Final Problem Analysis

One of the best known and most dramatic Sherlock Holmes stories is The Final Problem. Our analysis demonstrates not only a dramatic action plot, but unparalleled use of figures of speech and one of the most successful failures in literary history!

The Final Problem Title

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Quotes About Professor Moriarty

Professor Moriarty silhouette

Almost every film-director that has made a take-off of the Sherlock tales has included this arch-nemesis, the notorious Moriarty. Nonetheless, Doyle only mentions him in a few stories. This is the first time, and Watson - until now - did not know about him. We list a number of quotes about Moriarty, as well as the types of figures of speech Doyle used to impress his readers with the antagonist's qualities.


Note the use of repetition for emphasis:
“I tell you Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some placid line in life. Between ourselves, the recent cases in which I have been of assistance to the royal family of Scandinavia, and to the French Republic, have left me in such a position that I could continue to live in the quiet fashion which is most congenial to me, and to concentrate my attention upon my chemical researches. But I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.”

Praise for the Enemy

Sherlock offers considerable praise to his enemy, and Doyle offers parallelism in writing.
He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.

His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty...But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered indefinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.

For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer.


He is the Napolean of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.


He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.


The ultimate contrast: polar opposites of each other are Sherlock and Moriarty:
“I think I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain. If my record were closed to-night I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence. In over a thousand cases, I am not aware that I have ever used my powers upon the wrong side. Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial society is responsible. Your memoirs will draw to an end, Watson, upon the day that I crown my career by the capture or extinction of the most dangerous and capable criminal in Europe.”
One more thing about that last quote. Of the different features we have learned about in Sherlock stories, that last sentence might be A Pre-Introduction Prophecy - a unique feature of the Sherlockian tales.

Consonance Par Excellence

Here’s another quote from a different story, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” It’s revealing enough we thought we could include it here. Read it out loud for its best effect, and note the consonance of the "s" sound. You can almost hear the cobra hissing. You will also find simile and metaphor aplenty:
"He is an excellent antagonist, cold as ice, silky voiced, and soothing as one of your fashionable consultants, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him - a real aristocrat of crime - with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.”


Did Doyle intend this contradiction here? See if you can pick up a contradictory effect in these three statements:
  1. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.
  2. But the professor was fenced round with safeguards so cunningly devised that, do what I would, it seemed impossible to evidence which would convict in a court of law.
  3. At the end of three months I was forcd to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.
Why could the third statement above be considered a contradiction of the first two? Holmes is by himself, up against a mastermind with a host of criminals working for him. One could only accurately compare their intellectual abilities if they had the same resources.

Holmes is really, really up against something big here.


Read this quote and note the rhythm in the words as well as the meaning. One can almost hear the trip and the weaving in the words:
But at last he made a trip - only a little, little trip - but it was more than he could afford, when I was so close upon him. I had my chance, and starting from that point, I have woven my net round him until now it is all ready to close.

Just A Little Pressure - Maybe

So.....imagine you are Watson. Sherlock hasn’t been around for a while. You are busy with your own life and medical practice. And then - THIS!
On Monday next - matters will be ripe, and the professor, with all the principal members of his gang, will be in the hands of the police. Then will come the greatest criminal trial of the century, the clearing up of over forty mysteries, and the rope for all of them; but if we move at all prematurely, you understand, they may slip out of our hands at the last moment.
If you were Watson, your reaction might be:
  1. Ummm, what do you mean OUR hands? I didn’t have anything to do with this?
  2. Well, rather than move prematurely, as you say, why don’t we mind our own business and let the police handle it?
  3. They are all getting the ROPE! Sounds like murderers. Maybe we are a bit over our heads.
  4. Sure, count me in! Always game for one of your adventures!
  5. Why don’t you ask one of the Baker Street boys? I’m sure they would help you.

Of course, that wasn’t much of a question. We all knew what the real Watson would do.

Metaphorical Figure of Speech

Their action/reaction is compared to sword play:
I tell you my friend, that if a detailed account of that silent contest could be written, it would take its place as the most brilliant bit of thrust-and-parry work in the history of detection.


Polyptoton is a stylistic use of the same root word with different endings.
He cut deep, and yet I just undercut him.

Physical Description

If you were the producer of a film and looking for a character to play Moriarty, would you have a hard time finding an actor that matches this:
He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is cleanshaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptillian fashion.


In this next statement Moriarty uses “circumlocution”. Circumlocution is “talking around” a subject by intentionally being vague and NOT saying exactly what is meant.
You have worked things in such a fashion that we have only one resource left. It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be a grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure.
Translation: "My only recourse is to kill you. I've had so much fun in this battle between us I'm hoping I don't need to. But if I do, oh well."


This statement below is a form of antithesis: or opposites in parallel form.
My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.

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