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Mysterious deaths, suspicious letters in the mail, impossible crime scenes and an unexplainable map labelled: Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four (1890) – unsolvable to us, perhaps, but we aren’t Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective! Alongside his trusty sidekick, Dr. John Watson, Holmes must untangle a complex mystery in a novel that is as thrilling as it is problematic in its unfortunate insight into the Victorian values that defined this era of the British Empire.
Content Warning - This text contains racial prejudice and slurs.
Born in Scotland in 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle initially trained to be a doctor but found his true calling as a writer when he released A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, in 1887. The Sign of the Four followed in 1890, but it wasn’t until Doyle published his short stories that the character began to soar in popularity. Over the course of his life, Doyle released a total of 56 short stories and 4 novels related to Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle famously didn't like Sherlock Holmes! He even tried to kill the character off because it was distracting him from more serious work. It was only through public pressure that he eventually revived the detective and continued writing – the money offered was very likely a nice bonus, too.
By the time The Sign of the Four was released in 1890, the British Empire was well on its way to covering a quarter of the world, with India being referred to as its 'Jewel in the Crown'. 1
With the Empire in full swing, many British people held the belief that they were more well-developed and civilised than the countries they colonised. Through this belief, they could claim a right to colonise other countries in order to introduce them to the ‘correct’, British way of life. Doyle, knowingly or unknowingly, reflects these values in The Sign of the Four, both through the plotline, which sees the Agra treasure being plundered from India, and through the racist portrayal of the Indian character Tonga.
Mary Morstan visits Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, alleviating Holmes' boredom with a new case. She tells Holmes that ever since her father, Captain Morstan, disappeared ten years ago, she has received yearly pearls in the mail. This year, her pearl arrived with a note, asking her to meet at a theatre the following evening. Holmes and Watson agree to go with her.
A carriage awaits at the theatre, and the trio are taken to the house of Thaddeus Sholto, who tells them of the Agra treasure – an extremely valuable collection of jewels – which he claims Mary has a partial claim to. Mary’s father, Captain Morstan, and Thaddeus’ own father, Major Sholto, brought the treasure back from India. When the two argued over the jewels, Captain Morstan had a sudden heart attack, dying in the process.
The Agra treasure reflects Victorian attitudes towards British Imperialism in India. People in the British Empire saw 'The East' as exotic and mysterious, filled with luxurious treasures and opportunities for wealth.
Notice that at no point the detectives believe the treasure to be stolen from India, instead they consider Mary and Thaddeus as rightful owners. This was not an uncommon belief. Many at the time thought that the exploitation of countries like India was justifiable and for the gain of the British Empire.
Thaddeus then explains that his father was about to tell him and his brother, Bartholomew, the location of the treasure, but died of shock upon seeing a bearded man in his window. They learn that Bartholomew has located the treasure, leading Thaddeus and Mary to travel to Pondicherry Lodge, intending to split the jewels.
Upon arrival, Bartholomew is found dead, seemingly poisoned by a blow dart, and the Agra treasure is missing. After closer investigation, Holmes locates footprints left in haste by the perpetrators after they stepped in tar, deducing that a man with a wooden leg –alongside a short accomplice – committed the crime. Athelney Jones, an uninformed police detective, arrives on the scene. He swiftly concludes that Thaddeus killed Bartholomew, and promptly arrests him. Holmes calls for Toby, a hound, to follow the scent.
Holmes and Watson follow Toby, eventually being led to the Thames after a false scent. Holmes learns that the culprits have hired a boat named the Aurora, and after considerable frustration and a nifty disguise, he finds it in a shipyard. They wait for the culprits to make their escape.
At night, Holmes and Watson, alongside the police, begin to pursue the Aurora, containing Jonathan Small, and his accomplice, Tonga, down the Thames. After attempting to fire a poison dart, Tonga is shot at by Watson and Holmes, and falls into the water. The Aurora runs aground, and Small is captured.
Mary opens the box of treasure and finds it empty. She is not concerned. Watson, who has been falling in love with her, announces he is pleased, as it means he has an honest chance at love with her, leading them to embrace.
Money doesn't buy happiness! The promise of great wealth leaves many men in the novel dead, imprisoned, or deeply unhappy. Even Dr Watson associates the treasure with Mary becoming unattainable. Only when the money is out of the picture can they appreciate the real treasure – love! Cheesy, right?
Small admits to throwing the treasure in the Thames and says that he first came across it in India when he and three others murdered a rich merchant for it. In doing so, they formed the sign of the four. Despite obtaining the jewels, the men were arrested for murder.
