The Red-Headed League

by: Arthur Conan Doyle

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.