A Study in Scarlet

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Revenge and Murder Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Observation and Deduction Theme Icon
Injustice and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Gender and Misogyny Theme Icon
Revenge and Murder Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Study in Scarlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Revenge and Murder Theme Icon

The novel’s title, A Study in Scarlet, is drawn from Holmes’ reference to murder as a “scarlet thread…running through the colourless skein of life.” That the “skein of life” is “colourless” suggests that much of everyday life, to Holmes at least, is uninteresting. In contrast, the passionate motivations that culminate in a murder make it vibrant and exciting for him. To Holmes, Jefferson Hope’s murder of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson is just such a case and pulls him out of the occasional lethargy that Watson observes in him. Just as importantly, though, Holmes doesn’t seem much to care about the morality of murder. Instead, he sees murder almost in artistic or aesthetic terms, as something that amplifies all the passions of otherwise boring life, something that defies easy understanding and therefore must be understood.

In contrast to Holmes’ rather amoral reasons for solving murders, Hope’s act of murder is fueled by revenge. And revenge is an act of murder that is founded entirely on morality, as it is an effort by the murderer to punish those who harmed him or those he loved. Hope views his murder of Drebber and Stangerson primarily as a form of justice for Lucy, whom Drebber abducted and forced into marriage, and for Lucy’s father John Ferrier, whom Stangerson murdered. In fact, Hope directly connects his revenge to what he sees as a kind of divine morality when he forces Drebber to choose between one of two pills, only one of which is poison. When Drebber chooses the poisonous pill, Hope believes he does so because God would not allow a man like Drebber to survive. Even after being caught by Holmes, Hope claims that he is no mere murderer but an “officer of justice.”

However, the novel’s depiction of revenge is not entirely positive. Hope’s revenge is destructive not only for his enemies but also for himself. His desire for revenge is all-consuming. He spends 20 years pursuing Drebber and Stangerson across America and Europe, often neglecting his own health and finances. Though Hope eventually achieves his revenge, it also ultimately destroys him, as his self-neglect leads to malnutrition and overexposure, which in turn leads to an aortic aneurysm that kills him the night after he is captured.

Yet despite the destructive nature of revenge, Hope’s successful revenge also brings him peace and joy. After Hope dies, Watson observes the “placid smile” found on the corpse, reflecting that it is as if “he had been able in his dying moments to look back upon a useful life and on work well done.” Though Watson is fully engaged in the effort to bring the murderer – Hope – to justice, his narration makes it clear that he sympathizes to some extent with Hope and with his motivations, even if he continues to view any murder as a crime requiring justice.

Get the entire A Study in Scarlet LitChart as a printable PDF.
A study in scarlet.pdf.medium

Revenge and Murder ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Revenge and Murder appears in each Chapter of A Study in Scarlet. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:

Revenge and Murder Quotes in A Study in Scarlet

Below you will find the important quotes in A Study in Scarlet related to the theme of Revenge and Murder.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes — it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge….Yes, but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.

Related Characters: Stamford (speaker), Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

While catching up with Stamford, an old colleague, Watson becomes interested in an acquaintance of Stamford’s who has expressed a desire to find a roommate. Stamford, however, warns Watson about Sherlock Holmes’ eccentricities. To Stamford, Holmes is too “cold-blooded.” His remark that Holmes would poison a friend without hesitation for the sake of his “passion for definite and exact knowledge” is not unlike Holmes’ use of Watson’s name in a newspaper advertisement to draw the murderer to their home. Though he apologizes to Watson for doing so, he does not consult Watson beforehand and justifies his behavior with the greater probability that the murderer will arrive. Obsessed with murder cases and his “science of deduction,” Holmes does not seem to have any moral or social qualms about such matters, and seems not to know or care about what is usually considered acceptable in society at large.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other A Study in Scarlet quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving… I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

Related Characters: John H. Watson (speaker), Sherlock Holmes
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes and Watson have just settled into their apartment. Watson, who has little to occupy himself, is fascinated with Holmes and closely observes him, noting how Holmes fluctuates for days at a time between periods of lethargy and energy. Watson dismisses his suspicion of drug addiction, as Holmes doesn’t seem the type, but later Sherlock Holmes stories such as “The Sign of the Four” confirm Holmes’ drug use.

