Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Symbiotic Relationships: Panza, Watson and the Anatomy of a Sidekick
I am pondering the exigencies of these literary dualities - hero and sidekick - and looking for ways in which to distinguish one from the other, to more closely define each within the sphere of plot and narrative requirements. What designates the cohort to a subservient role? Examining most particularly Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes, I am increasingly under the impression that the literary value of this character couple is not necessarily their distinct, individual contributions as much as the connective thread that unites them: the mutual symbiosis which defines their literary dance.
While Holmes and Don Quixote are the primary instigators of action within their novels, Watson and Sancho embody the 'everyman' inclusion who provide pragmatic counterbalance to the eccentricities of their hero-counterparts. Their perspective enables the reader a closer connection with the lofty heroes who otherwise might become farcical; forming the critical function of humanizing the protagonist and drawing the reader into a more familiar narrative of quotidian normality. One without the other, hero without sidekick, is one half of a literary whole; it is not the mere presence of the principal player that is mandated for the success of the fictional work, but the inclusion and elaboration of his or her cohort, and an exploration of the relationship that exists between the two.
If the reader of my humble musing will forgive a few rather improbable metaphors...The chemical properties of water spring to mind, with an analogy of atomic parts: Hero and Sidekick represented by two hydrogen atoms bonded through the course of the narrative, through events and dialogues that establish that critical relationship. Atomic bond strength is dependent upon temperature, pressure, bond angle and environment; perhaps the connective ties between literary partners are also intensified with plot heat, pressure of action, and environmental considerations. The biological equivalent of this (which is referred to as persistent mutualism) can be found in the goby fish which often co-habitates with a housekeeping shrimp who digs and cleans up the burrow the two share. The shrimp, being of a visually-challenged variety, is vulnerable to predators topside but benefits from the goby's tail-touch to warn of impending danger which sends both scurrying back to burrow. The point of these somewhat dubious analogies is that both are equal partners in the literary endeavor, and while one may take center stage more often than not it is only because the other has engaged the audience sufficiently to remain in their seats.
So to examine the character of sidekick in closer detail; I submit for your perusal one John H. Watson: medical doctor, journalist, connoisseur of women, valiant and loyal friend. Present in 56 of the 60 published adventures he serves as buffer between the reader and the cold searing light of Holmes' intellect. The blinding brilliancy of Holmes' deductive logic elevates him beyond all others in the narrative, his analytical mind working on a plane inconceivable (as Watson himself admits) to his doctor compatriot. However Watson is the tether that ties Holmes to terra firma, grounds him, humanizes him. Interestingly, while Holmes is indubitably the star of the literary work, Watson is accorded a particular status insofar as his intimacy with the reader is concerned; we are informed most particularly about Watson's background before we even meet the famed detective, who himself remains maddeningly elusive. Watson's character develops and grows throughout the course of subsequent mysteries: by the end of Conan Doyle's stories the doctor is depicted as a 'father confessor,' tolerant of human frailty and well aware of his own limitations, while Holmes' consistent refusal to acknowledge his own reduces him to an oddity, albeit a fascinating and brilliant one. From the onset a man who walked with kings (Bohemian monarch in Scandal in Bohemia) yet never lost the common touch (yellow-backed novels and sea stories of William Clark Russell remained his favorite reads) Watson was the ballast upon whose reassuring weight Holmes came to increasingly rely. The few stories depicted sans Watson, or in which he plays a minor role, are arid and disappointing, lack humanity, and embarrass one with Holmes' shameless narcissism. While these personal attributes tend to alienate Holmes from the reader, they also isolate the character within the narrative with opiates providing a refuge from the loneliness of his condition; just as Watson aids in weaning Holmes from his addiction, lessening his isolation and facilitating interpersonal interactions, he also is instrumental in bringing Holmes and the reader into more comfortable proximity.
Watson has the endearing ability to appear less astute than the reader, rendering himself more approachable than the aloof and awesome Holmes, without sacrificing respect for his own native intelligence. The thinness of this particular literary highwire is best appreciated when one falls off, a frequent occurrence among those who have attempted to duplicate the endeavor. Said the detective, sorely missing his friend's assistance in The Blanched Soldier: "A confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each new development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate." This symbiotic relationship, of enduring and loyal friendship, is a poignant one within the literary compendium - where the two together fit like adjacent pieces of a puzzle, both equally instrumental in the final depiction of picture.
