits in this list early, to establish the analogy in the reader’s mind

© 2006 – 2020 Sally-Avernier

ACD also uses the fruit analogy in ‘Black Peter’. Sherlock Holmes was interviewing harpooners for a fictitious whaling expedition, to trap the murderer of retired sea-captain Peter Carey, infamously known as ‘Black Peter’. He has already deduced that his prey is a man of immense physical strength and size. One of the candidates is described as ‘a little ribstron-pippin of a man, with ruddy cheeks and fluffy white side-whiskers’. A Ribston-Pippin is a variety of apple, which when ripe, is yellow, flushed orange, with streaks of russet red. One glance told Sherlock Holmes that the seaman standing before him was not his man and the reader can immediately visualise the scene. The use of fruit as a metaphor speeds up the story, cuts out exposition and advances the plot.

Illustration for Collier’s by Frederick Dorr Steele

Fruit and geese are also plot devices. In ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ James Ryder is apprehended by Holmes and Watson in Covent Garden Market. They have been tracing the goose that Henry Baker dropped in the Tottenham Court Road, to the Alpha Inn, and hence to Breckinridge of Covent Garden Market. Holmes tricks Breckinridge into revealing where he sourced the geese: Mrs Oakshott, 117 Brixton Road. Although Covent Garden was primarily a fruit and vegetable market, butchers’ stalls were not uncommon, particularly at Christmas. Holmes and Watson are not the only parties making enquiries about geese. James Ryder is looking for a special goose and enrages Breckinridge with his persistent queries. Holmes and Watson seize the moment and take Ryder to Baker Street.

The most dramatic use of fruit as a plot device takes place in ‘The Reigate Squires’. After a nervous breakdown following an exhausting investigation, Holmes’ health was shattered. Watson takes Holmes for a recuperative stay with his friend, Colonel Hayter. Watson hopes that the peace of the countryside will restore his friend’s health. However, to Watson’s dismay, Holmes gets involved in another case. A bizarre burglary at nearby Mr Acton’s house escalates when the Cunningham’s coachman is murdered. Holmes realises the connection is a scrap of paper torn from the dead man’s hand and knows where it is but can’t get to it. Holmes, Watson and Inspector Forrestor visit the Cunningham’s house to discuss the case. Holmes knocks over a bowl of oranges and in the confusion recovers the paper that proves the Cunninghams murdered their coachman.

Therefore, we see how ACD uses metaphors to conjure mental images, avoid tedious description and accelerate the plot in ‘The Red-Headed League’ and ‘Black Peter’. In ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ and ‘The Reigate Squires’ the search for specific items become plot points. The goose from Covent Garden Market in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ and the spilt oranges in ‘The Reigate Squires’ have no value other than what they are: food. However, they set up the storyline in the former and provide a dramatic finale in the latter. Once again, ACD has the reader looking in the wrong direction. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense movies will recognise this device, a ‘MacGuffin’, the ordinary object that everybody is seeking becomes the key to the mystery.

Read it in french