The Role of the Second-Person Narration in Sherlock Holmes
To understand the use and impact that Watson, the narrator, had on the story we must examine the other options commonly used during Doyle’s time, for similar stories. The two other narrative structures Doyle could have used were Holmes’s first-person narrative or the omniscient narrator. The use of an omniscient or all-knowing narrator would have the potential for Doyle to pick and choose what to reveal and what to hide to the reader. Furthermore, this option commonly allows the reader to witness certain reactions, emotions, and relationships in more than one or two characters. This also means that an author can integrate multiple intertwining plot lines.
The immensely popular television series Sherlock uses an omniscient narrator, which helped make it more accessible and compatible with its new platform, television. Although this episode contains many of the ideas and techniques used by the short stories, the difference in narrative structure sticks out to me. While focusing on the final sequence this difference becomes quite evident. It is interesting that as soon as Watson and Holmes split the focus shifts to Sherlock with only quick shots of Watson sprinkled in the action. In the novels, the focus would have been on Watson and his attempts to track and follow Holmes to his destination, eventually killing the killer by the end. Another difference is the entire plot itself. In the books, Holmes is seemingly always the savior and x-factor that catches the killer off guard, but in this first episode, the roles are switched and Watson takes up the role of his partner. This adaption of Holmes is one of many, and is quite entertaining, with the integration of modern-day technologies being particularly interesting. However, the narrative style reveals most of Holmes’s revelations as they happen which, in my opinion, is an inferior style to using Watson as the sole narrator.
A second potential narrative style that could have been employed by Doyle would be the first person. This option would allow the reader to follow only Sherlock Holmes for the duration of each story and would ultimately be less effective. If every little detail and observation made by Holmes was revealed the very common “big reveal” where Holmes explains his genius to Watson would be ultimately impossible. Instead of using these options Doyle wisely chose to use Watson as the narrator in his short stories. The use of this narrator opened up so many possibilities. The relationship between John Watson and Holmes is by far the most consistent and reliable in the stories. From the very first story, this relationship is the backbone in which Doyle was able to build off of and to create each unique challenge for the characters. To most readers, Watson is both more relatable and likable than Holmes himself. By choosing this narrator, Doyle cleverly allows bias and opinion to slip into descriptions and hard facts produced by Holmes. Where Holmes excels in observation and knowledge in general, he is almost entirely devoid of all emotion and opinion. With Watson in the mix, this entirely new dimension is brought to light as an immersive and gripping dialog is created between the roommates. Although the feeling of admiration is almost always beeing expressed by Watson, the most realistic and impressive dialog comes from moments of weakness. While Watson tries his best to avoid comparing himself to his partner, he must do it eventually. “I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words, it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened, but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque (League.159)”. As he spends more time with Holmes, Watson begins to emulate Holmes, which is ultimately impossible and leads only to doubt in himself. Another interesting element to Watson is his ability to criticize and critique Holmes. “My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature” (Scandal). Watson provides a unique ability to critique Holmes and his drug habits and pick apart his lifestyle. This perfectly depicts what is great about Watson as a narrator.
Murder in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe ties in perfectly into narration in Sherlock Holmes, as it not only uses a similar style but it inspired the stories themselves. When asked about Poe and Doyle even said: “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” Most people seem to believe that without Poe and his Dupin detective stories Sherlock Holmes would never exist. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes took many aspects of Poe’s stories and made them more accessible and built off them. One of the many parallels lies in the narrative style as each story use someone who isn’t the detective to narrate their respective stories. Another example of these similarities Each narrator gives the reader notable distance from the action which allows time for speculation and increased suspense.
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