Saturday, July 7, 2012

Elementary My Dear Watson!

Dr. Watson (left) and Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget
John H. Watson, M.D., known as Dr. Watson, is a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is Sherlock Holmes's friend, assistant and sometime flatmate, and he is the first person narrator of all but four stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon
Watson is described as a crack shot and an excellent doctor and surgeon. Intelligent, if lacking in Holmes's insight, he serves as a perfect foil for Holmes: the ordinary man against the brilliant, emotionally-detached analytical machine. Conan Doyle paired two characters, different in their function and yet each useful for his purposes.
Watson is well aware of both the limits of his abilities and Holmes's reliance on him:
"Holmes was a man of habits... and I had become one of them... a comrade... upon whose nerve he could place some reliance... a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him... If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance." – "The Adventure of the Creeping Man"
Conan Doyle portrays Watson as a capable and brave individual, whom Holmes does not hesitate to call upon for both moral and physical assistance: "Quickly Watson, get your service revolver!" Watson sometimes attempts to solve crimes on his own, using Holmes's methods. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson efficiently clears up several of the many mysteries confronting the pair, and Holmes praises him warmly for his zeal and intelligence. However, because he is not endowed with Holmes's almost-superhuman ability to focus on the essential details of the case and Holmes's extraordinary range of recondite, specialised knowledge, Watson meets with limited success in other cases. Holmes summed up the problem that Watson confronted in one memorable rebuke from "A Scandal in Bohemia": "Quite so... you see, but you do not observe." In "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," Watson's attempts to assist Holmes's investigation prove unsuccessful because of his unimaginative approach, for example, asking a London estate agent who lives in a particular country residence. (According to Holmes, what he should have done was "gone to the nearest public house" and listened to the gossip.) Watson is too guileless to be a proper detective. And yet, as Holmes acknowledges, Watson has unexpected depths about him; for example, he has a definite strain of "pawky humour", as Holmes observes in The Valley of Fear. On the whole, however, Watson is naturally open and straightforward, while Holmes can be secretive and devious.
Though initially their relationship was little more than one between casual acquaintances sharing a set of rooms, Holmes and Watson ultimately become the best of friends, almost like brothers. By the time they shared "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", Holmes was so attached to his friend that he nearly lost his composure at the thought that Watson had been fatally shot. Watson wrote, "It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation." Holmes recovers his balance only when he is sure that Watson's wound is slight, but a trace of his alarm and worry for Watson is clear in his menacing reproof to the criminal who shot the doctor: "If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive."
Though Watson never masters Holmes's deductive methods, he can be astute enough to follow his friend's reasoning after the fact. In "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder," Holmes notes that John Hector McFarlane is "a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic". Watson comments as narrator: "Familiar as I was with my friend's methods, it was not difficult for me to follow his deductions, and to observe the untidiness of attire, the sheaf of legal papers, the watch-charm, and the breathing which had prompted them." Similar episodes occur in "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," and "The Adventure of the Resident Patient." In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", we find a rare instance in which Watson rather than Holmes correctly deduces the motives for the torture of the crime victim.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles Watson shows that he has picked up some of Holmes's skills at dealing with people from whom information is desired—though, as a skilled doctor with a first-rate bedside manner, Watson naturally would have such skills. When Watson sees that his questions to Dr. Mortimer are arousing too much curiosity, he manipulates the conversation so that Mortimer soon forgets what they were discussing. (As he observes to the reader, "I have not lived for years with Sherlock Holmes for nothing.") Though he is on the wrong scent when seeking information from Mr. Frankland, he succeeds in egging on the contrary old man by using Holmes's trick of feigning lack of interest. And he questions Laura Lyons much as Holmes might have done.
Watson was a fully competent doctor, and his knowledge proved useful to Holmes on many occasions. In "The Adventure of Silver Blaze," for example, his identification of a certain type of surgical knife confirms Holmes's suspicions and helps him solve a crucial puzzle in the larger mystery. In "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Watson's notes about the injury the murder victim had sustained— a blow to the left side of the head from the back— prompted Holmes to realise that their killer was left-handed, which allowed him to narrow the list of suspects. In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Watson's medical skill saves the life of the client Mr. Melas, who was nearly killed by the story's villains with gas poisoning. Holmes notes his respect for Watson's professional skill in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" when he explains that he incorporated into his ruse of being deathly ill a claim that his illness was highly contagious, since Holmes knew that Dr. Watson never would have been deceived upon examining him closely and discovering that an ostensibly dying man had neither a high fever nor an abnormal pulse.
There are ample, though occasionally inconsistent, clues in the stories giving rise to speculation as to whether he was married twice or even thrice.

“The ground was quite wet this morning and I went up town and got the old team shod and got 640 lbs plaster to use on the potatoes.  Ermuous came at noon and we worked in the corn this afternoon.  Has been a pleasant afternoon.”

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