Why Watson? Why didn’t Holmes pick a more like-minded friend?

holmes_watsonSherlock Holmes is clearly capable of sustaining a lasting friendship, and it’s interesting to observe that the person he chooses to do this with is pretty ordinary by comparison.

The most significant relationship in Holmes’ life is the one he shares with John Watson – a convenient flat share that turns into a lasting friendship and professional partnership. But Watson is no great intellect, not an eccentric bohemian or fascinating creative type. He’s a doctor, a brave and honourable man but let’s face it – he’s an ordinary sort of chap.

Now generally speaking, like attracts like. Eminent scientists all hang out together and form groups, great philosophers, painters and poets too. I’m thinking of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for example, a group of English painters, poets and critics living in London during the same period as Holmes.

But Sherlock Holmes had no interest in seeking out others who shared his gift for observation and his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime. Instead, he sat by the fire at 221b scraping away on his violin opposite an average medical man.

What can we read into this? Is it Holmes’ ego that draws him to such a partnership? Does he simply like being the cleverest person in the room? Hanging around with like-minded people might only cause rivalries, competitiveness and jostles for supremacy. Take Mycroft for example, we know that he has the same abilities as Holmes but to a greater degree. You’d think that the brothers would spend hours in each other’s company locked into great intellectual debate. But in reality, they only spend time together if they can be of use to each other.

Could it be that someone equal to Holmes wouldn’t be content to simply act as a sounding board the way that Watson does? They wouldn’t offer his ‘great gift of silence’. A fellow genius would want to put forward their own ideas and expect them to be listened to. Watson is happy to stay in the shadows, happy to assist rather than lead. He’s happy to help someone else come up with the answers and save the day, rather than be the hero himself. And this suits Holmes’ rather vain, egotistic nature very well.

Many pastiche writers, including myself, have enjoyed playing around with this dynamic. In Barefoot, Holmes returns from the Great Hiatus to find a much stronger Watson who has stepped out from the shadows and can’t be so easily led.

Will it be the same when BBC Sherlock series three hits our screens? (Still no official word about exactly when this will be). In the trailer for the Empty Hearse, we glimpse an older and wiser looking John Watson, perusing the menu in a posh restaurant, smartly dressed and confidently sporting a moustache. It’s clear he won’t be giving Sherlock an easy ride when he returns from his fake death. But as in Barefoot, I’m sure the friendship will survive – though perhaps on a slightly more equal footing.

About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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2 Responses to Why Watson? Why didn’t Holmes pick a more like-minded friend?

  1. Berberis says:

    For his own – as well as the public’s – safety, Sherlock Holmes should never live with someone of a like mind. Taking BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ as a basis for my limited argument, look at just three of the people he meets who claim to be his intellectual equal. I’m going to leave out Mycroft, as sibling rivalry is a whole other barrel of worms.

    Jeff the cabbie. The man claims to be a ‘proper genius’ and Sherlock nearly poisons himself as a result.

    Irene Adler. At their first meeting, he’s dazzled and she drugs him. At their next, he openly acknowledges that she’s smart, and then proceeds to show off to prove that he’s smarter. And not just in a flirting-with-her kind of showing off. No, this is a full-blown, peacock-strutting, look-at-me-aren’t-I-MAGNFICENT sort of showing off… and it simply doesn’t register in his mind that that’s what he’s doing. He doesn’t even appear to acknowledge the possibility that she might be on the wrong side of the law. It’s like watching an accident you know is going to happen but you can’t do anything to prevent. Sherlock allows himself to be so distracted that he makes a mistake. A big one.

    Moriarty. Yes, well. The less said, the better.

    This isn’t to say that Sherlock is unaware – at least occasionally – of his failings. During the conversation about why anyone who knew they were dying would think of their loved ones, Sherlock’s reaction to John’s “I don’t have to” (in response to his own “use your imagination”) is one of genuine sympathy. Even if it is tinged ever-so-slightly with impatience. This is one of many times when John patiently reels in the high-flying kite that is Sherlock Holmes, before the man threatens to get all tangled up in nearby trees/power cables. It’s to Sherlock’s credit that he realises this is what’s happened the instant he meets John’s gaze across the car park; this ordinary, unremarkable man – who’s known him for barely 48 hours – has saved his life.

    Someone of a like mind might have just let him die.

  2. Berberis says:

    Shame on me for not remembering that in the ACD canon there is, of course, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”. An experiment that nearly results in the untimely deaths of both Holmes and Watson is Holmes’ idea and, although Watson has the chance to back out, he stays with his friend. Holmes responds with “I thought I knew my Watson”, so certain is he that Watson will not only share but will mitigate the risk. And he’s right.

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