Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Final Problem


Baring-Gould dates The Final Problem between April 24 and May 4, 1891. Watson is quite particular concerning the date, telling us that the case began on the 24th of April, 1891, which corresponds with Baring-Gould's chronology. The Final Problem was first published in December of 1893.


It was with a heavy heart that Dr. John Watson took up his pen to write what was intended to be the last adventure of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In The Final Problem, Holmes comes up against Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, and most dangerous man in London. Moriarty is not easily beaten, however, and Holmes is forced to escape to the Continent when things don't work out as planned, Moriarty hot on his heels. Their final confrontation is only too inevitable, reaching a climax at the infamous Reichenbach Falls. The two men, locked in combat, plummet over the precipice, simultaneously destroying the most dangerous criminal in London, and the foremost champion of the law.

The Subtext:

Before delving into the story itself, we must first take a moment and examine Watson's chronology.

The Final Problem was first published in December of 1893. Holmes was thought to have perished on May 4, 1891. It should also be remembered that Holmes reappeared (The Empty House) in the spring of 1894, some three to four months after FINA's publication.

We must also note that Watson first published A Scandal in Bohemia (the first story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) in July of 1891, some two months after Holmes' death. Between the writing of SCAN and the writing of FINA, Watson published some twenty-three cases, contained within The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Allow us to put this into context.

Watson, at the time of Holmes' death (ten years into their relationship) had written up two of Holmes' cases. Holmes perishes alongside Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, and Watson returns to England to immediately begin chronicling Holmes' work. In the span of two years, he writes some twenty-three stories (almost a story a month). Incredible, is it not? Bear in mind that at the time of Holmes' return, Mary was no longer in the picture, and if we assume her death, then we must also suggest that she was likely quite ill during this time. If we assume a divorce, then it is entirely possible that it was Watson's obsession with Holmes (or Holmes' ghost) that finally shattered their marriage.

This will become even more incredible when we examine The Empty House, which was first published in 1903. Coincidentally, Holmes retired in 1903, leaving London and Watson behind. Watson, it would appear, is incapable of living without his Holmes, and so, with Holmes' death (and later, his retirement), Watson turned to documenting Holmes' cases a means of surrounding himself in Holmes' memory. This is obsessive behaviour, and very suggestive of Watson's need for his long-time friend and companion.

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.

For two years Watson has been writing and publishing Holmes' cases, and it is only now that Watson has decided to put aside his pen. There is such incredible grief in the above statement, and one can easily imagine the difficulty Watson had in deciding to move on with his life. One wonders if Mary was alive during this period of time, or whether Watson had already been made a widower. Watson's loneliness is felt throughout this piece, but it is here, in the introduction, that it is felt most acutely.

In an incoherent and, as I deeply feel, an entirely inadequate fashion, I have endeavoured to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the "Study in Scarlet"...

One can easily imagine, especially given that the bulk of these accounts occurred after Holmes' death, that Watson was indeed insensible with grief. In fact, one can easily imagine that Watson's stepping aside here (despite the existence of unpublished cases) had more to do with the pain which surfaced alongside these memories than Watson's need to move on. Despite this, one gets the impression that letting Holmes go is destroying the few remaining pieces of Watson's heart.

Watson's statement that he fears his accounts were incoherent and inadequate speak to the difficulty faced by Watson after Holmes' death. He wants (needs, even) to do Holmes justice, and yet fears he has failed, for, at this point, Watson must no longer recall why he began chronicling Holmes' work. He became consumed by the need to honour Holmes' memory, and yet, now, after the passage of two years, Watson's intentions (and reasons) must seem quite hazy. We cannot doubt that Watson made the decision to publish Holmes' death, not only to save Holmes' reputation, but to save Watson from the growing bleakness that had become his every day existence.

It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill.

There is such longing in this statement; such regret. Watson freely admits to having spent the last two years writing Holmes' cases in an attempt to fill the void of losing Holmes, and yet, it is slowly becoming evident to him that this void shall never be filled. Holmes on paper is not Holmes in the flesh, and it easy to imagine that this realization must have been devastating to poor Watson.

It may be remembered that after my marriage, and my subsequent start in private practice, the very intimate relations which had existed between Holmes and myself became to some extent modified.

This is a curious statement, for in addition to Watson's claim of a very intimate relationship with Holmes, Watson is also quite careful to note its modification. He does not tell us that these relations have ended, but instead suggests that they have been modified. A curious choice of words, one must agree, and one cannot help but wonder what change could have possibly occurred which would warrant such a statement. Watson leaving Baker Street cannot be considered 'to some extent modified', and so we must suggest that, here, Watson was referring to the shift from very intimate to intimate.

