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Decoding the Subtext: A Study in Scarlet

Dates:

A Study in Scarlet is quite possibly the most pivotal story set within Canon. Not only does this story introduce Sherlock Holmes to the reader, but it also introduces Sherlock Holmes to Watson. It marks the beginning of what was to become one of the most profound and successful partnerships of all time. Baring-Gould dates the story in the winter/spring of 1881 (the case in March of '81, with the meeting occurring as early as January of '81). The story was first published in 1887, and marks the very first of what was to become an entire series of Sherlock Holmes stories.

Synopsis:

The story is divided into two parts, the first being a reprint from the reminiscences of John Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department. Here, Watson describes his introduction to Sherlock Holmes, and later his introduction to the world of consulting detection as he follows Holmes' search for a killer in the very first investigation in which Watson takes part. The second half follows the story of The Country of the Saints, which establishes a motive behind the crime that takes part in the first section. For our purposes, we have ignored the second part of the story, focusing solely on Watson's reprint.

The Subtext:

The story begins with Watson, alone and lonely in the great cesspool that was London in the 1880s. He recounts his somewhat tragic past (making particular reference to the injuries he sustained while campaigning in Afghanistan). Watson, through his narrative, establishes an emotional connection with the reader, and the reader immediately feels a sense of empathy, and indeed, sympathy for the character. This is a classic romantic build-up; the broken hero, friendless and alone in one of the world's great romantic cities, struggling with his very existence, and wanting nothing more than a connection to the people who surround him.

Watson's loneliness is temporarily relieved when he meets his old dresser, Stamford, who will later facilitate one of the greatest meetings in literary history. Watson is looking for rooms, as, until this point, he has been living in a private hotel, leading a comfortless, meaningless existence.

It is Stamford who first puts forth the idea of Watson taking on a roommate, a concept that Watson is eager to embrace.

"By Jove!" I cried; "if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone."

And thus we proceed to the great meeting, and the start of what would become one of the world's most definitive love affairs (for the both the characters, and their fans).

First impressions are very telling, as they set the stage for how a relationship is destined to unfold. In this instance, it is quite obvious that Watson is immediately taken with Sherlock Holmes. Aside from his amazement at Holmes's very first deduction, you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive, Watson seems mesmerized by Holmes' very persona. He spends a good deal of time describing Holmes' appearance, using less than subtle language.

...greater delight could not have shone upon his features.

His eyes fairly glittered as he spoke...

The use of words like shone and glittered conjure images of a delicate, rare jewel, and it is quite remarkable to note that these are the very words that Watson uses to describe Holmes.

It is obvious, too, that Holmes made quite the first impression, as, even six years later, Watson is able to describe their first meeting in vivid detail. Indeed, many times throughout the story, Watson, perhaps due to faded memory, glosses over an event or occurrence, and yet, his introduction to Sherlock Holmes is crystal clear. The detail in which he describes their meeting is unparalleled elsewhere in Canon.

It is interesting to note, too, Holmes' reaction, for he seems quite thrilled by the prospect of sharing rooms with Watson.

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me.

In fact, upon Watson agreeing to take on Holmes' as a constant companion, Holmes lets out a merry laugh, something that Holmes, we soon discover, does not often do.

Having agreed to settle the matter in the morning, Watson leaves, and yet, Holmes has already found his way into Watson's subconscious, as Watson finds himself considerably interested in my new acquaintance.

This interest does not wane with the passage of time, but instead grows in strength, Watson's interest in Holmes fast approaching obsession.

As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life gradually deepened and increased.

This is particularly evident in Watson's almost constant observation of Holmes; enough that he can describe, in detail, Holmes' daily activities, and his frequent shifts in mood. Watson is curious, but more than that, he is fascinated by the man he has chosen to share his home, and life, with. Holmes' demands Watson's attention, and attention Watson gives.

His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer.

Watson's description of Holmes is not limited to his personality. Indeed, Watson describes Holmes' physical appearance in remarkable detail, choosing to remark upon Holmes' extraordinary delicacy of touch and the dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes. Watson himself confesses how much this man stimulated my curiosity.

So curious does Watson become that he takes to keeping a list, marking down on paper the various aspects of Holmes' personality in an effort to figure Holmes out. This is clearly the mark of a man quite preoccupied with his fellow lodger.

