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A Study in Scarlet opens as Dr. John Watson, a British army surgeon in the late 1800s, tells his story of serving overseas in the Afghan War, being shot, and recovering at a hospital. Watson eventually returns to London, England, weak and in poor health, and takes up residence in a hotel. Just as he realizes his style of living is too expensive, he runs into Stamford, a former colleague from medical school. Stamford, upon learning that Watson is looking for new lodgings, exclaims that he knows an eccentric man who is looking for a roommate.
Stamford takes Watson to the hospital medical laboratory to meet Sherlock Holmes. Holmes surprises Watson by immediately noting that Watson has been in Afghanistan. Holmes won’t reveal how he knows this fact, but instead he shares his discovery of a chemical agent that reacts to drops of blood, a process that will help identify criminals. At Stamford’s prompting, Holmes explains that he has a suite of rooms to share but that, as a roommate, he has some shortcomings: smoking tobacco, not speaking for days on end, playing violin, and performing chemical experiments. Holmes and Watson arrange to visit the rooms together. When Watson asks Stamford how Holmes knew about Afghanistan, Stamford responds that Holmes is peculiar that way.
Dr. Watson’s narrative in Chapter I serves to shed light on his own personal history and the unique characteristics of the novel’s other principal character, Sherlock Holmes. Upon the pair’s first meeting, Holmes reveals his intensity, brilliance, and excitability when he explains the importance of his new hemoglobin test. He also displays his considerable skills as an interpreter of subtle clues, correctly guessing Watson’s recent whereabouts with hardly more than a glance. Holmes’s uncanny ability to piece together entire narratives from a few small clues is a constant refrain in the novel and contrasts with other characters’ more conventional thinking. For example, while Holmes immediately perceives that Watson is a military man recently returned from Afghanistan, Stamford and Watson cannot guess Holmes’s profession, despite many clues. Holmes maintains this air of mystery throughout much of the novel, revealing this and that about himself but never explicitly telling his personal story. This air of mystery is one reason Watson is attracted to Holmes and looks forward to learning more.
Despite the main intrigue in this chapter being supplied by Holmes’s eccentric character, Dr. Watson’s description of himself reveals an interesting man in his own right. Unlike Holmes, Watson appears to be an open book. His clear prose and the way he interacts with Stamford and Holmes show that he is humble, polite, and unassuming, yet direct in his communication. And despite his claim that he has had enough excitement to last the rest of his life, Watson still decides to room with the intense, excitable Holmes. Watson relishes the opportunity to learn more, betraying a desire for new experiences and a curiosity about the wider world.