Small explains that he gained Tonga's loyalty by nursing him to health. After meeting overseers Captain Morstan and Major Sholto in prison, Small offered additional shares of his treasure to them in order to be released. Sholto deceived everyone, fleeing to England with the treasure instead. Small and Tonga tracked him down, killed him, and after hearing that the treasure had been found, entered Pondicherry Lodge to get it back. In the process of the attempted theft, Tonga killed Bartholomew.
Small is led away to jail, and Watson and Mary agree to marry.
Let’s look at some of the novel's defining characters.
The legendary detective of 221b Baker Street, and the novel's main protagonist, Sherlock Holmes can solve problems most of us would consider impossible. He accomplishes this by combining incredible intelligence and the science of deduction – his belief that any problem can be solved with rational thought. He solves these cases not for money or fame, but for the thrill, and requires constant intellectual challenge, or he may choose to turn to artificial stimulants like cocaine.
You may react in shock to learn of the world's most famous detective using illegal substances, but it's important to remember that in 1888, when the novel is set, and up until its outlaw in 1920, cocaine was both legal and easy to obtain!
The sidekick of Sherlock Holmes and the novel’s narrator, Watson is a doctor and served in the British Army. Holmes frequently bounces ideas off of him. As he cannot deduce problems as rationally as the genius detective, he is a relatable character to the general reader. He is also more emotional than Holmes, falling in love and asking Mary Morstan to marry him at the end of the novel.
Mary, a 27-year-old governess, comes to Sherlock Holmes with a problem regarding her father, Captain Morstan. She is portrayed as confident in her wants and desires, showing little interest in the wealth of the Agra treasure. She falls in love with Dr Watson, agreeing to marry him by the end of the novel.
Jonathan Small is the novel's antagonist who formed the sign of the four after killing a merchant to steal the Agra treasure. After being imprisoned for murder and later deceived by Major Sholto, he follows the treasure to London and is eventually caught by Holmes after a lengthy chase on the Thames.
Tonga followed Small to London after Small nursed him back to health. He is presented as animalistic and sub-human, using poison darts as a weapon, in what amounts to an extremely problematic character portrayal. Doyle’s representation of Tonga – including the fact he is given no dialogue – reflects the marginalisation and prejudice surrounding race in Victorian London.
Athelney, a local police detective, acts as the opposite of Holmes, proposing incorrect theories and allowing Holmes to debunk his ideas. He takes credit for Holmes' successful cases, but also acknowledges his intelligence, and often calls upon him for help.
The Sign of the Four is one of the earliest examples of the detective genre.
Detective fiction revolves around an investigator and a dangerous crime. The genre usually depicts a smart detective, a complex problem, and the tense, difficult journey to solve the mystery.
While Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t invent detective fiction, he certainly helped to popularise it, so much so that Sherlock Holmes is now synonymous with the genre. Conan Doyle placed clues in the text so that we can attempt to solve the case along with the protagonist, helping to make the final payoff even more satisfying!
The invention of the detective story is credited to Edgar Allan Poe, who created The Murders in the Rue Morgue all the way back in 1841. This is the earliest time we see a detective solve a murder through what Poe called 'ratiocination' – analysing the facts of the case based on logic and rationality.
The novel is structured into twelve chapters, the earliest of which introduces the mystery to the reader. This is followed by a building of tension as Holmes struggles for a breakthrough until eventually, the story reaches its climax as Holmes cracks the case.
Although the novel is narrated by Dr John Watson, Sherlock Holmes is the driving force behind the story. When he hits a dead-end in his investigation, the novel slows down, and once he finds a breakthrough, the action picks back up again. Information is also withheld so that the reader is forced to try and solve the mystery alongside Sherlock as they read.
Now let's dive into some of the critical themes in The Sign of the Four.
One of the key themes in The Sign of the Four is the depiction of Imperialism.
Imperialism involves taking control of an area, often through militaristic, economic or political power. Imperialists often believe that their control is justified, in part because they imagine themselves to be superior to the colonised race, thus thinking themselves responsible for ‘civilising’ and ‘uplifting’ them.
The narrative mirrors British imperialist attitudes both in its description of the Agra treasure being plundered from India for British gain, and in its problematic depiction of race. Tonga is referred to as a ‘black cannibal’ and as ‘half-animal’, linking his skin colour to his perceived savagery and lack of morals. He is seen as physically inferior – being short in stature – and as inherently evil. When Jonathan Small talks about Tonga late in the novel, the relationship he describes closer resembles that of a man and a dog, rather than of two equal companions.
The attitudes portrayed in the novel are problematic and difficult to read for a modern audience, but in Victorian London the prejudices associated with the British Empire were far more ingrained. Although this doesn't make these views less uncomfortable, it can be helpful to read The Sign of the Four as a product of its time.
