A detailed analysis of The Red-Headed League Essay
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In 1888, “A Study in Scarlet” was published, bringing together the infamous duo of Holmes and Watson – and in the creation of Holmes, earned Conan Doyle his fortune. “Scandal in Bohemia” and the following stories of his characters journey into the world of crime solving appeared in “The Strand” magazine. The 1880s saw a growing market for popular fiction and at a mere sixpence a week, it had anxious people rushing to the stands for literary entertainment, amusement and escapism.
The double act of Holmes and Watson is very effective in the short stories by Conan Doyle.
Holmes is often described in the short stories with extended imagery, often like creatures and monsters. “His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull grey plumage and a black top-knot.” This imagery helps to reinforce the idea that his “sharp and piercing” eyes give the impression that he is very alert.
Holmes is also described as having a “tall, gaunt figure” with “slick black hair” and “hawk-like” yet “austere” facial features. He is portrayed as being a blunt and impatient man. At the beginning of “The Red-Headed League” after Watson’s initial “intrusion”, he pulls Watson “abruptly” into the room and he is “anxious” for Mr. Jabez Wilson to “recommence” his narrative.
Watson, on the contrary, is a polite man. When he walks in on Holmes and Wilson having the conversation, he apologises and starts to “withdraw”. The choice of Watson as the narrator for these short stories is very effective. From the beginning, it is clear that they are very close friends, and the feeling of this friendship is made tangible in “The Final Problem”, as Watson mourns the tragic death of Holmes. Another reason Watson is effective as the storyteller, is that compared to Holmes’ amazing powers of logic and deduction, he seems more like a normal person. He, like the reader, is amazed by Holmes’ skills, yet he does not understand them.
During the denouement of “The Red-Headed League”, Watson helps the reader understand how Holmes’ came to his conclusions by asking him the questions that are in the readers mind, such as, “But how could you guess what the motive was?” and, “how could you tell that they would make their attempt to-night?” This satisfies the reader and adds realism – it helps them accept it is possible. Also, as Watson is left in the dark until the conclusion, it emphasises Holmes ingenuity and powers of deductive reasoning.
Throughout “The Red-Headed League”, there are many clues that enable the mystery to be solved. The idea of the Red-Headed League was so bizarre that there had to be something beyond the obvious evidence. Holmes chuckles after the reading of the advertisement found in the newspaper and concludes that it is “a little off the beaten track”. The strange factors that surround the hiring of Wilson’s assistant, Vincent Spaulding, make the reader (and the characters) quite dubious of his authenticity. Vincent worked “at half wages” and he had been with Wilson “about a month” before he showed Wilson the advertisement for “The Red-Headed League” and recommends strongly that he applies.
When Holmes and Watson go to Mr. Wilson’s shop to meet the assistant, Holmes notices “the knees of his trousers”. All of these ideas are evidently significant to solving the mystery, but the significance cannot be seen by anyone else but Holmes. The scene with Holmes, Watson, police agent Mr. Jones (“of Scotland Yard”) and Mr. Merryweather, the bank director, sitting in the “pitch darkness” is effective at building the atmosphere and mood needed for the finale.
Watson depicts the scene with fantastic imagery. As they wait in the “earth-smelling passage” in “absolute darkness”, Watson’s nerves are “worked up to a pitch of expectancy”. This illustrates the anticipation being felt by the characters and the readers themselves. Watson says there is something “depressing” and “subduing” about sitting in the “sudden gloom” and the “cold, dank air”. Although he is excited about their scheme, he realises the darker side to the outcome.
After sitting in the darkness for a period of time, and after Watson thinks that “the night must have almost gone, and the dawn be breaking” above them, Watson’s limbs become “weary” and “stiff”. Watson is physically starting to feel very uncomfortable in that situation, yet he “fears” to change his position. His hearing becomes very “acute” and he can start to “distinguish the deeper, heavier in-breath of the bulky Jones from the thin sighing note of the bank director”.
This details how still and silent the characters are in this intense moment. “Suddenly”, his eyes catch the “glint” of a light. Starting as a “lurid spark”, it turns into a “yellow line” before an “almost womanly” hand appears from the “gash”. The culmination of the action will soon be played out before the reader. At this point, you can see how Conan Doyle has created the tension for the reader and how this will affect their enjoyment of the concluding pages.
“The Final Problem” has a very different theme. As soon as the first paragraph has been read you can sense the feeling of desolation as Watson writes with a “heavy heart” and speaks of the “singular gifts” by which Holmes was “distinguished”. The whole story has a disheartening ambience. This is reinforced by the surprise and very uncharacteristic entrance of Holmes. He acts very unusually and Watson seems confused. Holmes use of euphemisms is unanticipated, as he is usually a very blunt and straightforward man.
“‘Yes, I have been using myself up rather too freely'” He also uses heroic understatement here for effect. You can also detect the use of present participles – as soon as Holmes’ presence is felt, he starts “flinging the shutters together” and persists in bolting them “securely”. The word “bolted” has a very aggressive sound and therefore helps to visualise Holmes’ urgency and distressed nature. Their brief and minimal exchange is particularly dramatic.