It is curious, too, that Watson should feel the need to remind his reader of the intimate connection between him and Holmes. As the public has been receiving monthly instalments of Holmes' cases, there is hardly a call for Watson's reminder. One wonders, then, if this statement was a final attempt by Watson to confess the true nature of his and Holmes' relationship. Watson is grieving, and it is entirely likely that this grief was made worse by the fact that Watson was unable to share (with anyone) the true impact Holmes' death had on Watson's life.

We must now leave Watson to his grief in order to raise a question concerning chronology. Watson tells us:

He still came to me from time to time when he desired a companion in his investigation, but these occasions grew more and more seldom, until I find that in the year 1890 there were only three cases of which I retain any record.

And yet, in decoding The Cardboard Box, we have suggested that the above statement is a lie. Recall, in our analysis, we suggested:

The Cardboard Box did in fact take place in 1890, and was not one of Watson's three. In fact, there were a good deal more than three, for Watson and Mary had separated (likely due to Watson's continual abandonment of Mary for Holmes) and Watson had returned to Baker Street. Watson, of course, could not have allowed this scandalous information to come to light, and so he downplayed his role in Holmes' cases and rearranged several dates so as to maintain the illusion that he and Mary were happily married. In fact, it was not until the spring of 1891, when Holmes, in France on a case, urged Watson to reconcile with Mary (as Holmes, at this point, knew of Professor Moriarty and likely foresaw his imminent death).

We know that Watson is living away from Baker Street at the introduction of this case, and we know too that Mary is very much in the picture. We have proven that Watson spent a good many of his married years living in Baker Street (suggesting a separation). We can therefore deduce that Watson has reconciled with his wife and is once again living under Mary's roof.

The question becomes: why? And why at a time when Holmes was out of the country (seemingly obsessed with Moriarty)? Surely it is not too much to suggest that it was Holmes who encouraged Watson's reconciliation with his wife. And if so, to what purpose? Could Holmes have foreseen the tragic events at Reichenbach Falls? Could Holmes have wanted to spare Watson part of that grief by ensuring that Watson had someone to return home to? Or is it possible that Holmes, regardless of the outcome with Moriarty, felt ready to set aside his practice and seek out solitary study?

A thousand possibilities, each quite fascinating in its own right. Regardless of the reason, there is evidence to suggest that it was Holmes who initiated Watson's reconciliation with Mary. This will prove quite curious as we examine The Empty House, for it was only upon Mary's death that Holmes chose to return.

We return now to Watson's study, where Holmes has just arrived, seeking Watson's aid in his latest case. Watson tells us:

It struck me that he was looking even paler and thinner than usual.

To which Holmes replies:

"Yes, I have been using myself up rather too freely," he remarked, in answer to my look rather than to my words; "I have been a little pressed of late. Have you any objection to my closing your shutters?"

Note that Watson does not need to ask; Holmes can read his thoughts in a mere glance, evidence of their close associate and the intimate knowledge Holmes had of Watson. This is even more remarkable if we choose to accept Watson's explanation that it has been some time since their last meeting. That, after so many months separation, the pair should be capable of silent communication is quite extraordinary.

Perhaps even more curious is Holmes' next question, and their resulting conversation:

"Is Mrs. Watson in?"

"She is away upon a visit."

"Indeed! You are alone?"


"Then it makes it the easier for me to propose that you should come away with me for a week to the Continent."


"Oh, anywhere.

Note that Holmes' first thought is to inquire into Mary. Note, too, Holmes' excitement (for why else should Watson have him exclaim 'indeed!') at Watson's response. Clearly Holmes is quite thrilled to find Watson alone.

So thrilled, in fact, that he immediately invites Watson to the Continent, making a particular note that the location does not matter. Holmes surely must know the danger involved, and, having spent at least several months apart from Watson (on the Continent, of all places), Holmes has no real reason to return to London in order to ask Watson to accompany him on holiday. We must therefore suggest that it was Watson's company that Holmes' sought, more so than his aid.

Watson seems quite perplexed by Holmes' invitation, and although he has agreed, his doubt still shows. Again we are witness to Holmes reading Watson's thoughts, for Watson tells us:

He saw the question in my eyes, and, putting his finger-tips together and his elbows upon his knees, he explained the situation.

Such an intimate statement, one must agree, for Holmes could not have seen the question in Watson's eyes were he not gazing into them.

Holmes then sets about introducing Watson to Moriarty (although we will later learn that this conversation took place some years ago, and was added so that Watson might inform the reader of something he clearly already knew). This brings us to an interesting question: did Moriarty exist?

