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Sherlock Holmes's outlook on life in "The Red-Headed League" and how it changes throughout the story

Summary:

In "The Red-Headed League," Sherlock Holmes begins with a pragmatic and analytical outlook on life, focusing on logical deduction and observation. As the story progresses, his outlook remains consistent, demonstrating his unwavering belief in the power of reason and intellect to solve mysteries and understand human behavior.

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What is Sherlock Holmes' outlook on life in "The Red-Headed League"?

"The Red-Headed League" was one of the earliest Sherlock Holmes stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published. As such, it contains more direct characterization of Holmes than later stories. Direct characterization is when an author directly describes a character to the reader. Doyle also lets Holmes describe himself in this story; this is considered indirect characterization because the reader learns about the character from something the character does or says, or what others say to him or do in response to him.

The direct characterization gives us some hints about Holmes' view of life. When Watson is contemplating his friend's "dual nature," he states, "the swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy." He attributes this to the battle between Holmes' exacting rational side and his "poetic and contemplative" side. We get a feeling that Holmes swings between dreaming and doing, between nourishing his inner life and making a difference in the outer world.

At the end of the story Watson compliments Holmes profusely. Holmes yawns and says it saved him from "ennui," or boredom. Then he states, "My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so." We get from this that Holmes thinks life is too drab, which seems like the view of someone who has no grounding beliefs about the purpose of life, perhaps no view of the ultimate flow of history toward good or evil, and no confidence in his role in that greater drama. Life overall seems boring and purposeless to him, and solving crimes is but a brief respite from the dullness of that rudderless boat ride he is taking on a sea of meaninglessness. 

Watson tries to encourage Holmes to take a more hopeful view by telling him he is a benefactor of mankind. Holmes accepts the compliment but demurs with the French aphorism, "The man is nothing; the work is all." Although this is a refreshingly humble admission from a man who can at times appear annoyingly arrogant, it nevertheless reflects an abdication of his personal responsibility to fully embrace his role in life. He does not seem to believe that he himself has been put on earth to benefit mankind, but he acknowledges that his work can be beneficial, can be "of some little use."

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How does Holmes's outlook differ at the start and end of "The Red-Headed League"?

Sherlock Holmes has a cynical view of human nature that remains unchanged throughout the story "The Red-Headed League." At the beginning of the story, Holmes tells Dr. Watson that "for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” In other words, Holmes believes that life and people are stranger, and at times more wicked, than anything the imagination could produce. Watson initially disagrees with him.

However, in unraveling the case presented in the story, Holmes uncovers the dastardly deeds of a pawnbroker's assistant going under the alias Vincent Spaulding. Holmes hears that Jabez Wilson, the owner of the pawn shop where Spaulding works, has been enticed by Spaulding to work at a sinecure that is provided for him only because he has red hair. When Holmes first hears of this sinecure, he is immediately suspicious. He later tells Watson:

It was perfectly obvious from the first that the only possible object of this rather fantastic business of the advertisement of the League, and the copying of the "Encyclopaedia," must be to get this not over-bright pawnbroker out of the way for a number of hours every day.

Holmes figures out that Spaulding, whose real name is John Clay, is merely trying to get his boss out of his shop for several hours so that he can build a tunnel to rob a bank nearby. Holmes is initially suspicious of this scheme, and his suspicions are proven to be true. He believes humans are capable of dastardly acts, and he does not waver in this belief.

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How does Holmes's outlook differ at the start and end of "The Red-Headed League"?

At the beginning of "The Red-Headed League," Holmes displays a positive and enthusiastic outlook on life. He speaks "cordially" to Watson, for example, and he refers to the narrative of his visitor, Jabez Wilson, as "one of the most singular" that he has heard for some time. In short, the "unique" facts of Wilson's story revitalize and rejuvenate Holmes.

By the end of the story, however, Holmes's outlook on life has changed significantly. His enthusiasm is replaced by "ennui" (boredom/ lethargy), and his thoughts return to the "commonplaces of existence." For Holmes, life is meaningless if he does not have an interesting and unique case to work on, and this is shown by the quote Holmes tells Watson: "L'homme c'est rien—l'oeuvre c'est tout." This roughly translates to "man is nothing and work is everything." This typifies Holmes's attitude at the end of the story: he feels like a man without purpose. 

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