Dr. John Watson - The clue to understanding

The detective story through the eyes of Holmes’s friend

Term Paper 2010 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Dr. Watson in the centre of the criminal case
2.1 The duo of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes
2.2 Dr. Watson as the spectator’s narrator
2.3 The man behind the scenes
2.4 Watson as emblem of the reader

3. Dr. Watson’s influence on the reader
3.1 Dr. Watson as John Doe a man like you and me
3.2 Determination of feelings by Watson
3.3 Eye to eye with Dr. Watson
3.4 Watson as steersman

4. Conclusion

5. Work cited

1. Introduction

If we think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his writings, we automatically think about Sherlock Holmes. But what about his partner and friend Dr. Watson? Is he not as important as his famous companion? Maybe he does not solve the mysteries and crimes maybe he is even a little slow and featherbrained. But Dr. Watson should not be underestimated. He functions as the mediator between the story and the reader. Speaking of a mediator implies that this instrument builds a connection between two poles. In this case it is the figure of Dr. John Hamish Watson. Mediation occurs for example if a call center should connect two business partners. Without a connection both could in fact speak but would not be able to either understand or hear each other. Hence the question arises between which two poles Dr. Watson is a mediator?

One of these poles lies similarly to Dr. Watson within Fiction. Namely Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand the second pole lies beyond fiction. It is the reader or even better the readership. So to speak Dr. Watson mediates between the internal text and action and the external world and surroundings, between fiction and reality. First I want to analyze the relationship between Watson and Holmes as well as the meaning of Watson within the story. In a second step I will try to illuminate correlation among the reader, Dr. Watson and the surroundings.

2. Dr. Watson in the centre of the criminal case

2.1 The duo of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes

In connection with Dr. Watson, Buchloh and Backer are talking about “a complementary figure”[1] to the main character Sherlock Holmes. To understand this you have to observe the two characters and their relationship. In A Study in Scarlet Holmes describes himself with the following words: “… I get in the dumps at time, and I don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right. …”[2]. Watson on the other hand characterizes his friend in this way: “Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting room, …”.

Holmes is addicted to cocaine, which Watson as a doctor of course condemns. Also romantic features can be found within the figure of Holmes, which “stand in contrast to his clear and analytical spirit”.[3] This spirit is described as “dual nature” in Buchloh and Backer’s act. Holmes striking exterior shows signs of eccentric. In a Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes is illustrated in the following way:

His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing […] and his thin hawk-line nose gave his whole expressions an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals…[4]

Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, those two could not be more different. Holmes, the eccentric with his genius mental abilities sets himself apart from the normal average person, Dr. Watson. He works as reputable doctor. His looks are rather inconspicuous compared to those of Holmes. The great intellectual achievements and analytical skills of his friend, meets Watson with admiration. But he is also aware that he himself is not capable of achieving such mental master pieces moreover he is of average intelligence. In the epilog of the German issue of “Die Abenteuer des Sherlock Holmes”[5] Doyle himself describes Dr. Watson as “a commonplace comrade as a foil […]. A drab, quiet name fort his unostentatious man”.

The attribute that Sherlock Holmes and the calm Dr. Watson have in common is the “strong affection for adventures”[6] If one considers those two characters one suitable statement penetrates: Opposites attract and it actually seems as if Holmes and Watson complement each other perfectly. Holmes’s ambition subtends Watson with calmness, the eccentric attitude for example Holmes’s cocaine addiction or his sleepless nights confronts Watson with well intended advice. In addition, the inconspicuous, average, Dr. Watson, contributes through his normality to increase the figure of the unusual master detective Holmes even further and makes his appearance abnormal.

Although the figures are not characteristically changing within the short stories or the so called long short stories and in some cases one may recognize the closeness to a melodrama, one of the two main characters can still be described as a round character.

Sherlock Holmes is capable of surprising the readership after reams of stories. However Dr. Watson stays a flat character, who has apparently throughout the whole stories only departed himself from Sherlock Holmes by a marriage[7].

Very rarely Dr. Watson is actively involved in the happenings. Most of the times, he is limited on listening carefully or observing attentively. Hence Watson is rather passive where as in comparison Holmes interviews clients or investigates. This commonality and mediocrity of Watson, not only in his being but also in his actions highlights the exceeding features of the hero Sherlock Holmes.

The almost superhuman figure of Sherlock Holmes with his characteristics which fascinated Victorian and Edwardian readers because they were so alien to their won deep-seated respectability downright necessitates an opposite who bridges the brilliant great detective and the middle class average readership.

