Although considerable dispute exists as to the relative merits of the fifty-six short stories in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is a general agreement among most critics and fans as to the rating of the four Holmes novels. The Sign of Four is usually placed second to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902) and solidly ahead of A Study in Scarlet (1887, serial; 1888, book) and The Valley of Fear (1914-1915). The Sign of Four is praised for its picture of Holmes in action and the ingenuity of the initial puzzle for its evocation of the atmosphere of London in the 1880’s, for its sharp delineation of character, and for its dramatic effectiveness. It is sometimes faulted, however, for a plot too closely reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), a solution that comes too early in the narrative, and for Jonathan Small’s overly long confession. Critic Julian Symons is probably right in his opinion that the main problem in both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four is that “they could have been condensed into short stories.”
Although The Sign of Four may seem too long, it still contains some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best writing as well as all the elements that make the Holmes stories so popular and entertaining. Indeed, the more leisurely structure of the novelette, if unnecessary for the substance of the events described, does allow for a fuller treatment of such “incidentals” as character development, general background, colorful digressions, and atmosphere—“peripheral” elements that are essential to the Holmes stories and that go a long way toward explaining their durability and universality.
One evident reason for this long-standing popularity lies in the characters of the principals and their unique relationship. Perhaps Doyle’s most important contribution to the detective story was his “humanizing” of the detective. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is little more than a disembodied intellect. Collins’s Sergeant Cuff is more personable but considerably less skillful. Émile Gaboriau’s two early examples, Monsieur Lecoq and Père Tabaret, are ingenious detectives and amiable fellows, but they have almost no distinguishing personal traits. Holmes is both an extraordinary investigator and a sharply delineated character, and his relationship with Dr. Watson is the one of the first distinctive partnerships in novelistic crime fighting.
The most obvious characteristics of Holmes are his incredible powers of observation, deduction, and induction (despite what he says, most of Holmes’s conclusions are arrived at by induction, not deduction; that is, he draws answers from a mass of small details). This talent is demonstrated again and again in unraveling the most exotic and obscure crimes. Holmes’s procedures are always the same: first, his close examination; next, the set of conclusions; and, finally, the minute “elementary” explication. Usually, in the opening passages, Holmes “practices” on the client’s superficial characteristics and then, as the substance of the story, he applies his extraordinary talents to the major problem of the narrative. In novels, such as The Sign of Four, there is usually a sequence of problems; as Holmes unscrambles one puzzle, the solution points to a new, more sinister one, and this continues until the entire problem is finally solved and the malefactor brought to justice.
Nevertheless, there is more to the Holmes stories than ingenious problem solving. If Collins originated the practice of “humanizing” his detective by giving him eccentric traits and hobbies (Sergeant Cuff grows roses), Doyle perfected the technique. He supplies Holmes with a wide range of sidelines and interests: beekeeping, violin playing, opera,...
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The Sign of the Four exam is the second part of your English Literature Paper 1 (the other half is on Romeo and Juliet) There will be one question for you to answer. You will be given an extract from the story and one question. The question will ask you to discuss the presentation of a particular theme, character, or idea in the extract and in the novel as a whole. (Click here for an example)
The question is worth 30 marks and is half of the available marks in the English Literature exam, so 45 minutes would be a good amount of time to spend on this question.
The exam questions could be about characters, themes or a another key idea in the novel Have a look through these two examples:
You can from these examples that the questions can be worded in quite interesting ways and can focus on characters, themes ask you to respond to a statement. Remember, there is no specific right answer here. So long as you explore and analyse the extract and bring in your wider knowledge of the novel, you will be fine. The examiners want to read the work of people who have clearly read the book carefully and have interesting ideas to share.
You need to have a good knowledge of the following themes and charcaters:
- Love and Friendship
- Englishness and Foreignness
- Crime & Punishment
- Wealth & Treasure
- Justice vs.Evil
- Emotion vs. Rationality.
- Mary Morstan
- Jonathan Small
- Athelney Jones
- Thaddeus Sholto
- Captain Morstan,
When revising, it’s a good idea to focus on one area at a time, and try to tackle areas you may not feel to comfortable with.
There are lots of different ways to revise, but whatever you do, you should be aiming to practise answering essay questions in timed conditions.
Let’s say you wanted to revise the character of Mary Morstan. I would start by going over your notes, or using the internet to find out a few key things:
- What parts of the play do the appear in?
- What do they do / say?
- Why are they important? What themes do they link to?
- What key quotes could I remember?
- What is Conan Doyle using this character to tell me?
When finding this information, you could record it in your book, or using flash cards, or a mind map. Then, imagine you were preparing an essay on these two characters. Try devising a specific exam question and adapting the information you have gathered into an essay plan. (sign-of-four-essay-planning)
10 essays I could revise / plan / attempt:
- How does Conan Doyle use the character Tonga to present ideas about Foreignness?
- How does Conan Doyle present the relationship between Holmes and Watson
- How does Conan Doyle present female characters and attitudes towards women?
- How does Conan Doyle contrast Sherlock Holmes with the Athelney Jones?
- How does Conan Doyle present the character Jonathan Small?
- How does Conan Doyle present different ideas about Justice and evil?
- How does Conan Doyle use the characters of Watson and Holmes to present contrasting characters?
- How does Conan Doyle present wealth as and treasure as an important element of the plot?
- How does Conan Doyle present ideas about love and friendship in the novel?
- How does Conan Doyle create a sense of adventure in The Sign of the Four?
Useful Links and Resources:
Starting with this extract, explore how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery. Write about:
- how Conan Doyle uses places to create a sense of mystery in this extract
- how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery in the novel as a whole.
‘Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant early example of a fictional detective.’ Starting with this extract, how far do you agree with this statement? Write about:
- how Conan Doyle presents Holmes in this extract
- how Conan Doyle presents Holmes in the novel as a whole.