Adventure of the Cardboard Box

#D-14 CARD

Is the cardboard box merely a practical joke or a symbol of the misery of human despair?

Analyze the themes and literary elements in Arthur Conan Doyle's story.

Adventure of the Cardboard Box Analysis

This is the sixteenth Sherlock Holmes short story published in magazines but the second in the collection His Law Bow published in 1917. Its order in the canon is different in British and American collections

In this series the unique features of Sherlock Holmes short stories are discussed. We do not summarize the plot on this page, assuming that each reader has already read the actual story.

Dating of the Story

Story Opening

We hope our readers are having fun diagnosing the types of story openers in the Sherlock canon. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is a double hitter with two of the three different openers.

Watson's Dilemna

The first paragraph is classic as one of "Watson's Dilemmas."

Baker Street Scene

After learning via Watson's Dilemma that we are about to embark on a sensational case, we are treated to a second type of Sherlock Starter: a Baker Street Scene. Holmes is lounging on the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter that opens this case. But before explaining the case, a lengthy dialogue ensues as Holmes amazes Watson by reading his thoughts and agreeing that war is a terrible thing.

Two aspects of the dialogue interest us. First, the sensationalism of Holmes' mind-reading ability, which he elucidates to his friend. A similar mind-reading event occurs at the beginning of The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Second, Holmes' opening statement is about the misery of war. Death and misery, as well as sensationalism, are themes in this particular short story. Therefore Doyle tied the pre-introductory pronouncement, the themes, and the ending together with his mind-reading scenario.

Pre-Introductory Pronouncement and FulFillment

So how does this story accomplish the the pronouncement and fulfillments in Sherlock Holmes stories?

The Pronouncement

The two pronouncements mirror the two story starters mentioned in the section above:

The Fulfillment

So what do we find at the end of the story?

Action Plot

Adventure of the Cardboard Box Action Plot

This story follows the basic Sherlock Holmes action plot with only a small deviation.


Two themes stand out: Misery and sensationalism.

In this case, Doyle tied the themes with the pre-introduction and denouement (he didn't do that so directly in most of his stories.)

Sherlock's Deductions

Here is a list of things our proficient investigator deduced:

Closer Look At Holmes

Workaholic Detective

What insights does this tale give us into Sherlock Holmes' personality?
Neither the country, nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five million people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour of suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts, and his only change was when he turned his mind from the evil-doer of the town to track down his brother of the country.
This does, somewhat, contradict Holmes' own statement that he would like to retire from the world of crime and investigate nature, which he did do at the end of his career. Nonetheless, Doctor Watson notes that a country vacation had no attraction for the work-a-holic who avoided vacationing until forced to do so by his health.

The Musician

He bought his 500 guinea Stradivarious violin for 55 shillings and knew multiple facts about Paganini.


He added two articles in Anthropological Journal about the distinctive features of each person's ear (somewhat like fingerprints)to his list of articles written by Sherlock Holmes.

Fictitous Transparency

Fictitious Transparency refes to the occasional reference by Holmes to Watson's publications of their cases. In this instance, Holmes asks, "Can you rise superior to the heat and run down to Croydon with me on the off chance of a case for your annals?"

Hmmm, was Holmes merely being glib, or was Watson's participation in cases motivated by a desire to write about them?

Antiquated Vocabulary


This is not a typical Sherlock Holmes ending. Rather than flippant, we see a somber Holmes close his notebook and the case:
"What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever?"

Baker Street Treasure Hunt

A newly framed picture of General Gordon and an unframed picture of Henry Ward Beecher are part of our Baker Street Treasure Hunt for this story.

The unit study below analyzes eight of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is not one of the eight in this unit study.

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A catalog of our pages on Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes: The Unit Study Sherlock Holmes Unit Study
Our 183 Page Unit Study
of 8 popular stories - great for Middle & High School
Adventure of the Speckled Band Speckled Band
Analyze the compelling mystery of the dangerous whistle in the night in this famous who-dunn-it.
Silver Blaze
Uncover the who, the where, and the why of a murdered man and missing horse.
The Red Headed League Red Headed League
Evaluate how Doyle turned a silly-looking prank into a serious international crime.
Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb Engineers Thumb
Assess if this strange tale is one of Doyle's best - or worst - stories.
Crooked Man
Crooked Man
Analyze who the truly crooked man is in this twisted tale of love and betrayal.
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Scandal in Bohemia
Multiple scandals in this international drama of love gone wrong
Adventure of the Dancing Men Dancing Men
Investigate the form and outcome of one of Sherlock's saddest cases.
The Final
Final Problem
An evaluation of Doyle's daring decision and the outcry that followed.
More About Sherlock Consulting Detective
Interesting tidbits about the world's only consulting detective.
More About Dr. Watson Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes
There was more to Dr. Watson's life than the readers understood at first.
Super Hero Prototypes Holmes and Watson: Superheroes prototypes
Were Holmes and Watson the original prototypes for modern superheroes?
List of All Short Stories List of Sherlock Holmes Short Stories
A list of the the Sherlock Holmes short stories and books they were published in.
Sherlock Holmes Quotes
Famous quotes, brilliant sayings, and intriguing insights from Sherlock and company.
Action Plot Summary Summary of Sherlock Action Plot
See how Doyle's unique action plot made Sherlock stories a permanent feature in the halls of classic lit.
Who Is the Best
Sherlock Actor?

Sherlock Holmes best actors
If you want to watch, find who portrayed him the best.
Kids and

Sherlock stories for kids
What are the most appropriate Sherlock stories for kids? Check out our recommendations.
What made him lit's
#1 character?

Sherlock Holmes popularity
Why is Sherlock the most popular character in fiction?
What did Sherlock think of Women?
Sherlock Holmes and Women
An armchair quarterback in the battle of the sexes

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