College of Arts and Sciences


Master of Arts in English (MA)


Stephen J Bell


Aesthetic, Degeneracy, Detective, Doyle, Holmes, Placebo


Communication | Critical and Cultural Studies | Other Communication


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a fear of degeneracy, or breakdown of social, cultural and moral understandings, was spreading through late-Victorian England. With the rise of a growing middle class in late-Victorian England, and the increased opportunities for self-improvement, the distinct class lines that separated the upper class from the middle and lower classes in society started to break down. As the class boundaries that had been in place for so long were dissolving, the criminal activities that had previously been relegated to the lower classes were spreading across those increasingly blurred class lines. The concept of degeneracy was perceived and classified based on outward appearances and actions. This idea of degeneracy was not always easy to recognize or identify outside of known criminals and their haunts because it was a term for diagnosing someone’s actions, rather than the internal decay. The detective genre, specifically Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, became a way of providing a release for the emotional tension people were facing as a result of the changing social structures, first on an individual level, and then on a national level, as Conan Doyle’s writing gained national attention. Along with the use of the term “degeneration” in the nineteenth century, the development of an aesthetic of crime played a role in the history of detective fiction as well. This thesis will explore the way Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories reflect the fears of societal degeneration in the late-Victorian era, the effect they had on understandings of the changing class structures, the rise of a crime aesthetic, and how the same understanding of a deteriorating society and the degeneration theories that arose are still prevalent in modern detective stories.