What literary devices does Sir Arthur Conan Doyle use in "The Red-Headed League"?

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One literary device that Arthur Conan Doyle uses in this, and other Sherlock Holmes stories, is characterization. Through the narrator, John Watson, the reader gains a very clear picture of what Holmes is like. Watson details Holmes’ great skill at detection as well as his personal foibles and his passion for music. Along the way, Watson reveals important elements of his own personality. In "The Red-Headed League," the character of John Clay serves as a foil to Holmes. For much of the story, he is believed to be Vincent Spaulding, but Holmes figures out his identity. Although he is very clever, he is not as clever as he thinks he is and is no match for the brilliant Holmes.

In describing Holmes, the author uses several figures of speech. Watson compares Holmes to a bird with two similes: he calls his nose “hawk-like,” and he describes Holmes’s pipe as “thrusting out [of his mouth] like the bill of some strange bird.”

Conan Doyle also extensively employs dialogue. Watson recalls long conversations that took place in Holmes’s study and carefully presents them as dialogue, clearly identifying each speaker. The distinct characters also emerge from their differing speech patterns.

Another literary device that the author uses is the setting. Jabez Wilson provides some of the vivid descriptions of Victorian London, both around Wilson’s office in Saxe-Coburg Square and Pope’s Court, where the League does business. These locations later prove crucial, and Watson’s descriptions help establish the atmosphere of mystery that is developed when they make their way at night through an “endless labyrinth of gas-lit streets.”

Conan Doyle ends the story with an allusion, as Holmes quotes a French author as saying that “man is nothing—work is everything,” in order to make a point about his attitude toward his work:

"‘L’homme c’est rien—l’oeuvre c’est tout,’ as Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand.”

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In this detective mystery short story, the author uses a number of literary devices to add interest to the narrative. (The following deals with elements of storytelling rather than devices an author can use with diction, that is, the way the the words are used, sometimes called "literary techniques.") Some of the devices include first person point of view, foreshadowing, flashback, using a foil, symbols, and irony

The narrator of the story is Dr. Watson, a friend and companion of Sherlock Holmes who has written about several of his cases. Having a first person perspective limits what details can be shared with the reader since the reader can only know what Watson knows at any given point in the story. This helps create suspense, especially as Watson ponders the case without the ability to connect the clues that he knows Holmes is following.

Foreshadowing is when the author gives hints about what will occur later in the story. Doyle uses foreshadowing at several points in this story. The excitement Holmes shows at the beginning of the story while listening to Jabez Wilson foreshadows that there will indeed be an interesting outcome to the case. When Holmes hears the description of Vincent Spaulding, he indicates that he knows of the man, but Watson (and the reader) isn't told in what capacity. When Watson describes how his brilliant friend behaves when pursuing a case, he states that he anticipates that "an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down," hinting that a confrontation is about to occur. 

Doyle uses the technique of flashback to add interest to the story. Most of the first half of the story consists of Wilson relating the events of the last three months leading up to the dissolving of the Red-Headed League. This must be done via flashback because Holmes has not met Wilson until now, and the mystery got its start eight weeks ago with the advertisement coming to Wilson's attention, and even before that, with Spaulding coming to work for Wilson. The flashback technique allows the reader to observe Holmes' deductive reasoning skills at work.

A foil is a character who represents a contrast to another character. That contrast, like a mirror, allows the notable qualities of the other character to be reflected clearly. Watson is a foil to Holmes: Watson's inability to observe details and draw conclusions based on them showcases Holmes' extraordinary brilliance in those areas. Similarly, the naivety of Wilson contrasts with the sly trickery of Spaulding, a.k.a. John Clay. 

Symbols can add depth to a story by allowing a physical object to stand for a larger concept or quality. In this story, the "foolscap" paper that Wilson purchases to write on when working for the Red-Headed League is a symbol of Wilson's foolishness in falling for John Clay's hoax. Foolscap is a large piece of writing paper measuring 13 by 16 inches; it is named for its watermark: a fool's cap, that is, a jester's hat with bells. Wilson spends four hours a day for eight weeks performing a "fool's errand" of sorts while John Clay digs a tunnel in the pawn shop.

Finally, irony occurs when situations turn out in unexpected ways. Doyle chose the criminal in this story to be an upper-class gentleman with royal blood. Usually bank robbers are expected to be gangster types: lower class ruffians who use force and speed to attain their ill-gotten gains. When John Clay is captured, he says, "I beg that you will not touch me with your filthy hands. . . .  I have royal blood in my veins. Have the goodness, also, when you address me always to say 'sir' and 'please.'" Having a genteel bank robber is surprising and ironic and shows how Doyle was flaunting conventions about criminals and the upper class of society. 

These are some of the literary devices that make "The Red-Headed League," such a fine example of detective fiction.

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