“It was worth a wound–it was worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love
which lay behind that cold mask.”
-John Watson, “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”
The previous two chapters looked at the superhuman as well as surprisingly realistic sides of Sherlock Holmes in an attempt to answer why he, as a character, resonated so strongly with the readers of his time. However, Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were not only about Holmes. Yes there were many mysteries, displays of superhuman intellect and unraveling of marvelous cases through very methodical steps. Yet one can argue (that too very strongly) that the success of Sherlock Holmes came not from the detective, but more so from the doctor, companion and best friend, Dr John H. Watson.
It is common knowledge that Dr Watson is the primary narrator of the stories. They are told through his point of view in the first person, and thus the reader gets a sense of the innermost workings of Watson’s own mind. This very fact may be something that the average person glosses over, but it can be argued that it was (and is) imperative in the massive success of the stories. Holmes as a character is very calculating; he is cold, methodical and his thoughts do not align with a regular person’s. Watson’s however, do. Not only is he a companion to the sleuth, but his character also serves as the audience surrogate. He is the ‘everyman’ who asks the questions that the reader will have and hence does not fully leave them in the dark. In the midst of bizarre adventures alongside a very mechanical protagonist, Watson is the average Joe who tries his best to bridge the gap between the world of mystery and the world of the common man, i.e. the reader. Without him at the helm of the narrative, the stories would not nearly be as engaging. Amusingly enough, this is criticized very harshly by Holmes himself. The detective believes that his cases should not at all be treated as romanticized literature, but rather “in the same cold and unemotional manner” as the “exact science’ which he saw it to be (Doyle, A Sign of Four, 40). Yet, the reader cannot help but side with Watson in this case, as the drama of storytelling is what grips them throughout the narrative from start to finish. It is interesting because Holmes himself took up the pen in a later story, that of “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”, which is not nearly remembered as much as the others.
Watson could subjectively be a good or bad narrator depending on who is being asked, but most do not know him as ‘the biographer of Holmes.’ Indeed, John Watson is best known for being the (more condescendingly) sidekick or (less condescendingly) best friend of the protagonist. Throughout the course of the original canon, Holmes is never seen to have many friends; most who know him does so in a very professional manner. Emotionally, he is detached, a side effect of having a mind that is akin to a fine tuned machine. His habit of berating those who cannot keep up with his rapidly altering thoughts leaves him with very few who are truly affectionate for him. As such, most of his early life saw him be surrounded by a looming sense of isolation. While this did not trouble him at all per se, the introduction of a roommate and eventual friend slowly transformed Holmes over the course of time. The formulaic nature of the cases does a fair job of hiding this fact, however a bit of perusing through some key moments definitely shines a light on this claim.
During their early days together, Watson and Holmes appear to be quite the formal gentlemen with one another. In the very first novel, A Study in Scarlet, the mystery of Holmes’ quiet nature draws in the doctor, and the walls of social etiquette stop him from intruding upon his housemate’s personal affairs. Holmes himself is as quiet and nonintrusive, leaving Watson to his own devices. In time however, the reader soon finds Watson going from silent accompaniment in A Study in Scarlet to setting aside time from his family life to go solve mysteries, despite the always present risk to his own life (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”). It is important to remember that despite this growing closeness, Holmes appears to look down upon and mock his companion on numerous occasions. However, this is perhaps more due to his habit of bluntly stating things just as they are, as opposed to any active desire to hurt. After all, in his world, objectivity rules above all else. Yet, in time, the cold, stern mask of the logician begins showing its cracks and Watson (as well as the reader) uncovers the existence of a warm, caring heart underneath. In “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans” Holmes’ acknowledgment of Watson always staying by his side till the end leads the latter to see in his friend’s eyes something “which was nearer to tenderness” than he had previously ever witnessed (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans”, 396). “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” sees a moment that is fueled with even more intensity and emotion. After Watson is shot, Holmes shows more worry and compassion in that brief moment than during any other throughout the entire canon. Watson writes of how his companion’s eyes were dulled and his lips were quivering. So moved was the doctor by this blatant show of worry and affection that he states it was “worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”, 450). These two are but extreme instances of the affection shown by Holmes to his close friend, but peppered throughout the stories are little moments that show not only his affection, but admiration and respect as well. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” sees Holmes claim his companion as being “invaluable” to him (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, 116). Then again, in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”, after a harrowing experience, Holmes almost pleadingly asks his friend if he will see the adventure through to the end (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” 413). An interesting example takes place in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”. In this story, Holmes pretends to be delirious and in agony, so as to lure his target into a false sense of security. While in this state, he shares some very harsh words with Watson, if only to stop him from coming too close. The poor doctor is “bitterly hurt” but in the resolution of the tale, Holmes asks Watson if he believes that the detective has “no respect for [his] medical talents” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”, 402). Clearly, Holmes knows that with a cursory glance at his figure from up close, Watson would undoubtedly have discovered his ploy, and the whole mission would have been thrown into jeopardy. In his own, unusual way, the detective shows his respect for Watson’s own talents as a professional in his field.
Sherlock Holmes is superhuman with his abilities and interesting with his flaws, but with John Watson, he is above all, human. For the mechanical mind to possess the heart of a man elevates not only his own character, but also the character of he who softens that heart in the first place. Perhaps, above all else, this was the piece of Doyle’s stories that truly stayed with the readers of Victorian London. As loud as the claim can be made that the mysteries kept drawing the readers in, maybe behind it all, a more subconscious reason that tied everything together was their expectations of tales of friendship, of heart and mind complementing one another to shed light upon said mysteries. Even in the chronologically final story, the two old friends still share that same spark for the love of adventure and of one another. As Holmes says, “Good ol’ Watson. You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” (Doyle, “His Last Bow” 419).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Geddes & Grosset, 2001.