Red Herring

Definition of Red Herring

A red herring in literature is a narrative element that is used to throw off readers and lead them to false conclusions. This is an especially popular literary device to use in detective stories and thrillers. An author provides one or more red herrings intentionally to divert attention away from the true object or person of interest, thereby making the conclusion to the book more of a surprise. Red herring examples can come in the form of clues, people who seem suspicious, or other fallacious reasoning done by characters that leads the reader astray.

Differences Between Red Herrings and Other Fallacies

Red herrings are an example of an informal fallacy. While a formal fallacy contains a flaw in logic, an informal fallacy is an argument that often contains a flaw in reasoning. An informal fallacy will often include irrelevant evidence to persuade a reader or listener to believe a false conclusion. Thus, even if the evidence is true, and therefore the logic is sound, the reasoning that connects the evidence with the conclusion is faulty.

In the real world, a red herring may be unintentional (for example, any evidence in a real detective case that later proves to be irrelevant). The definition of red herring when used in literature, however, is that it is intentional. There are several other examples of intentional informal fallacies:

  • Ad Hominem Attacks: Insulting someone’s character to undermine that person, instead of focusing on the strength of the person’s arguments.
  • Non Sequitur: Making a jump in logic so that there is no connective tissue from one statement to the next.
  • Either-Or Fallacy: Creating a false dichotomy to oversimplify a situation.
  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (also known as Post Hoc): Identifying false causality, basing a conclusion solely on the chronology of events.
  • Bandwagon Effect: Asserting that something must be true because everyone says that it is true.
  • Straw man: Misrepresenting an opponent’s stance in order to refute that false argument and create the illusion that one has defeated the opponent.

Red Herring Examples from Other Media

The Usual Suspects: This 1995 movie features Kevin Spacey as the crippled, reclusive Roger “Verbal” Kint. He tells a story to detectives about what happened on the night of an explosion. As the movie goes on, the story becomes more complicated both for the detectives and for the viewers. Verbal leaves the office after completing the story, and only then does one detective realize that most of the names and details from Verbal’s story are found within the office itself, and therefore are all red herrings. In fact, Verbal’s entire persona was a red herring; in the last scene we see him leave the detective office and drop his limp.

2012 Presidential Debate: In the second debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, a woman asks how the two men will “limit the availability of assault weapons.” Neither man answered that specific question. Instead, Obama talked about catching violence before it gets out of control, and Romney focused on good schools and raising children in two-parent homes. They both diverted attention from the original question by using red herrings.

Origin of Red Herring

There is some debate about where this idiomatic term first originated. The first known usage of the phrase was in the mid-13th century, when an Anglo-Norman poet wrote the line “He etep no ffyssh But heryng red.” As there is no such fish called a red herring, the poet here was referring to a strongly cured or heavily smoked kipper fish.

Some have argued that the current meaning of the phrase dates back to dog training practices, in which a hunter would use strongly smelling red herrings to teach puppies to follow a scent. The argument continues that as the dog grew older hunters would continue to use red herrings to try and fool the dog and improve their ability to identify weaker scents left by real targets such as a hare or a fox. Thus, the smell of the red herring was ultimately supposed to to lead a poorly trained dog astray.

While this is a plausible story, it is possible that there was never any such practice, especially in widespread use. In 1807, a journalist named William Cobbett criticized the English press for reporting Napoleon’s defeat prematurely. He wrote that he once had used red herrings to deflect hounds from a scent, and compared the press coverage to a “political red-herring.” Apparently, this was enough to convince readers that it was an actual hunting practice. Regardless of the origin, the term stuck, and is now widely known as a literary device and a rhetorical strategy.

Examples of Red Herring from Literature

Example #1

In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, a character named Bishop Aringarosa seems to be a central part of the conspiracy at the core of the plot. Later in the book the reader finds out that the bishop had been fooled by the real villain. Dan Brown was quite intentional with this red herring—the character’s name is an Italian translation of the term (aringa means “herring” and rosa means “red”).

Example #2

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

(And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie)

Agatha Christie was a master at the detective novel, and almost all of her plots contain some examples of red herring. And Then There Were None is her most famous work, and has sold more than 100 million copies since its publication in 1939. It revolves around ten people who are invited to an uninhabited island off the coast of England. When they arrive they find a copy of the folk poem “Ten Little Indians.” One by one, they begin to die in ways that parallel the poem (the first person to die has a glass of wine that contains potassium cyanide, mimicking the first line of the poem: “one choked his little self and then there were nine”). When there are only four people left on the island, one goes missing and the remaining three assume that he must be the killer. Instead, they later find his body washed up onshore. Therefore, his absence was a red herring that misled the characters and, presumably, the reader. Indeed, this parallels the line of the poem about a red herring swallowing the fourth-to-last boy.

Example #3

The plot of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens features a major red herring. The main character, Pip, discovers that he has a wealthy benefactor. Both he and the reader assume that it must be Miss Havisham, the elderly eccentric woman who seems to have taken him in. We learn later than Miss Havisham has only recruited Pip as a means of taking revenge on the man who left her at the altar; Pip’s benefactor is actually an escaped convict whom Pip briefly helped when he was a young boy.

Example #4

One famous red herring example comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Final Problem. As Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are taking a walk through the mountains of Switzerland, Dr. Watson receives a message that an Englishwoman back at their hotel is in urgent need of care and prefers to see an English doctor. Dr. Watson races back to the hotel, only to find that there is no Englishwoman. The message had been a red herring sent by the notorious villain Professor James Moriarty. He sent the message to isolate Sherlock Holmes, and when Dr. Watson returns to the mountains he finds evidence of a struggle between the two men leading over the edge of a cliff.

Test Your Knowledge of Red Herring

1. What is the correct red herring definition?
A. An attack on someone’s character instead of the arguments.
B. A device to divert attention away from the true object.
C. A false dichotomy to oversimplify a situation.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is an example of a red herring?
A. “All dogs are mammals. My cat is a mammal. Therefore, my cat is a dog.”
B. “I had lunch with Donald, then I felt sick. Therefore, Donald made me sick.”
C. “You asked what I’ve done to counteract global warming. In my first two years in office, we’ve had lower than average temperatures.”

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Why is the message in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem an example of red herring?
A. The Englishwoman never existed.
B. There had been an Englishwoman, but she got better by the time Dr. Watson arrived and no longer needed his help.
C. Dr. Watson took too long to get back to Holmes, and therefore the struggle between Holmes and Moriarty was Dr. Watson’s fault.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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