Another explanation for Holmes’ extended periods of lethargy could be depression, which may be caused by the lack of interesting cases for him to solve. As he hints later on, he views murder as the “scarlet thread” in an otherwise “colourless skein of life” — that is, murder and the mystery surrounding it is the one truly interesting part of life. It is only when Holmes decides to take on Drebber’s murder case that he is able to shake off his lethargy and spring back into action.

“There are no crimes and criminals in these days,” he said, querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession? I know well that I have it in me to make my name famous. No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is the result? There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it.”

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

After Holmes explains to Watson his occupation as a consulting detective, he complains that there aren’t any crimes befitting his skills. Lamenting the inability to use his extraordinary intellect, Holmes displays his extraordinary arrogance, claiming that he is the best detective in history and that cases solvable by the Scotland Yard are beneath him. Importantly, Holmes also reveals his need for attention, his desire to “make [his] name famous.” Though in this scene, Watson perceives Holmes as conceited, by the end of their “study in scarlet,” Watson devotes himself to this very end, publishing his account of the case and Holmes’ skills as a form of literary justice for Holmes.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and, as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features. This malignant and terrible contortion, combined with the low forehead, blunt nose, and prognathous jaw, gave the dead man a singularly simious and ape-like appearance, which was increased by his writhing, unnatural posture. I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

Related Characters: John H. Watson (speaker), Enoch Drebber
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

After Holmes’ extensive examination of the grounds leading up to Lauriston Gardens, Watson and Holmes enter the crime scene and find Drebber’s corpse on the floor. Watson’s concentration on Drebber’s facial features anticipate his later reliance on physiognomy (the pseudoscience of determining character traits based on physical features) to describe Drebber’s character as containing “vice of the most malignant type.” Doyle’s (or rather Watson’s) portrayal of Drebber as “ape-like” is perhaps meant to dehumanize him and to sympathize with his murderer, Jefferson Hope, as Drebber is later revealed to have been an immoral, hypocritical, and violent man.

Though Watson had witnessed violent deaths as a soldier in Afghanistan, Drebber’s death is nevertheless more horrifying, possibly because his murder occurred in London, the nation’s capital and emblem of “civilization,” rather than in the context of war, where death is expected, or in a non-Western country such as Afghanistan that was seen as less civilized by British imperialists.

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson, Lestrade, Tobias Gregson
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes has just spent 20 minutes going over the crime scene, with Lestrade, Gregson, and Watson watching his inscrutable and eccentric examinations and mutterings to himself. Though Holmes seems satisfied with his observations, he does not initially inform his audience of his findings and instead chooses to highlight that he, unlike the detectives, has “tak[en] pains” by carefully combing over the crime scene, and that therefore he, unlike the detectives, is a genius. Holmes’ extreme thoroughness is at once a tool that he applies to his obsession with solving complex murder cases and a way for him to show off his skill and intelligence. His delay in sharing information about the case in favor of displaying his superiority is a behavior that recurs throughout the novel, suggesting that his need to prove his intellect is perhaps a driving factor in his obsession with murder.

Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

“I shall never do that,” I answered; “you have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.”

My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.
“I’ll tell you one other thing,” he said.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Watson and Holmes have just discovered that Constable Rance unknowingly let the murder, who returned to the crime scene, walk away. Though Watson has many questions about the case, Holmes does not want to divulge his findings, as pulling back the curtains for Watson would cause him to find Holmes “ordinary.” Holmes wants to be viewed as a “conjurer” or, as he mentioned in his magazine article, as a “necromancer” who astounds his audience. In this respect, Holmes ironically shows himself to be rather ordinary, as the desire to be special and thus to receive more attention is by no means uncommon. Watson finds that he is able to use this flaw to his advantage, flattering Holmes to his face while showing us, the readers, his vanity — which Watson misogynistically attributes to women and which causes Holmes to divulge more about the case.

I shall have him, Doctor — I’ll lay you two to one that I have him. I must thank you for it all. I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon? There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), John H. Watson
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

After discovering that the murderer returned to the crime scene, Holmes deduces that he returned to look for the lost wedding ring and decides to use the ring as bait to draw out the murderer. Excited by the imminent pursuit, Holmes rhapsodizes about murder, calling it a “scarlet thread” in the “colourless skein of life.” That Holmes finds “the skein of life” to be “colourless” suggests that he finds much of life dull and uneventful. Murder, by comparison, is a vivid “scarlet”—it is aesthetically interesting and pleasing to Holmes, and a puzzle that must be “unraveled.” Holmes’ attitudes toward murder and the rest of everyday life seem to correspond to his fluctuating periods of intense energy and apathy (as well as his perceived “cold-bloodedness”). Without murders to solve, Holmes listlessly lounges in the apartment. When he begins working on Drebber’s case, he becomes energetic and full of life once more. Like Hope, who is sustained by revenge, Holmes is sustained by his murder cases.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

