Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dr. Watson an Expressive ISFJ

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are many incidents that support the generally accepted idea that Dr. John H. Watson is an ISFJ.

ISFJ stands for Introverted Sensing Feeling Judging, and is a personality type in the Myers Briggs system of personality analysis.

ISFJs are known as "The Protectors" and "The Defenders." Watson felt the need to protect his friend, insisting on accompanying Holmes when he was being pursued by Moriarty (The Final Problem, 734). He also felt protective of Miss Mary Morstan. When Thaddeus Sholto suddenly and offhandedly revealed that her father was dead, Watson wrote, "I could have struck the man across the face, so hot was I at this callous and offhand reference to so delicate a matter." Not long later they found themselves holding hands, "I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection" (The Sign of Four). In this quote, it is clear that he instinctively wanted to be supportive to her, and that she saw him as a good emotional support and protector.

Dr. Watson
Heiss wrote that ISFJ's will provide practical support at a moment's notice to their close friends. This is seen a number of times throughout the canon. In The Final Problem, Watson left on very short notice with Holmes in order to protect and assist him. He arose early to go on adventures with Holmes and undertook assignments from Holmes that involved leaving his own business behind. Additionally, he retrieved a different friend from an opium den and the man was grateful for this rescue (The Man With the Twisted Lip). Watson definitely exhibits this ISFJ trait. 

On a related note, this type feels a need to serve. "ISFJs are characterized above all by their desire to serve others, their 'need to be needed.' In extreme cases, this need is so strong that standard give-and-take relationships are deeply unsatisfying to them" (Heiss). Watson once referred to Holmes as his master, which implies that he was the servant or pupil. He, himself, stated that he served Holmeswith these words: "my years of humble but single-minded service" (The Adventure of the Three Garridebs). While he would have liked to be more appreciated this need to serve is perhaps why he continued to serve Holmes despite the fact that he felt unappreciated. It seems that Watson would have liked a normal give-and-take friendship, but because he was an ISFJ he put up with one that was not and on learning that Holmes really did value his friendship and service after his apparent indifference, it was enough for him: "All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation" (The Adventure of the Three Garridebs).  "ISFJs are loyal to the end," Joe Butt.

Typical ISFJ, Watson feels unappreciated, "I have often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts I had made to give publicity to his methods" (The Hound of the Baskervilles).  Heiss wrote, "ISFJs are often unappreciated....they are often unwilling to toot their own horns about their accomplishments because they feel that although they deserve more credit than they're getting, it's somehow wrong to want any sort of reward for doing work." Watson doesn't express the feeling that it is wrong to want recognition, but he does feel unappreciated and that he deserves more gratitude from Holmes.

ISFJs are Sensors as opposed to Intuitives. Andrea Wenger wrote, "They’re more interested in sensory data than in the patterns perceived by the unconscious mind." Watson saw and noticed details but he could not connect them correctly in the grand way the intuitive Holmes did. Now, that being said, ISFJs do have some intuition which may misguide them (Heiss) as perhaps it did Watson.

Watson possessed an inability to hide his true feelings well. Joe Butt wrote that ISFJs are "are often unable to either hide or articulate any distress they may be feeling." One example was when Holmes deceived Watson instead of taking him into his schemes because he knew Watson wouldn't be as convincing if he didn't believe in it.  In The Dying Detective. Holmes said to Watson, "among your many talents dissimulation finds no place, and that if you had shared my secret you would never have been able to impress Smith with the urgent necessity of his presence, which was the vital point of the whole scheme." (Conversely: because he did believe Holmes was dieing, he succeeded in convincing the villain to come). In The Sign of Four, he pretended to be happy although his heart "was heavy within" him and it was evident: "I think I must have been rather over-acting my delight, and that she detected a hollow ring in my congratulations."

Now, in response to the latter half of Joe Butt's statement, Watson was able to articulate his feelings just fine, and I think this is because we see his feelings through his writings. Writing gives one the chance to analyze one's emotions and pick the right words to describe them. In Portrait of an ISFJ, we read, "more so than other types, ISFJs are extremely aware of their own internal feelings, as well as other people's feelings" which they may refrain from expressing. From personal experience both these statements are true in the right context. ISFJs just hide their feelings poorly. 

On a similar note, and although not technically an ISFJ trait, Watson had an expressive face. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Holmes was able to basically read Watson's mind because, well, it was written across his face:
“You remember,” said he, “that some little time ago when I read you the passage in one of Poe’s sketches in which a close reasoner follows the unspoken thoughts of his companion, you were inclined to treat the matter as a mere tour-de-force of the author. On my remarking that I was constantly in the habit of doing the same thing you expressed incredulity.”
“Oh, no!”
“Perhaps not with your tongue, my dear Watson, but certainly with your eyebrows."
Their conversation continued and Watson argued:
"But I have been seated quietly in my chair, and what clues can I have given you?”
“You do yourself an injustice. The features are given to man as the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours are faithful servants.”
“Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my features?”
“Your features and especially your eyes.” Holmes continued with an analysis of Watson's expressions and movements which were the foot-prints that led him through the path of Watson's mind.

And this is one reason why Martin Freeman is an excellent Watson:

Watson from BBC Sherlock
What a veritable palette of expression!

Further Exploration:

His writing style also indicates that he is an ISFJ. For more on that see:
Dr. Watson's Writing Style and Personality Type

I really enjoyed this post about Dr. John Watson from BBC's Sherlock. It approaches character analysis by looking at personality functions. I learned a lot about Myers Briggs through her series and the further exploration that it prompted:


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, edited by Leslie J. Klinger, intro by John Le Carré. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, vol 1 & 2. W. W. Norton & Company. New York: 2005.

Heiss, Marina Margaret and Joe Butt. ISFJ Profile, on TypeLogic.

Wenger, Andrea. The ISFJ Writing Personality: Tangible Warmth.

Portrait of an ISFJ

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