February 2, 2011

John H. Watson, M.D.

Watson is underrated. Perhaps understandably so; after all, compared to the brilliant Holmes, Watson is hardly remarkable. But, then again, no one in Conan Doyle's novels is very remarkable when examined in the light of Sherlock Holmes (a fact of which that detective is keenly aware). Watson never fails to be startled by the minutiae of his friend's deductions, but is not quick enough to pick up on them himself, and his frequent inability to guess at the trail of Holmes' thoughts leaves many readers to conclude that he is a dunce.

Not so. Watson is no idiot, as he shows in The Hound of the Baskervilles, where he spends most of the book attempting to solve a mystery on his own; rather, he is the perfect foil for the eccentric genius of Sherlock Holmes. Whereas Holmes' talents lie in the realms of careful planning, plotting, and not a little deception, Watson is a man of action, generally ready with a pistol in his pocket to help his friend out of a tight spot. If not brilliant, he is brave, and never one to back out when the danger is high. His job is to fire at pygmies, throw smoke bombs inside rooms through open windows, and, most importantly, to do everything without asking questions or questioning Holmes' methods. As Holmes himself remarks in Hound, it is in the hour of action in which he turns to Watson for aid - and it is in the hour of action that Watson excels.

Holmes: "And when I raise my hand - so - you will throw into the room what I give you to throw, and will, at the same time, raise the cry of fire. You quite follow me?"
Watson: "Entirely.... I am to remain neutral, to get near the window, to watch you, and at the signal to throw in this object, then to raise the cry of fire, and to wait you at the corner of the street."
Holmes: "Precisely."
Watson: "Then you may entirely rely on me."
(The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia.)

Another point that is often missed is that only a character like Watson could be written as a loyal friend of a man like Sherlock Holmes. If Watson were as brilliant as Holmes, it would be unreasonable to think that the two would be friends, for their talents would lie in the same areas, they would clash, and it would ultimately diminish from the grandeur of Conan Doyle's masterpiece: Sherlock Holmes.

Watson is most important, however, in his capacity as a filter between Holmes and the reader. While readers may be disgusted with Watson for not always "catching on," this only shows that they don't realize how very much in the dark they would be if there were no character in the story to whom Holmes explained his logic. There are only two other options: first, that there be no explanation at all; or second, that Holmes' thought processes would be explained in narrative form rather than in dialogue. The first would alienate readers by making Holmes into an unapproachable, and incomprehensible, character, as, without an explanation of his conclusions, Conan Doyle's detective would seem absurd. Indeed, many of Holmes' seemingly random conclusions do seem absurd until he has languidly explained them to Watson.

As for the second, this means would make the prose tedious and parenthetical. Something along the lines of, "'You took the train back from the country this morning,' said Holmes. He knew this from the little splotch of mud on the threshold, which was not one of the five hundred samples known in the city of London and which naturally indicated that he had been out in the country. 'And you were late.' This, of course, came from the fact that the mud was rounded into the shape of the flat of Watson's shoe, which indicated that he had been sprinting." It is so much nicer to set out this information in dialogue form, rather than having the author feed it to the reader in such a way as to indicate the former's assumption that the latter is an idiot.

Instead of burdening his stories with either of these options, Conan Doyle created the character of John H. Watson, M.D. As an intrepid friend, supporting character, intelligent sidekick, and narrator of Holmes' cases, he remains a classic and oft-overlooked figure in the familiar mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.

(Maker of graphic unknown.)

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't help commenting, Abigail, 'cause I couldn't agree more! Watson is so underrated. Though I am not Holmes I have a beloved Watson of my own (my sister!) and none of my writing would be possible without her just being there for me. :)

    Glad I found your blog -- I got your book from our mutual friend Megan and am looking forward to reading it! Blessings!

    ~ Grace

    ReplyDelete

 
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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