Friendship In Sherlock Holmes

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An essay on the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and his long-time companion, Doctor John Watson.

Submitted: August 15, 2011

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Submitted: August 15, 2011



January 2011

Having a good friend is an asset in all areas of life. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the bond between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson is essential in the solving of their shared cases. Three of their sixty written adventures demonstrate this most: “The Final Problem,” “The Devil’s Foot,” and “The Dying Detective.” Without Watson’s support and loyalty during these cases, they would never have been solved.

In “The Final Problem,” written in 1893, Sherlock Holmes fakes his death to escape Colonel Sebastian Moran, unbeknownst to Watson. Holmes expects Watson’s allegiance and faithfulness to him to compel him to publish a “true” account of his death, therefore causing his pursuers to believe in his false ending. Holmes says, when he returns to Baker Street three years later: “Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret.” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”). By this time in the canon, Holmes and Watson have become close friends and it is evident that although the news is startling at first, the pair has no trouble falling back into old habits. “It was indeed like old times,” Watson writes, “when, at that hour, I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket, and the thrill of adventure in my heart.” (Doyle, “The Empty House”). Christopher Redmond, author of The Sherlock Holmes Handbook (1st and 2nd editions) writes: “The mutual affection of Holmes and Watson is understated, both as a demonstration of the friendship’s firmness and as a natural consequence of Victorian formality.” (Redmond). There is still much truth in his words. Holmes and Watson never directly tell each other that they appreciate the other; however, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insures the reader knows they still care by using light words with deeper meanings. An example of this comes from “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” when Watson writes: “I have no keener pleasure than in following Holmes in his professional investigations, and in admiring the rapid deductions, as swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis...” and again in the same story, Holmes tells Watson that his presence in the case may be “invaluable.” Holmes admitting this is the strongest evidence we have that the detective has required Watson’s assistance in his cases. As Redmond says, the relationship is truly mutual. He repeats himself again when he writes “...the relationship between Holmes and Watson is one of equals...” What one man lacks, the other man contains. Holmes lacks Watson’s compassion whilst Watson lacks Holmes’ brilliance. Holmes is a messy and unorganized flatmate whilst Watson is tidy and meticulous. Steven Doyle, publisher of The Baker Street Journal and author of numerous reference books on Holmes writes: “But no words in the canon speak to the affection and friendship between Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson more than the closing words of ‘The final Problem”...he simply calls Sherlock Holmes ‘the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.’” (Doyle, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Though there is no real case in “The Final Problem,” the closeness and loyalty Watson feels towards Holmes still solves the story’s problem in the end. Without Watson, Holmes’ unhappy demise would have never been made public, which is a crucial part of Holmes’ plan to survive, as he tells Watson when he returns back to his flat at Baker Street.

However clever and well thought out they may be, Holmes’ plans do not always work. In “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” written in 1910. Holmes develops a plan to test a poison found on a lamp that is believed to cause sane men to turn mad. Watson and Holmes are both quickly affected by the poison but Watson’s quick thinking saves them both.

“I broke though that cloud of despair and had a glimpse of
Holmes’s face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror-the very look
which I had seen upon the features of the dead. It was that vision
which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength.” (Doyle,
“The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” ).

Watson’s bravery and swift thinking saves them both from the same fate as the previous victims. If Watson had chosen to not take part in the experiment, it would have gone according to plan and Holmes would have been driven insane or even killed by the poison and the case, quite obviously, would not have been solved. The kind doctor often agrees to stay by Holmes’ side despite the danger. In this case, he does just that, fully conscious of the risks. “You will see it out, will you? I thought I knew my Watson.” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”). Holmes says when Watson settles on staying with him. S.C. Roberts says it best when he writes:

“More and more, as time went on, Holmes displayed an affection
for Watson which was very different from the casual camaraderie
of their earlier “the adventure of the devil’s foot,”
was Watson’s prompt courage that saved was in an
unsteady voice that Holmes expressed his thanks. Watson had
never seen so much of Holmes’s heart before...” ( Roberts).

Watson is the most valuable asset to Holmes when he is in danger. Many times throughout the canon, Watson is found saving Holmes’ life or out laying the risks for his friend to see however, it is very uncommon for Holmes to acknowledge Watson’s bravery with his thanks. There is another instance, earlier in the canon, where Holmes thanks Watson for keeping by his side until the last moment despite the dangers. “’I knew you would not shrink at the last,’ he said, and for a moment I saw something in his eyes which was nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen.” (Doyle, “ The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”). The moments are few and far between in which Holmes is verbally thankful for Watson’s presence, however, it is evident that he is always thankful.

Holmes trusts his best friend’s abilities to keep him out of harm’s way but in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” written in 1913, for the first time, Watson’s skill as a physician and heartfelt concern makes Holmes keep Watson far away from him. When Holmes must pretend to be dying to lure a criminal to his bedside, Watson is used, once again unknowingly, to do so. Fearing that Watson will not provide the necessary performance he must to entice the man in, Holmes must make Watson, too, believe that he is dying. Watson does believe and writes:

“...but it was that gaunt, white face staring at me from
the bed which sent a chill to my heart. His eyes had the
brightness of fever, there was a hectic flush upon either
cheek, and dark crusts clung to his lips; the thin hands
upon the coverlet twitched incessantly, his voice was
croaking and spasmodic.” (Doyle, “The Adventure of
the Dying Detective”).

Watson gives a strong performance and persists until he convinces the man to follow him to Holmes’ bedside. Watson only succeeds because he is so deeply and genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. At the end of the story, when Holmes confesses to Watson that he is fine, Watson asks why Holmes has kept him so far away if he had not been contagious. Holmes answers: “Can you ask, my dear Watson? Do you imagine I have no respect for your medical talents?... At four yards, I could deceive you. If I failed to do so, who would bring my Smith within my grasp?” (Doyle, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”).The story is so spectacular and unique that Watson “could make his audience feel that he was telling the story from the fireside.” (Roberts).

In Sherlock Holmes, the bond between Holmes and Watson is essential in solving their cases. Calling Sherlock Holmes and John Watson “just good friends” does not do justice to the true brotherly love they have for each other. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes the pair in a way that is too strong for friends yet too weak for a romantic love. The ideas of readers in Doyle’s time and in modern time have changed the friendship into many different things, but the fact that Watson is needed by Holmes and vice versa is what remains as the foundation for the characters. The great detective himself says it best: “Good ol’ Watson. You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” (Doyle, “His Last Bow”).

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Roberts, Sydney C. Holmes and Watson. New York: Otto Penzler Books, 1953.

Doyle, Steven, and David A. Crowder. Sherlock Holmes For Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Redmond, Christopher. Sherlock Holmes Handbook, 2nd Edition. Ed. Jason Karp. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2009.

Riggs, Ransom. The Sherlock Holmes Handbook. San Francisco: Quirk Books, 2009.

The Search For Sherlock Holmes: Documentary. Dir. David Street. With David and Hayman. Minotaur International, 2010.

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