Things are very rarely as they first appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League.” The Red-Headed League itself is an elaborate front for a bank robbery. In addition, the appearances of characters can also be very misleading, for example John Clay, who appears to be a respectable young man, turns out to be a famous criminal. Throughout the story, Conan Doyle reminds the reader not to take appearances at face value. If Sherlock Holmes was unable to look past the misleading appearance of the Red-Headed League, he would not have been able to uncover the true reality of the criminal plot lurking under the surface. Likewise, if one were to assume that John Clay was the respectable man that he appears to be, he would never get caught. Throughout the course of the story, Conan Doyle illustrates the many dangers in mistaking appearances for reality.
The primary instance of misleading appearances comes in the form of the Red-Headed League itself. The league is really only an elaborate façade for the bank robbery that Clay and his accomplice, Archie, are plotting, designed to distract everyone else from the tunnel being dug from Jabez Wilson’s cellar to the bank. Conan Doyle uses the idea of the league to demonstrate just how easy it can be to be drawn in by appearances. Indeed, much of the early narrative is dedicated entirely to the events of the league: first of Wilson’s applying for his role as the most red-headed man in London, and then of his job copying out the Encyclopedia for the benefit of the league, and so forth. The story is designed to lure the reader into paying attention only to the league, and thus only to the outward appearances of the case. Even the title, “The Red-Headed League,” suggests that the reader should only concentrate on the league itself. As a result, the reader is unlikely to notice what is really going on in the background of the story. It is only Sherlock’s characteristic ability to look past appearances and dig deeper into the true reality of the crime that allows him to solve the mystery. The league, as strange as it is, never distracts him, and he is consequently able to dismiss it as nothing more than a front for the robbery. This ability to look past appearances, Conan Doyle implies, is crucial.
Many characters in the story also have misleading appearances. Conan Doyle highlights this early on when Watson points out that Sherlock has two very different sides to him: one contemplative and calm, the other “formidable.” If one were to catch Holmes in either of these moods, it would be very difficult to imagine him in the other. Through Watson’s observation, Doyle insists that one should not judge a person simply by their outward appearance, as there may be multiple sides to them. This notion becomes dangerously true in the case of John Clay. From first glance, he appears to be a very respectable young man: he is first introduced as a “bright-looking, clean-shaven young fellow,” and it is only later revealed that he is in fact one of the greatest criminals in London. In this way, Conan Doyle reminds the reader that overlooking the true reality of a situation can have very dangerous consequences. If Sherlock did not recognize Clay as the criminal that he was, then he would never have been caught.
Conan Doyle does leave clues throughout the story, however, designed to remind the attentive reader to look beyond first appearances. Upon Jabez Wilson’s first encounter with the Red-Headed League, for example, he recalls the employer pulling his hair to make sure it was real, claiming that they have to be careful, “for we have twice been deceived by wigs and once by paint.” This is an early indication that the reader should not be too hasty to judge based on appearances, as it is easy to be deceived by simple disguises. Later in the story, Watson turns a corner in a road and notices that the front of the road is remarkably different to the back, presenting “as great a contrast to it as the front of a picture does to the back.” In other words, there is always more than one way of looking at things, and appearances may not tell the whole story. From mysterious leagues to criminal plots, from respectable young men to criminals, Conan Doyle makes a point of emphasizing that one should not put too much faith in appearances, as they can often be deeply misleading and even dangerous.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in The Red-Headed League
I took a good look at the man and endeavoured, after the fashion of my companion, to read the indications which might be presented by his dress or appearance. I did not gain very much, however, by my inspection. Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy gray shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. […] there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head.
“Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.”
“But we have to be careful, for we have twice been deceived by wigs and once by paint.”
“As a rule,” said Holmes, “the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”
It was instantly opened by a bright-looking, clean-shaven young fellow, who asked him to step in.
“I am sure that you inquired your way merely in order that you might see him.”
“The knees of his trousers.”
“And what did you see?”
“What I expected to see.”
“I should like just to remember the order of the houses here. It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London. There is Mortimer's, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane's carriage-building depot. That carries us right on to the other block.”
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbours, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque.