In “The Red-Headed League,” characters who are greedy are eventually punished for their actions, whereas selfless characters (such as Sherlock Holmes) are rewarded. The criminals John Clay (also known as Vincent Spaulding) and Archie (also known as Duncan Ross) try to rob a bank and are punished for this greed through their arrest. Even Jabez Wilson, the innocent victim of their crime, is punished for his greed—after all, his decision to take on an assistant for half the normal wage, and to leave his shop unattended in order to earn four pounds extra a week, are two greedy acts that ultimately lead him to become the victim of a criminal scheme. Holmes, on the other hand, expects no reimbursement other than what he is fairly owed, and this fairness eventually earns him the ultimate reward: solving the case. Conan Doyle thus implies that greed in any measure is morally punishable, while moral integrity reaps rewards.
The criminals John Clay and Archie are the characters most corrupted by greed in the story. This corruption is particularly noticeable in Clay, who—if not for his greed and criminal behavior—would be a respectable figure. Holmes describes him as the “fourth smartest man in London” and “a remarkable man.” He is from royal blood, was educated at Eton and Oxford, and appears to be a “bright-looking, clean-shaven young fellow.” Holmes even praises him for his “new and effective” scheme and clever mind. In other words, were it not for his greed, Clay might even be as respected as Holmes. Greed, however, corrupts Clay, leads him into a life of crime, and eventually brings about his arrest. Were it not for his desire to steal “30,000 napoleons” of French gold, Clay might not have ended up so badly.
Jabez Wilson, on the other hand, is a far more sympathetic character. Whilst Clay has no excuse for his greed (given that he is clearly from a well-off family), Wilson’s greed is more excusable because he is poor and struggling in his business. He does not try to steal, but he does push the limits of morality in order to acquire a little extra money. Wilson admits that when he hired Clay (in disguise as Vincent Spaulding) for half a normal wage, he knew “very well that he could better himself and earn twice what I am able to give him,” but he was still willing to go along with it if it meant that he could save the money. Wilson is also happy to take an easy job for good pay when he fills the vacancy at the Red-Headed League, copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica for four pounds a week. He is punished for this greed when he becomes the unwitting target of Clay’s scheme, but as Holmes points out, Wilson is still “richer by some 30 [pounds], to say nothing of the minute knowledge which you have gained on every subject which comes under the letter A. You have lost nothing." Because Wilson was never truly malicious or completely unjustified in his greed, his punishment is not as extreme as that of John Clay and Archie—but Conan Doyle still makes the point that no greed is completely excusable or goes unpunished.
Sherlock Holmes is, by contrast, presented as a just and selfless character, and for this he is rewarded. When Mr. Merryweather, the bank manager, says that he doesn’t know how he can begin to repay Holmes, Holmes is quite clear that he should be repaid only what he is duly owed. Unlike Wilson, who is happy to take an easy job for high pay, or Clay, who desires far more money than he could ever deserve, Holmes is a model of selflessness. He replies: "I have been at some small expense over this matter, which I shall expect the bank to refund, but beyond that I am amply repaid by having had an experience which is in many ways unique, and by hearing the very remarkable narrative of the Red-headed League." Holmes’ reward for his integrity is solving the mystery, capturing the criminals, and earning the respect of all those around him—even from the criminals themselves. The moral of the story, then, is that all greed is morally punishable, and that those who are just and selfless will be rewarded for their actions.
Greed Quotes in The Red-Headed League
“I should not wish a smarter assistant, Mr. Holmes; and I know very well that he could better himself and earn twice what I am able to give him.”
“You may place considerable confidence in Mr. Holmes, sir,” said the police agent loftily. “He has his own little methods, which are, if he won't mind my saying so, just a little too theoretical and fantastic, but he has the makings of a detective in him. It is not too much to say that once or twice, as in that business of the Sholto murder and the Agra treasure, he has been more nearly correct than the official force.”