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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote so many Sherlock Holmes stories, all of which can be found in collected editions, that it is hard to imagine a time when the character of the famous detective was new and fresh in the public imagination. Two novels featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), were published with only mild success. It was not until the publication of the first Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in 1891, that the detective became immensely popular. It was to capitalize on this public demand that Doyle wrote “The Red-Headed League.”

The story is above all a vehicle to display the remarkable reasoning ability of Sherlock Holmes, a man who is able to impose order on a seemingly meaningless jumble of experience. Experience in the Holmes stories only seems, however, to be meaningless: For someone who, like the detective, observes closely and interprets correctly, the world is a book to be read.

In “The Red-Headed League,” the character of Holmes is the theme, and in the story Doyle continues to supply information about the background, tastes, and habits of his greatest creation. It is in this story that the reader learns that Holmes has a “poetic and contemplative” side to his nature, one that is illustrated when Holmes interrupts his detective work to attend a violin concert. One finds out as well that Holmes himself is a musician and a composer “of no ordinary merit.” Through the almost casual introduction of details such as these, Doyle created a character who escapes the bounds of fiction, becoming almost lifelike in his solidity.

A subsidiary theme may be present, too, represented in the adage “You can’t cheat an honest man.” Throughout the story, Doyle delicately hints at Wilson’s greed, the most telling example of which is his hiring of Vincent Spaulding because Spaulding agrees to work for half-pay. From that decision, all of Wilson’s troubles spring.


(Short Stories for Students)

As the story of bank robbers thwarted by a capable investigator, "The Red-Headed League" presents readers with a number of themes related to the classic contest between good and evil. The opposition between detective and criminal tests the warring values each represents. With the detective's victory, the beliefs and qualities he embodies are confirmed as superior.

Knowledge and Ignorance
Sherlock Holmes's love of mental puzzles leads to his interest in the odd story Jabez Wilson tells him. His knowledge of crime and ability to reason allow him to discern that a serious motive must lie behind Wilson's singular experience with the bizarre Red-Headed League. Guided by this knowledge, and the observations he makes as a result, he stops a bank robbery and the further lawless career of a master criminal. Through Jabez Wilson, whom Holmes disdains as "not over-bright," readers learn that ignorance—especially when it is accompanied by greed—can make people unwitting accomplices to crime.

A keen intellect is not always a force for good, however. Only a brilliant mind like John Clay's could pinpoint Wilson as the ideal target and conceive of the Red-Headed League as the perfect scheme to divert Wilson's attention from his business while a tunnel is being dug in his cellar. This is where the motives and morality guiding the actions of an intelligent mind become important, and where the key differences between the detective and criminal emerge.

The bank robber John Clay and his accomplice Archie are motivated by the fabulous sum of money they hope to steal from the City and Suburban Bank. Their greed takes them outside the bounds of law and leads to their capture. Even though the story ends before their trial and punishment, the likely penalty for their history of criminal acts would be execution, demonstrating the fatal consequences of greed.

Jabez Wilson's love of money also promotes crime and makes him an easy target for exploitation. Not only does the promise of money in return for very little work take him away from his...

(The entire section is 1,156 words.)