Throughout The Sign of the Four, fear is always present. The clearest example of this is in the case of Major Sholto, who confines himself to his house in terror of being discovered, and suffers a heart attack upon seeing the man he has been hiding from. However, by looking at some of the less obvious examples of fear we can shed some light on the values of the Victorian Era. For example, the fear characters have for Tonga – largely because of his perceived savagery due to his race – shows the fear many Victorians had of Otherness.
Otherness is the act of being different. To be afraid of otherness is to be scared of things that are different to what you're used to.
Even Dr John Watson feels fear at the thought that he will no longer be able to propose to Mary if she inherits the Agra treasure. This shows us the importance of social status in Victorian society, to the extent that characters are concerned about being unable to marry outside of their class.
In the late 1800s Victorian society was obsessed with scientific progress, with scientists like Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin being hugely influential figures. Doyle mirrors this desire for progress by presenting Holmes as rational, focused, and unemotional. He enjoys revealing the simple logic behind his ideas, and uses rational thinking and scientific deduction to solve complex crimes and escape the dull monotony of day to day life – something that would strike a chord with the Victorian reader.
Thomas Edison was an American inventor famous for creating a more durable lightbulb, a superior telegraph system and the phonograph among other pioneering inventions!
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who proposed the theory of natural selection - the idea that the fittest animals survive and reproduce - creating the foundation for all evolutionary study today.
Let's take a look at some of the most important quotes in The Sign of the Four.
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
- Sherlock Holmes, Chapter 6
Holmes reveals the process he uses to solve cases. It involves eliminating all of the impossible outcomes to find the only possible solution to any problem. This logical process ties to the Victorian desire for rationality, and shows Doyle's support for the scientific way of thinking that was becoming popularised in his era.
They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features.
- Sherlock Holmes, Chapter 8
This quote, which uses terms like 'hideous' and 'fierce' to portray Tonga as unattractive, savage, and evil, highlights the problematic prejudice that was commonplace in Victorian society. By bringing attention to the differences between Tonga and themselves, Doyle also shows the fear of Otherness that he and many others felt of different cultures.
He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.
- Jonathan Small, Chapter 12
Even when speaking of Tonga in a positive light, by using words like 'little' to diminish him and make him seem less than equal, Small's talk of a 'faithful mate' sounds more like he is referring to a pet, rather than a partner. Doyle mimics the imperialist attitudes of his time, whereby other races were considered to be lower than the British, and although they could be 'staunch', 'true' and 'faithful' mates, they would never be considered equal.
Let's now explore the symbols present in The Sign of the Four.
The Agra Treasure symbolises the difference between expectation and reality, and shows that money isn't all it lives up to be! For Captain Morstan, Major Sholto, and Jonathan Small, the Agra treasure was supposed to be their ticket to great wealth, but instead, it only causes problems. Morstan and Sholto die in terror, and Small is arrested after his attempt to reclaim the money fails. In this way, the treasure is symbolic of the burden that is placed on people when they obsess over wealth.
There aren't always crimes to be solved in London, and when Sherlock Holmes is particularly restless in times of inactivity, he resorts to taking cocaine to stir his mind. This shows that the monotony of Victorian society is too much to bear without the opportunity for intelligent thought. In this way, Doyle uses Holmes' drug habit to symbolise escapism, and shows the necessity for rationality and science as a way of stimulating the intellect, lining up with the obsessive desire for scientific progress within Victorian society.
'My mind,' he said, 'rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.'"
- Sherlock Holmes, Chapter 1
1 British Empire, New World Encyclopedia, 03/07/2022
Jonathan Small throws the treasure in the Thames during the final chase. If he can't have it, no one can.
Sherlock Holmes is tasked to track down the Agra treasure and unravel a string of gruesome murders, culminating in a high speed chase on the Thames that ends in justice. and the marriage of John Watson.
The major themes in The Sign of the Four are British imperialism, fear, and science versus rationality.
The central message in The Sign of the Four is that wealth doesn't amount to happiness. All of the men who pursue it are miserable, while the people who don't care about it live happier lives.
The Sign of the Four is an example of detective fiction, where an investigator unravels a complex crime.
In what year was The Sign of the Four published?
Who is the author of The Sign of Four?
Arthur Conan Doyle
What did Mary Morstan receive in the mail each year?
Which country was the Agra treasure taken from?
The Sign of the Four is an early example of which genre?
Who invented the detective fiction genre?
Edgar Allan Poe
Which of these is not a key theme in The Sign of the Four?
Which era is The Sign of the Four set in?
The Victorian Era
Which character portrayal is seen as problematic to a modern day audience?
Who narrates The Sign of the Four?
Dr. John Watson
Who stated 'How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?'
Who stated 'He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate'?
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