(Re)Introducing Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson

The Beginnings of an Iconic Friendship

Seminar Paper 2013 19 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Very Brief History of A Study in Scarlet and A Study in Pink

3. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: Early Days of a Friendship
3.1 Introducing Watson
3.2 Introducing Holmes
3.2.1 First Impressions
3.2.2 Deductions
3.2.3 Social Interactions
3.3 Getting to Know Each Other
3.4 Symbiosis
3.5 Homosexuality

4. London, the Third Protagonist

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The writers and executive producers of the BBC’s latest Sherlock Holmes adaptation Sherlock Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, have stated at the launch event of Sherlock that “the characters of Holmes and Watson . . . have become lost in a fog of tobacco smoke and frock cotes” (Martin). Thus, the duo decided to transfer the sleuth into the 21st century and to modernise the Sherlock Holmes stories in many different regards: they have found modern equivalences for every means of communication (i.e. text messages replacing telegrams, web sites replacing treaties, etc), turned the Great Detective into a digital native, and ditched the falsely ascribed deerstalker and meerschaum pipe.

The BBC-series starts out with the adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novel, A Study in Scarlet. Steven Moffat, who wrote the pilot episode A Study in Pink, has had the full canon at his disposal from which he managed to draw all the crucial information. It therefore seems to be a logical choice to compare the way in which the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson is established in Doyle’s introduction (new literary duo) on the one hand and the BBC’s adaptation (iconic pair) on the other hand. This paper focuses on the genesis of one of the most iconic friendships and juxtaposes the literary birth of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson with their televisual re-birth.

This paper is primarily concerned with the evolving friendship between the well-known inhabitants of 221B Baker Street and the question of whether or not it might be regarded as “symbiotic”. In addition to an analysis of the homosexual innuendos that occur in A Study in Pink, there will be a brief section on the city of London, which is often perceived as a third protagonist. Due to the finite length of this paper, other aspects concerning the crime case, literary adaptation theory/filming politics, the visual aesthetics of A Study in Pink and the question of (post)modernity have either only briefly been touched on or been omitted altogether.

2. A Very Brief History of A Study in Scarlet and A Study in Pink

The characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson debuted in 1887. Doyle’s first novel A Study in Scarlet was “written quickly during March and April 1886 . . . and eventually appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in December 1887” (Rolinson). But both the introductory novel and its successor The Sign of Four received “very little recompense and . . . very little attention” (Hodgson 9). In fact, it was not until Doyle began to write Holmes’ “cases in short story form, and . . . was able to sell them to The Strand Magazine from July, 1891 onwards, that [they] became ultimately successful” (Hall 13).

To this day, “even among devoted readers of Doyle’s fiction, the first Holmes adventure . . . remains obscure, misunderstood, and ignored, largely because of its formal peculiarity” (McLaughlin 27). The binary structure of the plot entails an “overall disorientation [which] involves shifts of narration, plot, genre, place, and time” (McLaughlin 31). Despite these narrative difficulties, Moffat and Gatiss decided to use it for “what one would consider [a] traditional pilot exposition” (McNutt). Their version of A Study in Scarlet, called A Study in Pink[1], premiered on Sunday 25th July 2010 on BBC One.

3. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: Early Days of a Friendship

3.1 Introducing Watson

ASiS opens with the “history of [Watson[2],] the narrator and [co-star] of the series. [The previous army doctor] is pensioned back to England, where he nurses his damaged constitution in bachelor solitude” (McLaughlin 28) and leads an “objectless” (Doyle 16), “comfortless, [and] meaningless existence” (Doyle 4) with “little . . . to engage [his] attention” (Doyle 16). It seems that “[i]mperial service has not brought Watson untainted glory” (McLaughlin 28). Instead, he has received “nothing but misfortune and disaster” (Doyle 3).

Watson’s immense solitude is also revealed in his reaction to his friend Stamford’s statement that he possibly knows someone with whom Watson might want to share lodgings and rent. Without any further enquiry concerning the character of the potential candidate, Watson readily exclaims: “[If] he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone’” (Doyle 6). The only thing which might put him (Watson) off are “’rows’” (Doyle 12) and “’noise and excitement’” (Doyle 7) since his delicate physical constitution allows for neither.

This account is dealt with in a similar way in the opening of ASiP which begins with John “having nightmares about his war service in Afghanistan, illustrated by images of modern warfare” (Rolinson). John Watson’s low spirits and army background are thus the starting point for both the novel and the 2010 adaptation. While Watson is suffering mainly from physical injuries, however, which forbid him “from venturing out” (Doyle 16) and force him to endure a “monotony of existence” (Doyle 16), John is adjusting even more reluctantly to London life and “brings an element of emotional damage to the character as a result of his experiences in Afghanistan” (Toadvine 58). His therapist diagnoses “trust issues” and John’s war wound is – in accordance with his psychological trauma – rendered a psychosomatic limb[3]. The immense emphasis on John’s trauma adds depth to his character and stands in contrast to ASiS, in which Watson functions mainly as Holmes’ observer.


[1] A Study in Scarlet and A Study in Pink are both cited throughout this paper and will therefore be abbreviated as “ASiS” and “ASiP”.

[2] The comparison will in the following use “Watson” and “Holmes” in reference to ASiS, and the more informal “John” and “Sherlock” in reference to ASiP where they are referred to exclusively by their first names.

[3] ASiP cleverly works with the textual inconsistencies of the canon, i.e. Watson’s war wound is at one point found in his shoulder (ASiS), and at another point in his leg (A Sign of Four). In ASiP John was actually wounded in the shoulder but displays a psychosomatic limb.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – English and Linguistics
introducing sherlock holmes john watson beginnings iconic friendship



Title: (Re)Introducing Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson