Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable figures in all of world literature, and it can often be difficult for readers to strip away their preconceptions about Holmes and see how the stories actually portray him. Most people think of Holmes as a force of pure reasoning, an almost superhuman mind capable of solving any puzzle. Although Doyle’s stories do confirm this stereotype to some degree, they also complicate this image, as is clear in “The Red-Headed League.” Here readers see multiple sides of Holmes: he moves from quiet contemplation to frantic activity, virtually asleep one moment and practically pushing Watson out the door in hot pursuit of clues the next. Watson comments that Holmes has a “dual nature,” and readers see evidence of this throughout the story, as when Holmes transitions instantly from fervently investigating the clues at Wilson’s house to lounging the day away in a concert hall. Holmes veers wildly from one extreme to the next, making him far more eccentric than first-time readers might expect.
Although these extremes of behavior might suggest that Holmes is not a realistic, well-rounded character, close readers of the story will notice that he is also capable of more complicated emotions. Holmes displays warm friendship for his “dear Watson” but usually rebuffs his friend’s attempts to find out what he is thinking. Even more troubling is the question of Holmes’s motives in solving cases. While Holmes does hand criminals over to the police, serving justice is not his primary concern. Instead, Holmes is primarily interested in the case as an intellectual challenge, a puzzle to be solved. At the end of the “The Red-Headed League,” for example, Holmes suggests that his reward came from hearing an interesting case and settling a private score with John Clay, not from keeping the public safe by putting a known criminal behind bars. Even in the story’s final moments, Doyle further complicates readers’ image of Holmes, who responds indifferently to Watson’s praise and says that he pursued the case solely to escape the boredom of everyday life. Holmes is therefore a character readers easily recognize as superhuman, but also one who is just as human as everyone else.
Even though he’s the narrator of the story, Watson plays a surprisingly limited role. In fact, he does not help solve the case or even contribute to the action of the story in any way. That is not to say, however, that Watson is irrelevant. In fact, Watson is just as much the center of the story’s form as Sherlock Holmes is the center of the story’s plot. Watson shapes the story for readers, who see and understand only what Watson himself experiences. Watson’s good nature, eagerness, and warm feelings for Holmes enliven the story and transform it from a mere recounting of a crime and its solution into a rich study of human behavior.
Doyle transforms the story from a straightforward mystery into a complex study by putting readers directly into Watson’s shoes. Although far from dull, Watson is like most readers in that he simply isn’t as observant as Holmes. The fact that he is so average and genial also makes him instantly accessible to readers. Readers don’t always understand Holmes’s reasoning, but they admire him all the more because of Watson’s warm descriptions of him. Watson also tries to redeem Holmes for readers by suggesting that he is a benefactor of humanity, even though Holmes himself admits that he solves cases merely for his own recreation.