Holmes becomes quite obsessed with the man, and given that we have not heard a single word of Moriarty before this story, the plausibility of this character comes into question. Several Sherlockians have purported that Moriarty was a mere figment of Holmes' (possibly Watson's) imagination. There are literally dozens of theories surrounded Moriarty, and his existence, but here we will focus on the possibility of Moriarty being a figment of Holmes' imagination.

If Moriarty is a figment of Holmes' imagination, then we must conclude that Holmes has become quite delusional. If this is the case, then we must question why. We have assumed that Watson has been back in Baker Street for some time prior to this story, and we know that during this story he was living away from Baker Street. Is it reasonable to suggest that the shift in Holmes' perception corresponded with Watson once again leaving Baker Street? Or perhaps Holmes' cocaine use came before Watson's leaving, and it was this which drove Watson away? If this is the case, then we must question Holmes' motives. Here we can see only one: that it was Holmes' guilt concerning Watson, and the destruction of Watson's marriage, which led Holmes to misuse his favoured stimulant.

These theories are not impossible, and do present several interesting arguments for the student of subtext.

We return now to the story at hand. Watson, having listened with some horror to Holmes' statement, becomes quite concern. This is very evident as he tells us:

I had often admired my friend's courage, but never more than now, as he sat quietly checking off a series of incidents which must have combined to make up a day of horror.

In fact, Watson's horror is so great that he immediately invites Holmes to spend the night:

"You will spend the night here?" I said. Watson's statement, despite its question mark, clearly a demanded request.

Holmes, of course, refuses, telling Watson:

"No, my friend, you might find me a dangerous guest."

Holmes obviously places Watson's welfare above his own; Holmes is more than willing to risk his own life, but he will go out of his way to protect his Watson.

Holmes continues, telling Watson that there is nothing more he can do at the present time, and that he therefore intends to take a vacation. Holmes' comment:

"It would be a great pleasure to me, therefore, if you could come on to the Continent with me."

Is quite suggestive, for we must agree that it would indeed be a great pleasure to Holmes to once again have his trusty companion by his side. Holmes is quite open here, speaking directly from his heart, and we have no doubt that Watson was quite aware of it as Watson easily agrees a second time. This pleases Holmes immensely, and he immediately begins imparting his instructions:

"Then these are your instructions, and I beg, my dear Watson, that you will obey them to the letter, for you are now playing a double-handed game with me against the cleverest rogue and the most powerful syndicate of criminals in Europe. Now listen! You will dispatch whatever luggage you intend to take by a trusty messenger unaddressed to Victoria to-night. In the morning you will send for a hansom, desiring your man to take neither the first nor the second which may present itself. Into this hansom you will jump, and you will drive to the Strand end of the Lowther Arcade, handing the address to the cabman upon a slip of paper, with a request that he will not throw it away. Have your fare ready, and the instant that your cab stops, dash through the Arcade, timing yourself to reach the other side at a quarter-past nine. You will find a small brougham waiting close to the curb, driven by a fellow with a heavy black cloak tipped at the collar with red. Into this you will step, and you will reach Victoria in time for the Continental express."

Quite the detailed set of instructions. In fact, it is quite obvious here that Holmes has planned this out exceptionally well (before Watson agreed, no less). This suggests that Holmes knew, before speaking to Watson, that Watson would agree. Truly, Holmes knows his Watson. Watson's loyalty and dependability have never come into question. Nor has Holmes' faith in Watson.

Watson, having agreed to follow Holmes' instructions to the letter, makes one final push to convince Holmes to spend the night. Holmes, of course, declines, leading Watson to state:

It was in vain that I asked Holmes to remain for the evening. It was evident to me that he though he might bring trouble to the roof he was under, and that that was the motive which impelled him to go.

Here we have proof that, indeed, Holmes has refused for fear of bringing Watson harm. Clearly Holmes' desire to protect Watson is far greater than his own personal need for Watson. This selflessness on Holmes' behalf is a clear indication of Holmes' unconditional love for Watson, and yet, we cannot forget that Holmes has requested Watson's company on the Continent; could it be that Holmes knew Watson was in danger in London, and so desired to get Watson out of the city? Moriarty is indeed a perceptive criminal if he knew to strike at Holmes where Holmes was weakest.

With a few hurried words, Holmes takes his leave, and the next morning Watson makes his way to the train station. Upon arriving, Watson tells us:

My only source of anxiety now was the non-appearance of Holmes.

