The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Dr. John Watson
Poor Watson: he kind of gets the short end of the stick. The fuzzy end of the lollipop. A bum rap. All twelve of these stories are told from his first-person perspective, and yet, when we look back at our "In a Nutshell" and "What's Up With the Title?" sections, we notice that we've barely mentioned his name. After all, these stories aren't called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson; on the contrary, Watson is constantly building up Holmes's glamour at the expense of his own.
Think of how many times Watson admits that Holmes seems to have solved the case without having any clue how Holmes has done so. Or how often Holmes asks Watson what he has observed of a visitor, only to find that Watson has missed every important detail. We can't help but cringe a little when Holmes says to him, "You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important" (Identity.83). Or when Watson gives up in the middle of "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," exclaiming, "What a tissue of mysteries and improbabilities the whole thing was!" (Valley.104).
The thing is, though, Watson is awesome in his own right. He was an army doctor in Afghanistan, and only came back to England once he got a rifle wound to the leg. He's the one who always carries the gun in he and Holmes's most dangerous encounters (see the dealings with John Clay and "The Red-Headed League" or with Mr. Rucastle, the dog Carlo, and "The Copper Beeches"). What's more, Watson is actually able to sustain a job and engage in healthy human relationships with more than one person (we assume, what with him being married and apparently having non-Holmes friends here and there). He's played by Jude Law in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, for crying out loud: he's fabulous. Can we get a little love for Dr. Watson up in here?
So why is Watson so modest? Watson isn't just complimenting Holmes, as in, telling us how great he is. He's also complementing Holmes, or in other words, showing us Holmes's genius by providing a constant point of comparison. After all, Watson's a smart man – a medical doctor with a clear, cool writing style. He's someone we respect. And if Holmes is smart enough to make a war vet doctor feel dumb, well then, Holmes must be brilliant.
Watson provides a foil for Holmes, but he's a sympathetic, friendly foil. This isn't a Holmes/Inspector Lestrade-style hostile opposition. Watson fills in gaps that Holmes lacks: he's the one who adds human interest to Holmes's stories, and who provides medical assistance that Holmes can't handle (see, for example, Mr. Rucastle in "The Copper Beeches").
Watson and "Tales of Ratiocination"
Way back in "In a Nutshell," we mentioned that Conan Doyle based the Holmes/Watson dynamic on the earlier detective duo of C. Auguste Dupin and the unnamed narrator from Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue." Poe describes his mystery stories as "tales of ratiocination," in which the reader is supposed to spend a lot of time picking up clues and solving puzzles. In other words, the story is supposed to be something like a brainteaser.
For more on Poe's tales, check out our guide to "Murders in the Rue Morgue"; here we'll just say that the problem with making a story like a brainteaser is that, you know, a good game of Sudoku doesn't usually involve much character development. If a storyteller emphasizes the rational solutions part of a mystery novel too much, it's easy to skip over what makes a tale compelling: people you can identify with.
Here's where Watson steps in and makes Holmes the greatest fictional detective ever. Watson makes cold, calculating Holmes…human. Sure, Watson keeps mentioning that Holmes despises feelings and whatnot. At the same time, the clear bromance that ties the two guys together – their mutual friendship and respect – really speaks well of both of them as sympathetic, cool human beings. Watson also manages to bring out the passionate side of Holmes's supremely intellectual work. After all, all that social feeling that Holmes lacks has to go somewhere; he clearly puts it to good use when he's on the hunt for clues:
Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon such a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out with a steely glitter (Valley.130).
This thick description is, first of all, really evocative, and it adds a layer of linguistic pleasure to the whole let's-solve-crime! aspect of the detective story. But secondly, Watson makes this abstract process of intellectual reasoning seem, well – we'll just come out and say it – sexy. There's a point later on in the same passage when Watson describes Holmes's "purely animal lust for the chase." How can a reader not find a mental exercise appealing that makes the detective feel "animal lust"? Sign us up for solving crime if this is what it's like!
And it's Watson's literary talents that bring about this interest on the part of the reader; Holmes, on the contrary, wants records of "that severe reasoning from cause to effect which really the only notable feature about [detective work]" (Beeches.3). Sounds dull as ditchwater to us – we'd take Watson's "colour and life" over Holmes's "severe reasoning" any day.