On this day in history, July 7, 1930, one of English literature’s greatest voices was lost forever. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote many things in life, but for all time he will be remembered as the creator of one of literature’s most iconic and remembered characters, Sherlock Holmes. The ironic thing about Sherlock Holmes is that it was only through one of Doyle’s other creations, Dr. John H. Watson, that we are able to connect with Holmes at all. Watson is often universally overlooked as anything more than a sidekick and yet, it is only through his voice that the reader becomes familiar with Holmes.
Watson has often been misinterpreted in various dramatizations of Conan Doyle’s stories. He has at times been portrayed as a bumbling hindrance at worst, an incompetent fool at best. But John Watson was no fool. An ex-military man and a doctor, Watson establishes himself throughout the stories as a man with a sharp mind and a brave heart. He becomes so trusted by Holmes that he is actually sent, initially, in Holmes’ place to protect Sir Henry Baskerville in the novella The Hound of the Baskervilles. In The Devil’s Foot, he takes part in a dangerous chemical experiment with Holmes, and it’s only through his quick thinking and brave actions that he is able to rescue his partner from imminent madness and possible death. Time and again he proves himself as a worthy companion to Holmes, providing invaluable medical insight and a strong arm when needed.
Sherlock Holmes is not an easy character with which to identify. He is cold, dispassionate, and his capacity for observation and deduction are far beyond the capabilities of the average human being. Had all the stories been told from his point of view, readers would have had a much more difficult time feeling any connection or the thrill of excitement that came when a revelation occurred. But we see Holmes through the eyes of Watson, and that makes it easier to relate to him, because we relate to Watson. Watson is a character we can understand. When we first meet him in A Study in Scarlet, he has been medically discharged from the army, and is down on his luck and looking for a place to live. We see him when he meets his future wife, Mary, in The Sign of Four, and watch as he grapples with his attraction to her and his feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness in pursuing her affections. We can’t relate to Holmes, who Watson calls “an automaton — a calculating machine.” But we can relate to Watson, who shares our life experiences, our hurts and fears, our joys and triumphs, and it’s through his eyes that we come to appreciate Holmes for more than just his genius.
We also love Watson for his limitations, because they are our limitations. In Doyle’s works, we are given the same information as Holmes and Watson, and yet, like Watson, we “see but do not observe,” as Holmes so eloquently puts it. I remember the first time I read The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. I read with avid interest the tale of miss Violet Hunter, who was asking Holmes for advice on whether she should take a position as governess for an eccentric family whose behavior was not really explainable. As the story nears its conclusion, and Holmes has all the facts, he says,
“Of course there is only one feasible explanation.”
As he gives that quote, and proceeded to explain the circumstances of the weird going’s on at the Copper Beeches, I felt the same thrill and elation that Watson felt. I had all the information at my finger tips; I knew everything Holmes had known. And yet, when he gave the explanation, my first thought was “OF COURSE!” Seeing the story through Holmes eyes, we would have already been given a glimpse of possible explanations. But seeing it through Watson’s eyes, we see only the incomprehensible because we share his lack of deductive ability. A narrator who so completely embodies our way of thinking is invaluable, particularly when attempting to relate to a character so eccentric as Holmes.
Watson also proves a valuable and loyal friend. As mentioned previously, several times throughout the stories, he saves Sherlock Holmes through his decisive actions. Holmes refers to Watson in The Five Orange Pips as his only friend, and Watson proves his friendship many times over. Holmes entrusts him with dangerous and sometimes even illegal missions, including breaking into a blackmailer’s house, posing as an art collector to a dangerous cretin, and repeatedly chasing after armed and vicious criminals. Watson does these things and more, without a second thought. And he is unafraid to confront his friend about his dangerous drug habits, warning him that such actions will rob him of his remarkable gifts. Watson is a true friend, and as much as we admire Holmes for his intellect and deductive powers, it is Watson who we look up too, not for his gifts but for who he is as a person.
Sherlock Holmes is a remarkable and unique character. But his friend and colleague deserves his due recognition, for Watson is also a remarkable person. In spite of the things he lacks, he more than makes up for those shortcomings through his bravery, loyalty and friendship. I’ll probably never be like Holmes, but in many ways, I would like to be like Dr. Watson. As Sherlock said in His Last Bow:
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.”
Also, if you haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes stories, you need to. I suggest starting with the first one, A Study in Scarlet, which can be read here.