Watson's worry is quite acute, and we get the sense that he is quite fearful for Holmes' safety. In fact, Watson goes on to say:

A chill of fear had come over me, as I thought that his absence might mean that some blow had fallen during the night.

Clearly Watson is just as concerned for Holmes' well-being as Holmes is for Watson's. The worry and anxiety both men experience (in relation to one another) is quite indicative of their need for one another, and of the importance each plays in the other's life.

Holmes, of course, soon puts Watson out of his misery by announcing his presence. After Watson has recovered from the shock of Holmes' unveiling, Holmes fills Watson in on the events of the evening.

"Have you seen the morning paper, Watson?"


"You haven't seen about Baker Street, then?"

"Baker Street?"

"They set fire to our rooms last night. No great harm was done."

Recall that Watson is no longer sharing rooms with Holmes in Baker Street, and yet here Holmes clearly refers to them as our rooms. Despite Watson's absence, we get the impression that Holmes will forever consider Baker Street Watson's home.

Slowly Holmes and Watson make their way onto the Continent. They have only just arrived in Strasburg when Holmes receives word that Moriarty has escaped the police and is now at large (and likely bent on revenging himself upon Holmes). Holmes is quite disappointed, but his first thought is of Watson's safety, and he suggests that Watson return to England. When Watson requests an explanation, Holmes explains:

"Because you will find me a dangerous companion now. This man's occupation is gone. He is lost if he returns to London. If I read his character right he will devote his whole energies to revenging himself upon me. He said as much in our short interview, and I fancy that he meant it. I should certainly recommend you to return to your practice."

Clearly Holmes cares not for himself, but Watson is a different story. In order to keep Watson safe, Holmes knows that he must dismiss Watson; however loath he is to do it.

Watson, of course, will have none of this, and tells us:

It was hardly an appeal to be successful with one who was an old campaigner as well as an old friend. We sat in the Strasburg salle-à-manger arguing the question for half an hour, but the same night we had resumed our journey and were well on our way to Geneva.

It is quite obvious here that Watson cares deeply for Holmes; so much so that he is willing to disregard his own safety in order to see Holmes through on his journey. That Holmes should argue with Watson is telling, too, for it suggests that Watson was forced to counter Holmes' reservations; a difficult task considering how strong-willed Holmes can be.

Despite the threat hanging over them, Watson quite seems to enjoy their holiday. He tells us:

For a charming week we wandered up the Valley of the Rhone, and then, branching off at Leuk, we made our way over the Gemmi Pass, still deep in snow, and so, by way of Interlaken, to Meiringen. It was a lovely trip, the dainty green of the spring below, the virgin white of the winter above...

This description is quite curious, as it reads more like a leisurely honeymoon than a flight from the most dangerous man in the world.

This, of course, brings us to a curious question. Holmes has stated that Moriarty is ruined and is unable to return to London. He has requested that Watson return to London, and yet, would it not be advisable for both men to return to London? If Moriarty's organization is destroyed, then it is apparent that Holmes is in just as much danger traveling as he would be back in Baker Street. The answer for this is quite simple. Holmes knew that Watson would remain on the Continent if Holmes intended to do so, and since returning to London meant returning Watson to Mary, Holmes chose to remain in Europe.

In fact, this theory becomes quite probably when one examines Holmes' mood. Watson tells us:

And yet for all his watchfulness he was never depressed. On the contrary, I can never recollect having seen him in such exuberant spirits.

We are not at all surprised by Holmes' lack of depression, for one can easily imagine that whatever fear and worry overshadowed their trip was more than made up for in their sharing of tents.

Tents aside, we must succumb to the darkening mood that Holmes refused to acknowledge, for here the story shifts, making us painfully aware of what is to come.

I shall be brief, and yet exact, in the little which remains for me to tell. It is not a subject on which I would willingly dwell, and yet I am conscious that a duty devolves upon me to omit no detail.

Watson's pain here, and indeed, his hurt, is only too apparent. We are acutely aware of Watson's grief, his broken heart, and his hopelessness. It is a mark of Watson's loyalty, and his talent as a biographer, that he is able to rally himself together and complete the story. Still, his words are melancholy, reminding us of the present, and Watson's complete and utter emptiness.

Holmes and Watson arrive in Meiringen, and soon set out for that fateful journey to Reichenbach Falls. Watson is called upon his spurious errand, and yet, he must have sensed what was to come, for he tells us:

As I turned away I saw Holmes, with his back against a rock and his arms folded, gazing down at the rush of the waters. It was the last that I was ever destined to see of him in this world.

