“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”
–Sherlock Holmes, “Silver Blaze”
In 2015, a movie titled Mr. Holmes was released, starring Ian McKellen as the eponymous character. The plot sees a 93-year-old Holmes struggling to recall the details of his final case before his mind fully deteriorates. To anyone familiar with the Sherlock Holmes mythos, much sympathy will be felt for the once spry and energetic character as he desperately tries to hold on to what little faculties of his mind that remain. Age has made him its latest victim, and he is ultimately a pitiful shadow of his former self. Yet, perhaps what is even more tragic than that is the knowledge that when the plot begins, Holmes and Watson have been estranged for years; companions who were akin to brothers, now completely cut off from contact. The once great detective’s loneliness and sense of isolation is a central theme that carries the story forward, and Watson’s absence is felt like a mist pervading through the entire narrative from beginning to end.
There it is once more: Sherlock Holmes, both as story as well as character, is incomplete without Watson. Over the years, the good doctor has been adapted in as colorful a manner as Holmes himself, from the bumbling fool of Nigel Bruce in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), to Martin Freeman’s sardonic, yet capable military man in Sherlock (2010), to even Kanjiya Shihori’s nurturing and oddly adorable Wato-san in the Japanese Miss Sherlock (2018). Dr John Watson is arguably as integral to the mythos as Holmes himself. Chapter 3 touched upon the character’s importance both as an audience surrogate and as a good counterbalance to the mechanical mind of the detective. This chapter will serve as an extension to what was discussed previously, and instead of merely putting Holmes and Watson on opposite ends of a spectrum, it will also attempt to unearth why readers and audiences have always gravitated to this particular companionship so strongly, regardless of media shifts and adaptations.
Sherlock Holmes, as previously described, is not quite the paragon of virtue. His erratic behaviour causes much trouble to not only Watson, but also their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Whether it be drug abuse, lack of proper food and rest, or their lodgings in utter disarray, Holmes presents himself as a near unstoppable force of nature when his moods go from one extreme to the next. Watson, however, appears to sit at the opposite end of the spectrum. Coming from a military and medical background, he stands in stark contrast to his companion’s chaos, introducing much needed order in Holmes’ life. However, in between them sits a very powerful love of adventure and all that is unknown. Holmes himself remarks in “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” that Watson shares his love of “all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” 76 ). Neither the detective nor the doctor can ignore the call to adventure, and must work together in a well-balanced, synchronized manner if they are to come out unharmed. To make a very bold assertion, perhaps it can be stated that in an abstract manner, the three figures in this scenario, i.e. Holmes, Watson and adventure, represent the id, superego and ego respectively.
To briefly summarize, Sigmund Freud’s theories of the psychic apparatus involves the three aforementioned agents. According to him, the id is the instinct driven part of the brain that knows no order and only serves to fulfill every little base desire that arises (Freud, 105). The superego, more popularly understood as the ‘conscience’, represents adherence to cultural rules, and their application for proper guidance in society (Schater 481). The ego “attempts to mediate between id and reality” (Freud 110) in order to come to a satisfying conclusion that satisfies both the id as well as the superego. So how do Holmes and Watson factor into this?
Holmes has proven time and time again to be a very impulsive individual. Though rationality is his forte, and though he has exercised dedication that neared superhuman levels, these characteristics all line up neatly with his constant, one true goal, i.e to not be bored. In “The Musgrave Ritual” Watson even remarks upon a series of bullet patterns on the wall adorned by Holmes to form the initials “VR”, those of queen Victoria Regina. The doctor even follows this description with a dry, sarcastic remark on how neither the room nor the atmosphere had been improved with its addition (Doyle, “The Musgrave Ritual” 165). Whether it be cocaine abuse, breaking a stranger’s heart or firing a gun in an uncontrolled indoor environment, it has been made abundantly clear that Sherlock Holmes’ primary desire is to always meet his immediate needs of mental stimulation, regardless of the consequences. These are traits that align very well with the idea of the id.
Now let us observe John Watson. In the original canon, not only is Watson a medical man, but he is a retired army surgeon. Undoubtedly, Watson brings bits and pieces of that life into 221B Baker Street, and it is most evident whenever he interacts with Holmes. When he is not with his companion investigating crime scenes, Watson can be seen playing the role of a caretaker, trying his best to keep Holmes’ outbursts in line (to varying degrees of success of course). In more than one instance, if not for the doctor, Holmes would be in grave danger, such as in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”. Here Holmes’ curiosity leads him to lighting a fatal hallucinogenic substance. If not for Watson’s presence of mind, both would have undoubtedly lost their lives. This is of course, during the midst of a case. When in the comfort of Baker Street, Watson chides his partner for activities ranging from temper tantrums to usage of narcotics. As mentioned previously, in The Sign of Four, he severely reprimands his friend, asking him to consider how much he is putting on the line for a passing pleasure (Doyle, The Sign of Four 40). Evidently, with his predisposition to maintain stability and structure, Watson’s character resonates with that of the superego, standing opposite to Holmes’ id. But what of the ego?
While it can be tempting to argue that Watson himself represents the ego, as he quite literally tries to contain and control Holmes’ erratic tendencies, perhaps another point of view could provide a valuable insight. What if the idea of adventure and mystery is taken as the ‘ego’ figure? Understandably, it may sound unusual and a little counterintuitive at first glance. However the ego is meant to satisfy the desires of the id within the confines set by the superego, giving both parties a common goal to be tethered to. Both Holmes and Watson, the id and superego figures, find joy and fulfillment in the bizarre and mysterious cases that come by their doorstep. In “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”, Holmes proudly states that his companion shares his same love of unusual things that break the monotony of everyday life (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” 76). Watson and Holmes argue and bicker over many things across many different iterations of the characters. Yet, every single time the common thread that keeps them in balance is their deep seated fascination and resolution to see a case from beginning to end. Both Watson’s need for order, and Holmes’ need for mental stimulation are thus satisfied, and throughout the decades, this has kept them close in the face of innumerable oddities.
Today, when faced with a thousand different stories of friendship across multiple mediums of art and storytelling, Holmes and Watson continue to shine on. If one is to go by Freud’s model of the psychic apparatus, the brilliant dynamics of the two and their adventures strike at the core of the human being. Maybe in some subconscious way, the individual reading the story or watching the movie sees shades of their very being being represented through a close friendship (id and superego) and a love of adventure (ego). This dichotomy of course, is not only limited to the detective duo. In many modern works of film and television, a variation of this can be seen in the ‘good cop/bad cop’ pairs, where one is usually a more passionate, hot headed individual, while the other is more reserved and patient in his demeanor. So, whether it is Victorian London or the 22nd century, Holmes and Watson’s companionship will undoubtedly carry on as a shining example of friendship in literature and media for centuries to come.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Geddes & Grosset, 2001.
Freud, Sigmund, et al. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton, 1995.
Schacter, Daniel L., et al. Psychology. Worth Publishers, 2011.