Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Establishing Character through Dialog

So it's the new year, and I resolve to be less lame. Which means that, among other endeavors, I am going to resume the Borrowed Fire series on this blog. In this series, I read works of classic literature, all available on Project Gutenberg, in order to see what contemporary writers like me can learn from them. So far it's been all dead white guys--a consequence, though not a necessity, of the whole public-domain thing, but they still have one or two things they might teach us. And since we've had our vampire (a super-dead white guy), we must now turn to werewolves, or potential werewolves, or at least large dogs, and so let us dive into The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!

Before we begin, I should mention that I had never read a word of Conan Doyle before about an hour ago. However, I have recently become obsessed with detective stories, spy stories, and stories of deduction in general, and have spent spent many hours watching both Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch portray Sherlock Holmes. I also just saw the first Robert Downey, Jr. version on a plane, and it was better than I expected, but there was little attempt to make the character Holmes-like, at least as I have come to understand him. Jude Law's Watson is another matter, as today's rumination will, I think, bring out. Anyway, what I wish to stress here is that I'm coming to this novel with a bunch of pre-set expectations and at least some general knowledge about the characters--as is likely true of just about everyone who's had any contact with Western culture. Sherlock is an icon, on a par with, I dunno, Santa Claus, and Watson is his humble sidekick and sounding board.

But what is that genius-sidekick relationship actually like? Well, it's quite nuanced. Hound starts off with Holmes challenging Watson to use his "system" to deduce as much as possible about the owner of a walking stick, which has been left behind in their apartment. Watson gamely offers that it likely belongs to a country doctor, and deduces from the inscription on the stick that it was given to the doctor by a hunting club. Holmes then bathes Watson in backhanded compliments:

"Really, Watson, you excel yourself," said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. "I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt."

He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. He now took the stick from my hands and examined it for a few minutes with his naked eyes. Then with an expression of interest he laid down his cigarette, and carrying the cane to the window, he looked over it again with a convex lens.

"Interesting, though elementary," said he as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. "There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions."

"Has anything escaped me?" I asked with some self-importance. "I trust that there is nothing of consequence which I have overlooked?"

"I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth. Not that you are entirely wrong in this instance. The man is certainly a country practitioner. And he walks a good deal."

In this exchange, Conan Doyle conveys the light S/M dynamic that has clearly been going on between these two for some time. Watson, habitually humble, is embarrassed to admit to us, his readers, that Holmes's words give him "keen pleasure," especially in light of his usual "indifference to my admiration." He strongly desires Holmes's approval, and seems further driven to seek it the more Holmes dismisses him. Of course this means that he can't, or won't, listen to closely to what Holmes is actually saying to him, which is more along the lines of "thank you for being such an idiot; if you were smarter, I couldn't use you." In fact, I myself was a little caught up in rooting for Watson to receive some genuine praise from his hero; it wasn't until Holmes announced that most of Watson's conclusions were "erroneous" that I went back and marveled at the blithe condescension of Holmes's compliments. Watson is a little stung, and seeks reassurance, which Holmes rather patronizingly gives him:

"Then I was right."

"To that extent."

"But that was all."

"No, no, my dear Watson, not all—by no means all. I would suggest, for example, that a presentation to a doctor is more likely to come from a hospital than from a hunt, and that when the initials 'C.C.' are placed before that hospital the words 'Charing Cross' very naturally suggest themselves."

So Watson, his head duly patted, is back in line, ready to be slapped down again. We've got some serious co-dependence issues here. But this is precisely what makes these characters more than just a smart guy and the admirer of the smart guy. Watson makes an especially poignant stand-in for us readers. We see that the admirer's admiration, while genuine, also costs him emotionally; in this, we feel for him, because admiration is rarely pure, or purely rewarding, in real life. Watson is the unrequited lover, hurt by Holmes repeatedly but unable to quit him. This is an interesting analogy for readers of fiction generally. Like Watson, perhaps we, too, want something from literary characters--love, or at least acknowledgment--that they are utterly incapable of giving us. We are so close to them, yet they elude us in the end.

Through this early dialog, Conan Doyle has given us an emotional investment in the mystery that we'd otherwise be lacking. Why should we care, right from the beginning, about the provenance of this walking stick? Because of Watson's--and Holmes's--own personal investments in knowing, around which their whole relationship is structured. This relationship raises and complicates the emotional stakes of deduction, which would otherwise be a purely intellectual exercise.

Oh, about Jude Law as Watson. Partly because he's just too gorgeous to play it otherwise, Law eschews the fond, slightly doddering exasperation of other Watsons. He's sharp, witty, and gets seriously pissed at Holmes--rightly raising the question of why he sticks with him.

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