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The Red-Headed League

Arthur Conan Doyle

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

The Fair-Play Mystery

Themes

The Presence of the Bizarre in Everyday Life

“The Red-Headed League” depicts a world in which everyday life is filled with bizarre occurrences. Doyle’s story is realistic in that it portrays recognizably human characters in recognizable settings, but it is unusual in its emphasis on the idea that the real world is a somewhat grotesque place, with the mundane and outlandish existing side by side. Watson notes, for example, that pawnbroker Jabez Wilson would be an entirely average man were it not for his absurdly bright red hair. The story of Wilson’s misadventure further underscores this point by showing how an average man with a dull occupation can be suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a strange and seemingly inexplicable situation. The story contains details and images that would almost be better suited to science fiction or a dream, such as Wilson’s description of the streets of London being completely filled with redheaded men. The fact that Doyle portrays such images so realistically emphasizes his view that even everyday experiences can be utterly bizarre.

The Power of Reason

Doyle emphasizes the power of logical reasoning throughout “The Red-Headed League” and in every other Sherlock Holmes story. Unlike other detectives, Holmes uses pure logic to cut right to the heart of any matter. Readers catch a glimpse of Holmes’s powers of observation early, when he pieces together Jabez Wilson’s past simply by paying attention to minor details that other people overlook, such as Wilson’s worn coat jacket, his tattoo, and the firmness of his handshake. After Holmes explains how he reached his conclusions, Wilson remarks that Holmes’s method is actually very simple, a point emphasized throughout the story. Although everyone has the ability to rationalize, few people take the opportunity to do so, even the intelligent Dr. Watson. Though Watson should be able to solve the case as easily as Holmes, he doesn’t, and instead sits back to watch Holmes unravel the mystery. Like Watson, most people prefer to let others do the thinking for them.

Motifs

Red Hair

Red hair highlights the presence of the bizarre in everyday life. Doyle repeatedly describes Jabez Wilson’s and Archie’s red hair to make this point, in addition to describing the unforgettable throng of redheaded men packing the streets of London. Doyle also emphasizes red hair to make a subtle pun on the term red herring, which is a false clue that writers often insert into their mysteries to thwart the hero’s attempts to solve the puzzle. In this case, Wilson’s and Archie’s red hair really is a red herring, because the Red-Headed League is a false clue used to divert readers’ attention from John Clay’s intended bank robbery. Doyle is nudging readers to make the connection that red hair and the Red-Headed League are mere decoys, which should theoretically make the central mystery much easier to solve.

Symbols

The Cellar

The pitch-black cellar where Watson, Holmes, Jones, and Merryweather wait for the bank robbers to appear represents the dark and seemingly impenetrable mystery of the Red-Headed League. Watson compares being in the cellar to being in a state of darkness he’s never before experienced, the same way he feels about the entire bizarre pawnshop scenario, Wilson, and the confusing Red-Headed League. As with the story’s central mystery, Watson and readers wait in the blackness of the cellar, comprehending nothing until a light penetrates the darkness and makes everything clear in accordance with Holmes’s logical conclusions.

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