Holmes and Watson–Who Needs Whom More?

My fellow Holmesian author Charlotte Anne Walters asked this question. You can see her excellent assessment here: http://barefootonbakerstreet.wordpress.com/

Holmes and Watson. John and Sherlock. Obviously, you can’t really have one without the other. Even adaptations that try to change this almost always end up pairing the detective with someone, usually with the idea of Watson looming the background.

An in-exhaustive survey of adaptations seems to reveal a certain progression of ideas, with the majority of earlier versions emphasizing the clever Holmes/bumbling Watson dynamic, while more recent ones skew toward the maladjusted Holmes/protector Watson. It would take a much longer and more in-depth post to explore how these changing ideas reflect attitudes toward social and mental health in general, but on to the subject at hand…

The question is, does one man need the other more?

As Charlotte pointed out, Watson without Holmes is still a doctor with a successful practice, who is able to form a family and live a societally-accepted life. He has another side to his existence besides the friendship, and to that he can turn when Holmes is unavailable.

Who is Holmes without Watson? Hardly less successful by his own standards, though obviously eccentric by societal standards. He successfully solves cases, annoys the police, and even forms friendships, something that seems to have escaped the memory of many. (In “The ‘Gloria Scott,'” Holmes describes his first case, solved as a favor for a friend from university.) Holmes without Watson has less notoriety, but since he constantly refuses honors and generally shows little interest in public recognition, it seems likely he would have survived without his Boswell, or perhaps found another. It’s also worthwhile to remember that Holmes is the one who chooses to retire away from Watson in the end.

As originally written, both men, without one another, have successful lives by their own standards, and that, in my view, is what makes their friendship so enduringly mesmerizing. Holmes chooses Watson and finds in him a listening ear, a champion, and a brother. Watson chooses Holmes and finds in him a chance for adventure and the freedom to act in ways his natural propriety would usually forbid.

Can they survive alone? The answer is yes, especially at the beginning. The Sherlock Holmes canon is not only a loose collection of detective stories. It is also the story of the personal development of two men, not as individuals, but as a unit. The question of the two of them existing alone becomes more complicated as the stories progress. Once Holmes is used to Watson’s practical assistance and constant affirmation, could he comfortably forego it? Could Watson live without the adventure? (It’s fascinating to recall that during the time of Holmes’s supposed death, Watson goes to investigate something on his own.) The final answer, I believe, is that Holmes and Watson were successful individuals before they met, but that their friendship made them still more complete.

Who needs whom more? The answer is neither. It’s a choice, not a compulsion, but that initial choice leads to a friendship that makes both men more than they ever could have been alone.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Holmes and Watson–Who Needs Whom More?

  1. I agree Amy it is a fine exploration of ‘equals but different’ each brings their own qualities to the friendship and each needs something from the other. Whether I’m reading source material or watching ‘Sherlock’ that much is plain.

    Mutual benefit, mutual regard and respect. Who wouldn’t want that in a relationship be it love or friendship?

  2. Amy: I made a presentation last night to The Ribston-Pippins about the Literary requirement of Watson when telling Holmes stories. It has already been accepted for publication in the Sherlock Holmes Journal, so I acnnot make the contents public until they publish it. If yopu would like a copy for your personal use, please e-mail a request to me at pkenj@wowway.com.

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