How does Holmes contrast with his antagonist, John Clay, in "The Red-Headed League"?

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Sherlock Holmes and John Clay have some attributes in common, although they are on opposite sides of the law. We learn from Mr. Jones, the police agent, that John Clay is "at the head of his profession," that he is remarkable, and that "his brain is as cunning as his fingers." Ironically, the officer could have been describing Holmes with those words. Holmes is certainly at the head of his profession, having solved cases that have stymied Scotland Yard and having "contributed to the literature" on such things as tattoos. Holmes has remarkable observation and deductive reasoning skills, demonstrated not only by his evaluation of Jabez Wilson but also by his solving of the intended crime and capturing an elusive criminal. Certainly Holmes' brain is cunning, for he not only anticipates Clay's crime but also manages to catch him in a foolproof manner. As Watson says, "You reasoned it out beautifully." And Holmes' fingers are also cunning in that he is a skilled violinist.

Despite those similarities, Holmes and Clay are very different in their relationship with the law, their motivations, and their opinions of themselves. Clay is a criminal and is motivated by greed, with most of his crimes having to do with stealing money either by theft or fraud. Holmes is motivated by the challenge of catching those who break the law and helping clients who need assistance with interesting cases. Although Watson calls Holmes a "benefactor of the race," showing that Holmes is on the side of justice and right, Holmes only accepts that praise off-handedly. Holmes' true motivation in his work is to avoid "ennui," or boredom. Nevertheless, Holmes assumes a humble attitude at the end of the story, acknowledging that the work is everything and the man is nothing. John Clay, on the other hand, is arrogant and snobbish, reminding the policeman that he has "royal blood in my veins" and requiring Mr. Jones to address him as "sir."

One aspect of the case of the Red-Headed League that intrigued Holmes so much was that he was dealing with a man who was like himself in many ways. Thankfully for the people of London, Holmes was unlike Clay in his desire to use his talents for good rather than for personal gain.

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In what ways are Holmes and Clay similar and different?

Holmes and Clay are alike in being geniuses. They are smarter than other men.

At least as important, their minds operate in different ways from other men. They think, to use a contemporary cliché, outside the box. They operate in the underworld realm of criminal activity which most Londoners don't know exist; they act to mislead others without explaining their actions. They are both motivated in part by pride.

As for the differences, there are a few, but almost all revolve around their ethics and their relative position in society. Holmes is a good guy, Clay a villain. Clay engages in crime, Holmes stops it. Clay weakens the social structure, Holmes strengthens it.


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