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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Ambiguous Morality of Revenge

Sherlock Holmes takes on the case to find the murderer of Drebber and Stangerson, and at first, our sympathies lie with the murdered men; however, the novel shows that justice is not that simple. Jefferson Hope murders not out of greed, hope for personal gain, or to save a beloved (she is already dead). Instead, he murders to avenge the deaths of John Ferrier and his daughter, Hope’s former betrothed, Lucy Ferrier. Hope believes they were unfairly killed through the machinations of Mormons, who are depicted as an uncivilized religious cult. Holmes identifies Hope as the murderer, but he also discovers that the murdered men arguably deserved their fate. The sticky issue of what to do with Hope is finally resolved through a bit of poetic justice, in which Hope dies from the aortic aneurysm that has been plaguing him. Though Hope is a murderer, Doyle casts his character as somewhat sympathetic; this raises the question of how much a person is to be condemned for pursuing revenge when the law does not protect the innocent. 

Condemnation of Religious Abuses 

In the book’s second part, ironically titled “Country of the Saints,” Mormon behavior is depicted as anything but saintly. In Doyle’s representation of Mormonism, Mormon authorities interfere with the love between Hope and Lucy, stating that it is against their religion for Lucy to marry an outsider, and insist that she marry either Drebber or Stangerson. Drebber and Stangerson themselves are depicted as arrogant and possessive when they argue over which of them Lucy should be forced to marry and boast about their qualifications to be her husband. After Lucy and her father escape with Hope, Stangerson, Drebber, and the rest of their party kidnap Lucy and murder her father. The Mormon authorities force Lucy into a loveless marriage to Drebber, who marries her solely for her inheritance. Her heart broken, Lucy dies soon after her marriage. Doyle portrays the Mormon authorities’ decisions and Stangerson and Drebber’s actions as abuses of power that interfere with individual autonomy and the normal course of justice. 

Rationality’s Role in Justice and Ethics

Justice doesn’t just happen; it relies on the observations and deductions of people like Holmes. Holmes’ methodical pursuit of true justice and accountability through deduction is contrasted favorably to the irrationality (according to Doyle) of Mormonism, where might makes right. Ethics, too, the novel asserts, should be based on reason. Though he is a murderer, Hope appeals to his audience’s sense of reason when he tells the story of his history and pursuit of Drebber and Stangerson. In the end, Hope declares that he is an agent of justice, just like the detectives, and after reading of Drebber and Stangerson’s many wrongs, the reader sees the ironic truth in this. In this way, Doyle encourages his readers to exercise their own rationality and to judge Jefferson Hope for themselves.

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