A Sign of Respect: Holmes and Watson



“Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, “I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”

“You know,” I answered with some emotion, for I had never seen so much of Holmes’ heart before, “that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

You can count on one hand the number of times amateur detective Sherlock Holmes expresses verbal concern for his compatriot, Doctor John Watson. It’s not so much that Holmes doesn’t feel, for I believe he feels very deeply, but rather he can’t function in his chosen mode of professionalism if he gives emotion a stronghold. Still, the façade is cracked, just a little, every time he places Watson in serious danger, the type that could actually result in their deaths. It’s the brief moments, such as the one from Devil’s Foot, that show Watson how much Holmes actually cares for him as a friend and a colleague.

What defines friendship? Affection is crucial, even in a male friendship, but even more so is respect for one another. Readers never doubt how deeply Holmes respects Watson in Doyle’s stories. He tests Watson, urges him to use his mind, seeks his company and his favor, and worries about his welfare. He keeps the man’s wallet locked up to stop him from gambling, after all. This is Sherlock Holmes, a man who chooses his friends wisely but once he’s picked them, they are valued. For a man of such keen intellect as him to offer respect and affection to an honorably discharged army doctor says a lot about, not only Holmes, but also Watson.

I feel David Burke, who played Watson opposite Jeremy Brett for a season, displays all the qualities of a prime Watson. Holmes asks him to deduce from a scene what he can, a sign of respect, and Watson jumps right in with his observations. He may not be right in his guesses and usually he isn’t but the excitement in his eyes and eagerness with which he responds to Holmes’ query show how privileged he feels to be of assistance. Exactly as he said in the Devil’s Foot quote.

As much as I love Sherlock from the BBC, neither Martin Freeman nor Benedict Cumberbatch fills the mold Doyle developed. Ben’s Sherlock is, in his own words, a “high-functioning sociopath.” He eats people for lunch and spits them out, even John Watson. How is that a sign of respect? There are moments when Sherlock reveals glints of interest in his newfound companion, but his sociopathic attitude always takes over and John is made to feel not only idiotic, but little better than a manservant. This is a shame because the show, on the whole, is brilliant and entertaining. If only the writers had made Sherlock a little less psychotic as well as toned down the gay jokes their friendship might have had a chance to shine as Doyle intended.

Then there’s Robert Downey Jr., the other popular, new incarnation of the great detective. He and Jude Law are the inaccurate, unrealistic versions of the Holmes and Watson characters. This Holmes clings to his Watson out of… it could be any reason. His is a needy reaction instead of one of respect. He doesn’t want what’s best for Watson, only what’s best for himself. In Doyle’s original stories Watson married not just once, but twice, and never did Holmes make even an effort at standing in his way. Holmes wanted his friend to find happiness, not just with him, but in whatever way necessary to feel complete and secure.

Watson left Holmes for a time, finding his own way, serving the public as a doctor, being a husband, but there would come the moments when he’d recall his old friend and pay Sherlock Holmes a visit. Holmes’ eyes would light up at Watson’s entrance and the two would attend the opera, dine at a fancy restaurant and, of course, solve crime. The annoyance of Downey Jr.’s Holmes is his inability to let go. Jude Law’s Watson is desperate for freedom but has a manacle shackled to his ankle that Holmes has pounded into the floor. This is certainly no sign of respect or even affection, but rather an unhealthy obsession of which Doyle would never approve.

The dedicated Sherlockian is left with the classic film interpretations and the original stories to decipher Doyle’s intentions. His duo are best friends. Watson is the type of man who could have many friends but he always returns to Holmes for an adventure. Holmes can live without his Boswell, his biographer, but is always delighted to see him. They’re not bereft when they are without one another, but still more complete together. More than any other male friendships, Holmes and Watson are two sides of the same coin. All interpretations hold some merit, if only for pure entertainment’s sake, but to really get to the root of the characters, one must go to the source—that of the brilliant deductive reasoning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his development of the finest detective who never lived and his faithful friend and dedicated biographer. ♥


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carissa Horton sews, knits, and writes. She works for Compassion International, which finds sponsors for third world children, and dreams of being an agent at a publishing house. She blogs about life, faith, relationships, and fandom in her free time.


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