The introduction continues with Watson waxing on poetically on the subject of Holmes' violin playing. It is obvious here, too, that Watson's growing affection is not one sided, as Watson mentions that Holmes frequently played for Watson, going so far as to play[ing] in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs.

At this point, their relationship is still tentative, the two men still getting to know one another, without the eventual trust that would later form between them. The attraction and interest is obvious, but it is hesitant, mired by the need to keep up appearances, and Holmes' reluctance to lower his guard in Watson's presence.

This soon changes, however, and it is interesting to note that this occurs fairly quickly, as within weeks Watson has gone from calling Holmes his acquaintance, to calling him his friend.

As time progresses, we are provided an opportunity to see the impact their meeting had on Holmes, as Holmes recounts (months after the fact), the very first words he uttered in Watson's presence. It is clear, then, that Holmes recalls the event with some clarity.

"But do you mean to say," I said, that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every detail for themselves?"

"Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way. Now and again a case turns up which is a little more complex. Then I have to bustle about and see things with my own eyes. You see I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature. You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan."


This exchange is also indicative of Holmes' need to prove himself; to impress Watson, and indeed, he spends the better part of this chapter 'showing off', at times becoming quite defensive on the subject of his talents.

This lasts until Watson is presented with an opportunity to test Holmes' claims, and, much to Holmes' delight, Watson discovers that Holmes does indeed possess the talents he has spent the better part of the morning boasting.

"Wonderful!" I ejaculated.

"Commonplace," said Holmes, though I thought from his expression that he was pleased at my evident surprise and admiration.


It is this open admiration on the part of Watson that leads Holmes to confide in Watson. He takes it a step further, however, and decides to include Watson in the proceedings of his case; a clear indication of the growing intimacy that would soon provide the basis for the bond between them.

Watson, it should be interesting to note, does not hesitate in accompanying Holmes' on his investigation. On the contrary, he seems quite excited, not to mention touched, that Holmes has granted him access to the world in which Holmes lives.

And while this world does hold interest for Watson, it is Holmes who keeps his attention.

As he spoke, his nimble fingers were flying here, there, and everywhere, feeling, pressing, unbuttoning, examining, while his eyes wore the same far-away expression which I have already remarked upon.

Taken out of context, the above quote is highly suggestive. I include it, not as a point in my analysis (although it is interesting to note the suggestiveness of Watson's description), as, in this instance Holmes is examining a body, but because, prior to this, Watson remarks upon the horror of seeing the body and his inability to look away. And yet, within moments his eyes exist solely for Sherlock Holmes.

The pair are now knee-deep in an investigation, Holmes operating in his element, Watson turned completely on his heel. I have mentioned above how quickly Holmes' went from acquaintance to friend, so the reader will undoubtedly find it fascinating to learn that Watson now refers to Holmes as his companion. Subtle language, I grant you, but suggestive all the same, for without Holmes' decision to include Watson in his work, I very much doubt that this transition would have taken place.

Throughout Holmes' investigation we are treated to more of Holmes showing off; more so than he usually does, and one can easily attribute this to Watson's presence. Indeed, later, Holmes, pleased by Watson's intrigue, refuses to elaborate on his methods, stating:

I'm not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all."

It is obvious here that Holmes is quite concerned that Watson may eventually tire of him. Already he is showing a great deal of dependence on Watson, even if this dependence is solely for the benefit of his ego.

He needn't worry, of course, for Watson is far too awestruck to even consider Holmes ordinary.

"I shall never do that," I answered; you have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world."

Holmes' reaction, one will agree, is quite appreciative.

My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.

We have now been privy to their meeting, and their tentative beginnings; as they weighed one another, and judged one another, and tested one another. We have seen evidence of the open curiosity and intense interest that first brought them to confide in one another. We have witnessed the first extensions of trust that would later form the foundation for a decades long relationship. All of this is marked by subtle flirting and playful banter, and yet, until this point, we have not yet delved beyond the bond created by Holmes' profession. This, soon, would change.

Having invited Watson to share in his art, Holmes seems to feel more at ease, and is perhaps more trusting of Watson than he was when they first met. He is comfortable now in sharing the other aspect of his life. This is evident upon their return trip to Baker Street, when Holmes turns the topic to music, mentioning Chopin, a composer well known for his highly romantic pieces.

