The Sign of [the] Four (1890): Watson--unreliable narrator, or unreliable observer?
My background (and my feelings on having a Kindle):
The book I want to talk about is one that I actually finished on the train this morning, and, admittedly, I have never actually read a full Sherlock Holmes novel before. What? you’re thinking. But Ana, you’re so well read! No, I’m not.
I have had brief glimpses into the world of Holmes, including several short stories and about a third of A Study in Scarlet, but I’ve never really tackled a full novel. But almost exactly a year ago, I got my good friend (now roommate) a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories for his birthday, and he’s expressed his enthusiasm for them ever since.
I also own a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes works, but even though they’re divided into two paperback volumes, each of those volumes was still too big to put in my purse. So I’ve neglected to read anything until now—until I got a Kindle.
I got a Kindle Paperwhite a few months ago, somewhat in line with when I got a job in eBook sales and I had to start thinking about that sort of thing. Since I got the Kindle, I haven’t really loved reading a book on it. But the problem, I think, was that I preferred print books so much that I’d purchase books I knew I’d like in print, while I’d download discounted or less important books onto my Kindle. When I read those books, I didn’t enjoy them much. So for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out whether I hated the medium or the books I’d put onto the device.
After reading The Sign of the Four, I’ve decided that it was likely the books’ fault. I downloaded the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes works onto my Kindle for some ridiculously low price, making it completely portable and really easy to read on the train. I enjoyed every minute of The Sign of Four. I even had a little girl on the train ask me to read it to her, which I didn’t, because murder is no fun for a four-year-old, and I didn’t want to stop every five seconds to define words.
Anyway, my point is—I never got around to reading Sherlock Holmes, and by having a little faith in digital books, I finally read one of the novels. So here’s a PSA for anyone who hasn’t considered it: use your Kindles for something besides (or at least in addition to) 50 Shades of Grey. Classic literature is often cheap, and with a Kindle, you won’t have to drag around a 1,000-page copy of Les Misérables for the weeks it might take to read. But I digress.
The Plot/Commentary (I began writing this as plot only, but started to trail into commentary. The woes of studying English).
In this (second) Sherlock Holmes novel, Sherlock and Watson have established their rapport and have already solved the case Watson has called A Study in Scarlet. The publication of this report has drawn still more attention to the already famous detective, who publicly plays second fiddle (pun intended, as he’s also a violinist) to the police, but is actually responsible for most of the casework himself. Yet in spite of the police declaring that Sherlock is quick with theories, he is remarkably well known and well liked, and even the mention of his name grants him entrance into residences and allows him to pass through tricky situations unscathed.
Yet Sherlock Holmes is not without his vices. Burdened by his own intellect, Sherlock suffers horrible ennui when he is unable to cling to a case. When driven by a mystery, Sherlock becomes nearly superhuman, needing only an hour of rest for a whole nighttime of detective work. But when he goes without a case, he turns to morphine and cocaine. This is, in fact, one of the first glimpses we get of Sherlock in this novel, as Dr. Watson turns a critical eye on his companion for his depressive self-medication.
My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence.
Without divulging too much of the mystery, the facts are these: a woman, Mary Morstan, comes to Sherlock and Watson with an unusual request. Her father disappeared years ago, and recently, she received a letter asking her to come (with, at most, two companions) to a certain location. She also tells them that she has received a single pearl in the mail several times in a row, but with no way to know where it came from or why. Sherlock and Watson readily agree to go with her (as Sherlock is attracted to the mystery, and Watson is attracted to Miss Morstan), and they discover that there is a great treasure to be split between Miss Morstan and the man who sent her the strange note. However, when they go to check on the man’s brother, they find him dead—struck by a poison dart—in a locked room.*
Locked room mysteries work ideally in the context of Sherlock Holmes stories because they are, at face value, impossible to solve. Either A, the solutionappears obvious (for example, the person inside the room might seem to have committed suicide) or B, there is no logical solution. In The Sign of the Four, the situation fits a little of both. The police think the solution is obvious (it was the brother with the aid of the butler!) but don’t have any explanation as to how the room was locked from the inside, but simultaneously, the logical solution is obscured.
–What do you think of this, Holmes? Sholto was, on his own confession, with his brother last night. The brother died in a fit, on which Sholto walked off with the treasure? How’s that?
–On which the dead man very considerately got up and locked the door on the inside.
(Chapter 6, p. 113)
In either case, Sherlock Holmes functions as the key to the locked-room mystery, as his powers of deduction must always lead him to the logical solution, no matter how ridiculous.
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
(Chapter 6, p. 111)
In this case, his powers of observation and deduction lead him straight to the criminal’s name—but working out how everything was done, why it was done, and who was involved is a more complex matter.
*I don’t want to talk about locked room mysteries much, but I think they’re super neat. According to Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite source of totally true facts, there are even locked-room mystery prototypes in the Old Testament of the Bible. But the most commonly believed “first” locked-room mystery is The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), by Edgar Allan Poe.
In examining Sherlock Holmes as a character, we’ve seen a few things: he’s brilliant, his powers of deduction are outstanding, he regards his abilities simply as a “method,” and he turns to mind-altering substances during periods where he lacks mental stimulation.
What I find really interesting, though is Watson as a character. Who is he in the context of the story? He’s Sherlock’s companion, housemate, and observer. He is the keeper and the narrator of Sherlock’s stories, and therefore, he is the one responsible for giving them to the reader to the best of his ability. But how good is his ability? And what about his reliability?
You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.
(A Scandal in Bohemia)
Watson watches with fascination as Holmes does what he does best: observes and deduces. But Sherlock pins down Watson’s disability precisely: he’s a seer, not an observer, and as such, he’s never able to put the pieces of the mystery together for himself, even when prompted.
You know my methods. Apply them.
This, I believe, is what makes Watson the ideal narrator of a mystery story. To some extent, he may build up Sherlock Holmes’s abilities to be more than they are. We don’t know, because the story is in the first person, and we could be easily led astray if Watson were a willingly unreliable narrator. But let’s assume the best and say that Sherlock Holmes’s abilities are special, but do not verge on superpowers, and Watson is just too oblivious to recognize that. He errs on the side of worshipful. He’s an audience member at a really stellar magic show; there’s always a logical explanation (which Holmes will happily walk him—and the reader—through), but Watson never comes to the conclusion on his own.
In this way, Watson creates a bridge between detective and reader by playing the part of the audience for Sherlock Holmes’s work. We are prevented from seeing the whole picture until Holmes is ready to paint it out. If the narrative were written from Holmes’s point of view, or in a 3rd person point of view, we would always know too much or too little. In Holmes’s head, the facts would always be presented readily, and there would be no suspense. In an omniscient/limited 3rdperson narrator, the problem would be the same. In a commentator-style 3rdperson narrative, the facts would be laid out for us to put together ourselves, and we would never have Sherlock’s beautiful explanations of how things come together.
But in Watson’s 1st person view, we find that happy medium: he’s an unreliable observer, but not willingly so, and this role is extremely effective in getting us to see the parts of the picture that we should be seeing. And with Watson as a devoted listener, Sherlock can freely explain his methods and theories, thereby communicating them to the reader only when the reader is ready to know the facts.
*As a side note, I’m aware that a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories are not narrated by Watson, and I’d be really interesting to get a feel for how that works–or doesn’t work–in the context of the mystery. I’ll probably write another (hopefully more brief) analysis then.