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Summary of "The Final Problem"

The Adventure of the Final Problem is the last story in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in Strand Magazine in December 1893. In this particular story, which is set in the year 1891, begins with Dr. Watson talking about his relationship with Sherlock Holmes. He mentions how their meetings have become few and far between, until one evening Sherlock Holmes arrives at Dr. Watson’s home in a nervous state of mind. Holmes tells Watson that he knows he is not a nervous man, but he cannot ignore the danger that lingers close by.

Here we are introduced to Holmes next opponent and criminal genius, Professor Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes describes the Professor as the “Napoleon of crime” (544). He states “He [Moriarty] is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city” (544). Holmes even goes as far as to call the Professor an intellectual equal. Soon we learn of an encounter between Holmes and Professor Moriarty. The Professor shows up at Holmes’ office were they proceed to have a verbal interaction discussing how Holmes has been following the Professor. Moriarty warns Sherlock to avoid looking any further into him or his “mighty organization” (546). He threatens Holmes with physical action and “inevitable destruction” (546). Holmes admits that Moriarty left him feeling uneasy, due to his soft and precise fashion of speech.

After telling this to Dr. Watson, Watson asks Holmes if he had already been assaulted by Moriarty, and we learn that Holmes has escaped three different attacks. The first of the attacks occurred when Holmes was on a street corner when he noticed a two-horse van was heading directly toward him, which he was able to escape via a foot-path just off the road. The second attack occurred when Holmes was walking on the street and noticed a brick falling from the rooftop and shattered near his feet. The third attack happened to be a rough looking man carrying a bludgeon. Holmes was able to defend himself, knock the attacker down, and turn him into the police. Though, he was unable to prove there was a connection to the Professor.

Watson decides to travel with Holmes across the continent in order to track down and end the crime spree by Professor Moriarty. While they are making their travels, they learn about the arrests of Moriarty’s gang and Holmes advices Watson to head home and back to his practice for he is now a very dangerous companion. He fears that Moriarty will now devote all his energy into revenging himself upon himself. Watson stays with Holmes despite hearing about the new danger he is in with Moriarty escaping the English police.

While in Switzerland, they are walking along a path when a boy appears and hands Watson a note saying that there is a sick Englishwoman back at the hotel who wants to be seen by an English doctor. Watson quickly heads in the direction of the hotel, leaving Holmes by himself. When Watson reaches the hotel, the innkeeper knows nothing of the note, and Watson soon realizes that it was a fake. He begins to rush back to where he had left Holmes, when he arrives he finds two sets of footprints heading out onto a muddy dead end path, but none of the prints are in the direction of coming back. Watson finds a note from Holmes who explains that he knew the note was a fake and he was about to fight with Moriarty, who had given him these last few minutes to write that particular note to Watson. It was clear they had both fallen to their deaths. Watson returns to England in agony over the loss of his dear friend.

Unless otherwise noted, all textual references refer to "The Final Problem" from the collection: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.(1)

Topics for Discussion

The Battle Continues

Watson is compelled to take up the pen one last time because Professor Moriarty’s brother is ‘distorting’ the facts of the case in a way which besmirches the achievement and character of his late friend. That Watson and the Colonel are waging a posthumous war of letters indicates the importance of reputation in Victorian society. In a sense, the battle that resulted in Sherlock and Moriarty plummeting to a watery grave has not ended. Sherlock’s commitment to uncovering the truth (the basis of his detective career) and Moriarty’s self-interested employment of misinformation (the basis of his criminal enterprises) continues in the debate between their friends.  Public opinion is battleground where the detective's sacrifice will be authenticated or criminal's vengeance will be exacted. 

  • How do you see this "public battle" in other Victorian literature? What about in modern society?

Public Opinion

Oddly enough, public opinion also affected Doyle. He had intended this to be the actual end of Sherlock Holmes, but his fans reacted so negatively that he gave in and wrote more.

  • What responsibility does a writer have to his/her fans, and do you think the writing suffers when it is driven by public pressure?


After his surprise encounter with Moriarty, Holmes remarks "I confess that it left an unpleasant effect upon my mind" (Holmes 547). He is also incredibly paranoid that Moriarty has agents watching him and that they have made attempts on his life (547). This shows that Holmes is not immune to fear or anxiety. It also portrays Moriarty as a worthy opponent, if he can have such an influence on Holmes.

  • What effect does it have to see Holmes as a flawed, vulnerable person? Does it make him more relatable as a character or does it detract from his intrigue as a detective?


Holmes describes Professor Moriarty: "His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal  mathematical faculty" (544). Although much of Moriarty's talent is natural, it is implied he was also born into a family of high status and that makes him equally intimidating. Through his upper-class status he received a good education.

  • What makes a character "respectable"? Natural talent or social status? Would Moriarty have been viewed differently in today's society? Are you surprised Holmes places so much weight on his "good birth"?

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Form is Content

"I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain,” he remarked, “If my record were closed to night I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence. In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers upon the wrong side. Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible.

Holmes authenticates the good his work does, but questions whether the science he has developed realizes its full potential when applied toward the resolution of human dilemmas. Complications of qualitative data don’t allow for the same expression of pure reason as the algorithms to be discovered in nature. This underscores intriguing aspects of Holmes’ character. He has a tendency to approach human concerns not, as Tolstoy might put, ‘out of love for the common good, but because he, he has reasoned in his mind it is ‘good to be concerned with it’ and is ‘concerned with it only because of that’. Holmes takes such questions ‘no closer to heart than those about a game of chess or the construction of a new machine’. (Anna Karenina 239)(2) His evaluation of conflicts proceeding from the values society is based upon as ‘superficial’ and ‘artificial’ lends credit to this interpretation, although Watson’s warm testimony casts doubt on whether this is the limit of Holmes’ humanity. There is a kind of counter-intuitive heroism in Holmes. Despite his lack of personal interest in society and preference for more scientific pursuits, he has a compulsion to act for goodness, which, though based in reason more than sentiment, is still a turn on the ‘selfless’ devotion to goodness anticipated in heroes.

"He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized" (544).

This quote provides characterization of Professor Moriarty. The spider simile creates a fearful portrayal of Moriarty, emphasizing the gravity and extent of his abilities. He is also a threat because he is smart and has numerous agents at his disposal. However he is not actively involved in most of his schemes, so he is difficult to catch. This sets him up as a worthy opponent of Holmes.

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Function of Narrator

Immediately the reader learns that this is an "obligatory narrative"-Watson feels it is his duty to record the story. "I have no choice but to lay the facts before the public exactly as they occurred. I alone know the absolute truth of the matter, and I am satisfied that the time has come when no good purpose is to be served by its suppression" (542).

In this story, Holmes makes it clear that he knows Watson writes about their adventures. "Your memoirs will draw to an end, Watson, upon the day that I crown my career by the capture or extinction of the most dangerous and capable criminal in Europe" (552). This coincides with Watson's earlier foreshadowing that this will be the last story. If the reader wonders whether or not Watson hides his writings from Holmes, this answers the question.

Watson uses more foreshadowing with "It was the last time that I was ever destined to see of him in this world" (553). Here Watson takes the liberty of inserting his future knowledge into the present action, reminding the reader that these events happened in the past. This foreshadowing creates suspense and tension.

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Image Gallery

All images borrowed from Wikimedia Commons (3)


(1) Conan Doyle, Arthur. "The Final Proble." The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953. 542-555. Print.

(2) Tolstoy, Leo, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Anna Karenina: a Novel in Eight Parts. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002. Print.

(3) The following link redirects you to the Wikimedia Commons main page:

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