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.
Revenge and Murder ThemeTracker
Revenge and Murder Quotes in A Study in Scarlet
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.