"What's that little thing of Chopin's she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay."

Although in future stories, Watson will frequently accompany Holmes' to his concerts, in this instance, Watson, tired from the morning's exertions, chooses to pass the afternoon alone in Baker Street. He is incapable of resting, however, for his mind had been much too excited by the day's events.

He is still sorting out his thoughts when Holmes returns, and seems much preoccupied. So much so that Holmes comments:

"What's the matter? You're not looking quite yourself. This Brixton Road affair has upset you."

Holmes' concern here, it should be noted, is quite evident. It is obvious that he cares, at least somewhat at this point, for Watson's welfare. Again, it should be noted that it was not often that Sherlock Holmes expressed his concern, or concerned himself with the welfare of others.

His concern is tangible enough that he soon attempts to turn Watson's mind on to other things. Here, Holmes almost seems to ramble, somewhat aimlessly, as he jumps from topic to topic, covering everything from music to literature to Darwinian Theory without pause. Watson, it should be noted, does not miss a beat. Their entire exchange is very reminiscent of an old, married couple.

Holmes does not, however, allow Watson's upset to preclude Watson from the investigation. In fact, shortly after the arrival of the killer's accomplice (dressed as an old woman), Holmes rushes out after her (him), shouting to Watson, wait up for me!

And Watson does, passing the time by skimming through the pages of Murger's Vie de Boheme, which, at the time, was considered quite the erotic book.

Holmes, upon his return, is more than willing to share his failure with Watson, laughing as he relays the adventure, but not before confessing that he wouldn't have the Scotland Yarders know it for the world; a clear indication that his trust for Watson is growing.

His concern for Watson's welfare is again highlighted, as he remarks that Watson is looking done-up and immediately suggests that Watson turn in for the night, a suggestion that Watson obeys without hesitation.

In fact, we do not see Watson again until the morning, Watson telling us:

Sherlock Holmes and I read these notices [found in several London newspapers] over together at breakfast.

I will confess that the above statement is open to some interpretation, but the image that forms in my mind is that of two men, chairs pressed close together as they sit around the dining room table, a collection of newspaper spread out before them, with the two of them leaning close together to read in unison.

It is an incredibly intimate scene, and speaks, in my opinion, to the rapidly developing bond that would remain unaltered for the better part of three decades. In fact, I think it is fairly safe to assume that this bond lasted long into their later years.

We must now take a moment and deviate from Holmes and Watson so that we might comment on one of the many side-stories that take place in this novel. Here we examine the alibi of Arthur Charpentier, Inspector Gregson's prime suspect, who provides the following explanation for his whereabouts during the time of the murder:

On his way home he met an old shipmate, and took a long walk with him. On being asked where this old shipmate lived, he was unable to give any satisfactory reply.

Given that his encounter with the murdered man lasted no more than a few minutes, and that he was out of the house for at least two hours, and that he was later found to be innocent, one must question: what, in the dead of the night, could these two have been doing that would have kept Charpentier away from home for several hours, and would have prevented him from knowing the address of his former shipmate?

Is it too much to suggest that this was an attempt on the part of Doyle (i.e. Watson) to draw the reader's attention to the existence of gay subplots within the story? The implications in Charpentier's comments are, after all, quite obvious.

We return now to Holmes and Watson, for it is at this point that Watson first expresses an interest in documenting and publishing Holmes' cases.

"It is wonderful!" I cried. Your merits should be publicly recognized. You should publish an account of the case. If you won't, I will for you."

And so begins Watson's career as biographer, brought about by the desire to share with the world the brilliance and wonder that he has discovered in Sherlock Holmes. I am certain I need not point out how unusual this behaviour is, for I seriously doubt that most men would even consider writing of their male friends in such a romantic manner.

"You may do what you like, Doctor."

There can be no doubt that Watson's praise touched Holmes, for he seems quite pleased with the suggestion. One can imagine that this instance is what brought down Holmes' final barriers, and solidified what was then an idle thought, because from that point forward Watson would play a central role, not just in Holmes' work, but in Holmes' life as well.

Within the passing of mere months, their friendship had formed, their partnership had begun, and the deeply intimidate bond that existed between them was already quite evident. For an introduction to a relationship which would eventually feature prominently in all sixty of Doyle's stories, A Study in Scarlet does more than subtly hint at the exact nature of this relationship.

 
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