Sherlock Holmes - The Final Problem: Summary & Explanation

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

''The Final Problem'' is a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the story, Watson writes of Sherlock Holmes's final adventure in which Sherlock goes against Moriarty in a life-or-death chess match.

Sherlock Scared

Ambiguity surrounds the deaths of major fictional characters. The rule of thumb is that if the author doesn't provide a body, it leaves room for the character to return. Watson describes Sherlock's duel with Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ''The Final Problem.'' He tells this tale two years after Sherlock's death, one in which there is no physical evidence of his death. Without a body, there is every possibility for Sherlock to return to the literary world. As Watson begins his story, Sherlock appears disheveled and scared.

Sherlock arrives at Watson's home ''looking even paler and thinner than ever.'' Sherlock closes the blinds for their safety. Watson notices his fear. Sherlock's knuckles are ''burst and bleeding.'' Sherlock eventually admits that he is scared, for it is ''stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger.'' For Sherlock to take so many precautions to safeguard his health while being forced into the shadows of London, he must have finally met his match.

Professor Moriarty

Sherlock explains that he has discovered an evil that ''pervades London and no one has heard of him.'' He does this to explain why Watson should accompany him on a week-long trip to the European continent. When Watson asks where they are going, Sherlock gives an uncharacteristically vague response of ''Oh, anywhere. It's all the same to me.'' The lack of explicit information and direction lets Watson know Sherlock is in grave danger, for Sherlock always has a purpose for his actions. Now it appears he is just trying to outrun his opponent.

Sherlock explains further about what he has learned regarding Professor James Moriarty. Moriarty is ''an antagonist who is (Sherlock's) intellectual equal.'' Moriarty used to be a professor of mathematics, but ''a criminal stain ran in his blood, which…was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.'' He uses his intellect for criminal intentions, making him a perfect counter to Sherlock. Sherlock has spent months investigating and planning the downfall of Moriarty's organization, but it appears Moriarty may still escape his elaborate trap.

Moriarty's Organization

This is in part because Moriarty is not working alone. He has recruited and formed an extensive network of agents. Sherlock tells Watson to be careful, for Moriarty's ''agents are numerous and splendidly organized.'' Sherlock has a plan to capture the organization and Moriarty, but it will not take effect for several days. Sherlock is advised by Scotland Yard to leave the city for a while, thus the European vacation. To avoid detection, they must leave through secretive and deceptive means. Sherlock even goes so far as to board the train disguised as an Italian priest.

They manage to board the train unnoticed, but Moriarty still comes close to catching them. Sherlock spots him at the train station as they leave. Sherlock explains that Moriarty seeks to repay him for the harm he has caused his organization. He issued a warning to Sherlock when he visited Baker Street. He told Sherlock to ''drop'' his interference. If he continues to interfere, Moriarty will ''do as much to you.'' When Sherlock learns that his Baker Street home has been destroyed by fire, it signals the sincerity of Moriarty's threat.

The Final Battle
The Final Battle

The Final Confrontation

Upon arriving in Switzerland, Sherlock learns that Moriarty has escaped the trap he laid for him in London. Most of his organization is captured, but Moriarty remains free. As a result of this news, Sherlock forewarns Watson that they are still in danger, and Moriarty will go to whatever means necessary to take Sherlock down. Sherlock's hope is that if ''society (will be) freed from Professor Moriarty (then) he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.'' This proves to be prophetic.

In the town of Meiringen, Sherlock and Watson stroll toward the path of the Reichenbach Falls. Watson receives a note that an English woman has fallen deathly ill and requests an English physician. Watson reluctantly agrees to visit her. Upon arrival, he learns the letter is a ruse, one likely meant to separate him from Sherlock. He hurries back to the place he left Sherlock, only to see his Alpine-stock leaning against the mountainous wall.

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