Yes, a dangerous matter — so dangerous that even the most saintly dared only whisper their religious opinions with bated breath, lest something which fell from their lips might be misconstrued, and bring down a swift retribution upon them. The victims of persecution had now turned persecutors on their own account and persecutors of the most terrible description. Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehmgericht, nor the Secret Societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion than that which cast a cloud over the State of Utah.

Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator here explains why Ferrier doesn’t voice his opposition to Mormon polygamy. In a sensationalized description of a Mormon vigilante group, the narrator reveals that any hint of a dissenting opinion results in the persecution of the (perceived) dissenter. The narrator hyperbolically claims that Mormon persecution is more terrifying than comparable European organizations that served as secret tribunals with the power to sentence people to death.

The rise of violence among the Mormons highlights their hypocrisy. They had escaped from Illinois to Utah in order to “seek a refuge from the violent man,” but now they are becoming violent against their own church members. The unjust persecution of potential dissenters terrorizes the rest of the community, stifling any freedom of speech they may have had as Americans.

The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about — rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. Fresh women appeared in the harems of the Elders — women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of an unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and recorroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.

Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Especially controversial is Doyle’s depiction of horrors inflicted by the Mormon persecutors, known as the Danite Band, who murder immigrants and abduct non-Mormon women, who are then forced into polygamous marriages with and most likely raped by the Mormon oligarchs. The narrator portrays Mormon polygyny (when a man marries multiple wives) as both impractical and as fostering violence. Though the Mormons had moved to Utah to escape “the violent man,” now they are not only persecuting their own community members but also murdering innocent non-Mormons and subjecting women to sexual violence. The corruption among the Mormons thus spreads beyond their own community, harming others in the process.

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

“It don’t much matter to you why I hated these men,” he said; “it’s enough that they were guilty of the death of two human beings — a father and a daughter — and that they had, therefore, forfeited their own lives. After the lapse of time that has passed since their crime, it was impossible for me to secure a conviction against them in any court. I knew of their guilt though, and I determined that I should be judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one. You’d have done the same, if you have any manhood in you, if you had been in my place.”

Related Characters: Jefferson Hope (speaker), Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, John Ferrier, Lucy Ferrier, Enoch Drebber, Joseph Stangerson, Lestrade, Tobias Gregson
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

After Holmes brings Hope to the Scotland Yard, Hope decides to make a full statement, as his aortic aneurysm could prevent him from telling his story at any time. Hope views his murder of Drebber and Stangerson as just, but his conception of justice is not the traditional European conception of justice as blind and impartial, but rather a more personal, vengeful “eye for an eye” form of justice that might be found in the American Wild West stories that Doyle favored as a child. To Hope, Drebber and Stangerson “forfeit” their lives because they are responsible for the deaths of Lucy and John Ferrier. Courtroom justice is inexistent or inaccessible in Hope’s Wild West, and he takes it upon himself as “judge, jury, and executioner” to carry out vigilante justice, despite the fact that the Mormons’ vigilantism was in large part responsible for the very deaths he was avenging. Hope further justifies his actions as a sign of his “manhood,” a patriarchal value with which he appeals to his captors (all men) but which he ironically does not realize helped to facilitate Lucy’s forced marriage to Drebber.

Let the high God judge between us. Choose and eat. There is death in one and life in the other. I shall take what you leave. Let us see if there is justice upon the earth, or if we are ruled by chance.

Related Characters: Jefferson Hope (speaker), Enoch Drebber
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

After finally getting an opportunity to isolate one of his enemies, Hope forces Drebber to choose between two pills, one of which is poison and the other harmless. He views this as a test of divine justice, letting God decide whether Drebber picks the poison and dies. However, Hope’s premise — that the test will prove that the world is ruled either by divine justice or by chance — is inherently flawed, as Hope implies that divine justice would necessitate Drebber’s death and that only “chance” would necessitate Drebber’s survival. This is illogical, as chance by definition would allow for either eventuality, but it lets Hope feel that he is an agent of divine justice rather than a murderer intent on revenge.