The picture of Watson as a small chubby man next to Holmes who is tall and gaunt remains us of another famous couple in literature: Don Quichote and Sancho Pancha. Certainly Watson is not accompanying a man who wants to fight against windmills and who suffers mental damages, however the consistent companion and assistant, who supports the actual hero, in this case Sherlock Holmes, and fights with him against the iniquitousness of this world somewhat recalls this unequal pair of literature. Just because of the part. The particular heroes make it possible for their companions to join them in their battle.

2.2 Dr. Watson as the spectator’s narrator

Dr. Watson is the first person narrator of almost every Sherlock Holmes story. Watson functions as current observer of the happenings. Anyhow he is not the hero or the main character of the stories. The narrator reports from the perspective of a spectator who is especially interested in the main character and his experiences. Depken calls this special form of first person narration spectator narration.[8] In Addition he explains that “in the sorties reader and spectator […] are one and the same persons”.[9] A great advantage of this form is that neither the outcome of the story is spoiled nor that you can rely on a happy ending. Only this perspective enables Sherlock Holms to die momentary in The Final Problem.

If Holmes himself was the narrator, he could at most almost die. If he died the story would come to an end. But Watson as a spectator narrator has the ability to recount of Holmes’s death without being contradictorily. A first person narrator, who is not the main character himself, certainly cannot be around this person at all times. Hence both, Watson and Holmes’s ways get separated occasionally so that Dr. Watson afterwards finds out what Sherlock Holmes did in the time of his absence. Thereto Watson is directly dependant on the report of his friend.

This type of dependence, however, seems very well be based on reciprocity. In A Scandal in Bohemia [10] Holmes calls his companion a Boswell. Watson’s comparison with James Boswell, the author of the most well known English biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, shows that Sherlock Holmes esteems his friend. Holmes often illustrates that he is keen on having Watson as a spectator with him. For example he lets Watson join confidential meetings with his clients like in A Scandal in Bohemia.[11] However, if Holmes is thinking only about the interests of his friend or rather add some interesting chapters to his own biography is an open question. The constant companion Watson admires the great detective and puts primary Sherlock’s adventures into the spotlight of his diary entries. This adulates Sherlock’s conceitedness. Watson dose not tell his stories in a chronological order.

A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story, is indeed the beginning of the common adventures but after Sherlock Holmes died in The Final Problem the stories deviate from its chronicle. Yet Watson can’t be seen as a regular Biographer and the stories cannot be seen as biography, because he does not engage with Sherlock Holmes’s whole life but only with the details of Holmes career as a master detective. The time in between cases is filled up with Holmes’s cocaine excesses. Those periods are shortly mentioned by Watson at the beginning of a new criminal case. Dr. Watson's role in the story, however, goes beyond the mere task of reporter. Although he is, sometimes very long passages, a completely passive observer, he also occasionally participates actively in the events.

2.3 The man behind the scenes

Watson’s participation in the happenings can sometimes help to solve the crime and to lead to a happy ending. Dr. Watson’s shares in the cases and the story are not the help or the advancing of the detective’s deduction. The intellectual side of the case is completely dependent on Holmes metal abilities. But Watson plays an important and also is very useful and helpful for convicting and arresting criminals. For example in The Red- Headed Luege [12] when Holmes asked Watson to support him with his gun form military times. “… I shall want your help tonight […] And I say, Doctor! There may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket. […] If they fire, Watson, have no compunction about shooting them down”. Also a lot of other times Watson supports his friend with his old gun. But not only in dangerous situations Watson’s help is needed. Sherlock can rely on his friend and helper in other areas too. While Holmes goes out to get some more information in The Sign of Four, Dr. Watson stays at home at their apartment “… you will be much more useful if you will remain here as my representative. I am loth to go, for it is quite on the card that some message may come during the day, […] I want you to open all notes and telegrams, and to act on your own judgment if any news should come”.[13]


[1] Buchloh and Becker (1978: 64)

[2] A Study in Scarlet

[3] Buchloh and Becker (1978:39)

[4] A Study in Scarlet

[5] [5] Reclam 1989: 450)

[6] Depken (1967: 66)

[7] Depken (1967: 67)

[8] Depken (1967:20)

[9] Depken

[10] 1981:164

[11] A Scandal of Bohemia (1981: 164)

[12] The Redheaded Leauge (1981: 187)

[13] The Sign of Four (1981: 130)


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sherlock holmes dr. watson detective stories

Title: Dr. John Watson - The clue to understanding