Don Quioxte's staunch companion is the illiterate peasant Sancho Panza, a character who offers an interpolated narrative voice throughout the tale, a fictional device invented by Cervantes. Sancho is a literary precursor to the conventional sidekick and personifies practicality over idealism, pragmatism over fancy. His is the only character to exist within and outside of Don Quixote's madness, and while his master battles windmills and mistakes inns for castles, Sancho's preoccupations are indubitably of the earthy kind: money in his pocket, food in his belly, and the restorative power of sleep (Panza in Spanish meaning 'belly' or the English equivalent of 'paunch.') Where Don Quixote is intent and serious, Sancho has a quick sense of humor, displaying the faults and foibles of his contemporaries but possessing an underlying honorable and compassionate streak others predominately lack. His character provides the most varied perspective within the narrative, imbued with a simple wisdom and propelled forward by his insatiable curiosity about the world. The humble squire serves not only as foil for his master, but for the ill-conceived equation of class and worth; irregardless of Sancho being ignorant, illiterate, and cowardly, he nevertheless proves himself a wise and just ruler (despite Don Quixote's fantastical and foolish advice), a better governor than the educated, affluent and aristocratic Duke. At the conclusion of the narrative Sancho comes to relinquish concerns of material wealth and political power and demonstrates a simple happiness with homelife and humble station.
Though not sharing his master's delusional 'enchantment' until late in the novel, Salvador de Madariaga has suggested that through the course of the book there is a gradual "Quixotization" of Sancho and a "Sanchification" of Don Quixote, so much that, when the knight recovers sanity on his deathbed, it is Sancho who tries to convince him to become pastoral shepherds. Regardless of what one finally believes, there is a poignancy in this assessment - for after all one does not exist in isolation and as the influence extends from protagonist to companion so it comes back in full measure with the ultimate value being the connective thread in-between, the relationship rather than one or other individual engaged within it; there is again that sense that both together comprise a whole, that each is equally and inextricably part of the other. As he lays dying Don Quixote expresses his affection for his loyal companion: "And if when I was mad I was party to giving him the governorship of an isle, now that I am sane I would give him a kingdom, where I able, for the simplicity of his nature and the fidelity of his conduct deserve it." Sancho tearfully urges him:"get out of bed...perhaps we shall find the lady Dulcinea behind some hedge, disenchanted and pretty as a picture.."
Like Watson, Sancho humanizes the narrative, bringing dignity and poise, but also humor and compassion. They are not only complex individuals in their own right who display personal growth during the progression of adventures (more so it might be argued than their illustrious counterparts) but it is the nature of their engagement with their eccentric companions that gives depth and a poignant humanity to these great literary works. The shrimp and the goby, a bond of two-like minded atoms, two halves of a critical literary whole. I would hesitate to ascribe hierarchical concepts to characters (despite both works named for the primary protagonist) within these novels when both individuals are utterly instrumental to the success of the fictional entirety.
So for the work-in-process, for the novel-to-be-formulated, for the construction of companion, the 'sidekick recipe' is perhaps simpler than one might have thought: once protagonist has been arrived at, in theory, the cohort is already in imaginative existence: it is just a matter of fleshing out the necessary correlations, the quotidian to the eccentric, the tether that secures a high-flyer to the earth, the humanity-providing counterpart that draws the reader in. Not that anything so sublime can be so simplistically reduced - the literary dance of hero and sidekick is a complicated endeavor, a literary highwire act defined by the narrowest of paradoxes: for both protagonist and companion are simultaneously steady and teetering, stalwart and feeble, incisive and undiscerning. It is in their collaboration, fluidly defined through the narrative, where the true magic lies. Often an affinity best conveyed when it is unexpressed: evident in the undercurrent of exchange, the eddies beneath the surface, the matter that lies between and beneath: the raised eyebrow or skeptical glance that indicates, more effectively than words, conmingled emotional ties, the headlong heedless rush to protect, the quiet of evening harmony, the mutual acceptance of shortcomings and a cognizance of the ties that bind: in short the reciprocity of two.