This statement is filled which such regret; such longing, and we know that Watson has once again been reminded of everything he did not say, and everything he did not do.

Despite this sense of foreboding, Watson continues on his path, arriving back in Meiringen, only to discover that he has been deceived. Watson's statement is quite telling:

A look of surprise passed over his face, and at the first quiver of his eyebrows my heart turned to lead in my breast.

Watson, surely aware now of what has come to pass, does not spare his readers the horror he felt at this realization. His words tinged with worry, Watson questions the innkeeper, and then frantically rushes back to the scene.

But I waited for none of the landlord's explanations. In a tingle of fear I was already running down the village street, and making for the path which I had so lately descended. It had taken me an hour to come down. For all my efforts two more had passed before I found myself at the fall of Reichenbach once more. There was Holmes's Alpine-stock still leaning against the rock by which I had left him. But there was no sign of him, and it was in vain that I shouted. My only answer was my own voice reverberating in a rolling echo from the cliffs around me.

It is so easy to picture Watson here, an expression of shock and horror upon his features as he cast his gaze about and attempted to process the situation. And then, putting the pieces together, he refuses to accept what Holmes would have instantly deduced. He makes his way to the edge and cries out for Holmes, straining to listen and telling himself that Holmes is safe; that Holmes will answer. And then, when no answer comes, Watson's breath would abandon him, and he would have been forced to struggle for air, his chest threatening to crush him under its weight.

It does not end there, for Watson continues:

It was the sight of that Alpine-stock which turned me cold and sick. He had not gone to Rosenlaui, then. He had remained on that three-foot path, with sheer wall on one side and sheer drop on the other, until his enemy had overtaken him. The young Swiss had gone too. He had probably been in the pay of Moriarty, and had left the two men together. And then what had happened? Who was to tell us what had happened then?

Watson's cry of who was to tell us what had happened? is so painful to read, for this was Holmes' task; Holmes job and without Holmes Watson is lost. We begin to see Watson's frantic thought pattern; his refusal to process the likelihood of Holmes' death, and the abject confusion and disorientation which must have accompanied Watson's realization that there was only he.

We can well imagine, too, the feeling of inadequacy Watson must have felt at this realization, for it left him to step into Holmes' shoes and attempt to reconstruct the scene. Watson tells us:

I stood for a minute or two to collect myself, for I was dazed with the horror of the thing. Then I began to think of Holmes's own methods and to try to practice them in reading this tragedy. It was, alas, only too easy to do. During our conversation we had not gone to the end of the path, and the Alpine-stock marked the place where we had stood. The blackish soil is kept forever soft by the incessant drift of spray, and a bird would leave its tread upon it. Two lines of footmarks were clearly marked along the farther end of the path, both leading away from me. There were none returning. A few yards from the end the soil was all ploughed up into a patch of mud, and the branches and ferns which fringed the chasm were torn and bedraggled. I lay upon my face and peered over with the spray spouting up all around me. It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shouted; but only the same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears.

Watson pieces together the scene, despite the horror which dazed him. He makes his obvious conclusion, and yet, despite this, he cannot help but cry out one last time; Watson is not yet ready to give Holmes up for dead.

It is then that Watson spots Holmes' cigarette case, and beneath it a small square of paper:

Unfolding it, I found that it consisted of three pages torn from his note-book and addressed to me.

Incredible, is it not, that Holmes, about to face his nemesis, and in all likelihood his mortality, should think to pause long enough to write a three page letter to Watson. Indeed, Holmes' letter presents several suggestive elements.

My dear Watson,

I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us.

Holmes has just come up against Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, and he asks this man's permission to write Watson a letter. Clearly, it is Watson who remains Holmes' priority.

Holmes then goes on to say:

I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you.

Holmes has, on several past occasions, remarked that, save Watson, he has no friends. It is obvious then that this statement is for Watson alone. Holmes knows the cost to Watson, and feels remorse and guilt for it. Truly this is the sign of a man who cares quite deeply.

In fact, this becomes even more evident in Holmes' closing remarks:

Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow,

Very sincerely yours,

Sherlock Holmes

Holmes does indeed belong to Watson, and here he confirms this. We see too that Holmes signature includes his given name, a gesture of intimacy, for under usual circumstances Watson refers to Holmes only by his last name.

Holmes letter, from its existence to its signature, is quite remarkable, and reminds the reader once again of the bond which existed between Holmes and Watson. No two men were ever closer, and we grieve, not just for the loss of Holmes, but for the loss of a friendship, and a great love. We share in Watson's pain, and nowhere is this pain more apparent than in Watson's closing remarks:

...upon him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.

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