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Burton Gui
Dr. Lynda Haas
Writing 39B
August 28, 14
Literature Review
Imperialism in The Sign of Four
Literature reflects a society in which writers are unconsciously influenced by its ideology.
In The Sign of Four, the Sir. Arthur Cannon Doyles second detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes
is endowed with brilliant intelligence and astute observation and leads readers to experience
many astonishing myth-solving adventures. According to literary scholar George Dove in The
Different Story, detective fictions are supported to be a puzzle-solving game, without extra
stress. Meanwhile, Leroy Panek, who wrote a full-length study of the detective genre, An
Introduction to the Detective Story, explains that Doyle tries to avoid importing social critiques
and Victorian morality, bringing the detective story closer to pure narrative(80). However,
Holmes is still stamped with the attitudes and beliefs of the Victorian era. The detective stories
of Doyle, especially The Sign of Four, provide a way to understand British imperialism and the
divergent Victorian attitudes toward its colonialism. At the zenith of an empire upon which the
sun never set, Britain enjoyed harvests from its worldwide colonies. Relying upon its great
international achievement, the British were confident in their role as a strong power to lead the
world. Ethnocentrism developed from the British feeling of superiority, resulting in prejudice
and discrimination towards other cultures. These ideas are reinforced by Doyle in his classic
mystery involving an exotic treasure and a native Andaman islander. In 1857, before the publish
of The Sign of Four, Indian Munity, the first rebellion of native against British colonial rule,
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forced British to rethink their governance in the colonies and to quell further turbulence. Maybe
Doyle does not mean to deliberately reflect Imperialism in his novel, but a group of scholars, like
Leroy Panek, Christopher Keep, Kirby Farrell and John McBratney, have tracked on the traces of
imperial ideology within Doyles detective fiction. Based upon examination of imperialism
within The Sign of Four, these scholars note how the novel illustrates the fear of incursion from
natives and a fascination with the products made available through dominance of foreign
According to literary critic Kirby Farrell in his article Heroism, Culture, and Dread In
The Sign of Four, racist description of the aboriginal people being savage and inherently violent
is illustrative of common conceptualization towards foreign figures, as a fear of incursive
behaviors. Kirby Farrell in Heroism, Culture, and Dread In The Sign of Four mentions that
With its rebellious black fiends (p.234) and black devils (p.232) colonial India comes to
express the dark face of the England idealized in the novel(34). Tonga, as the companion of
criminal Jonathan Small, epitomizes the rebellious Indian stepping upon Britain and coming
with hostility, and he is also referred to the fear, among British, towards foreign incursion.
Tonga performs his war dance when Small exhibits him in their travels (156;ch.12),
McBratney adds the point in Racial and Criminal Types. Through Watsons perspective, even
though Tonga is falling down to the bottom of Thames, his scary and distorted appearance still
frightens Watson, a former military doctor. I caught one glimpse of his venomous, menacing
eyes amid the white swirl of the waters, Doyle writes in the fiction (1641). These are the exact
kind of distortion of other races and the fear promoted by imperialism especially after the Munity
of India. Also, Watson describes Tonga as a little black man the smallest I have ever seen
with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, disheveled hairand chattered at us with
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half animal fury(Loc-1627). In addition, Christopher Keep in Addiction, Empire and Narrative
in The Sign of the Four demonstrates Tongas sunken eyes and animal fury are a complex
distillation of contemporary accounts of the murderous rage exhibited by the Sepoys during the
Munity(214). In fact, McBratney has pointed out Andamanese, the prototype of Tonga, are
not averagely below four feet, and they are as the normal people who are even distinctly good
looking(155). As one can see the description in the novel does not reflect the reality, but
complies with the look on the world where imperialists presented their anxiety and where natives
who had disobeyed their government in the colony were demonized. As an intruder from the
savage world, Tonga has arrived in England and brought with him the sheer excessiveness of
the colonial world(Keep, 214). To exclude evil incursion, the British has to invite Sherlock
Holmes, the representative imperialism, who has the most sophisticated detective skills among
the empire.
According to these scholars, The Sign of Four also reflects a deep addiction of the Sun
Never Set empire towards its foreign colonies. Though the mid- to late-nineteenth-century view
of the colonies had bred into a conflicting imperial conception, it was still widely held that the
colonies were vital to the success of the British Imperial government (Panek 80). Miss Morstans
accessories from India do not escape Watsons attention, especially the "a small turban of the
small dull [grey] hue, relieved only by the suspicion of a white feather in the side" (Doyle, 313).
He quickly turns and focuses all his attention on the accessories that finally serve as his basis of
attraction to Miss Morstan. He is also very descriptive of Thaddeus Sholtos not-so-humble
abode. Watson describes the abode, as "The carpet was of amber and black, so soft and so thick
that the foot sank pleasantly into it, as into a bed of moss" (Doyle, 502). He associates the
foreign objects found in the house with decadence. It is a western characteristic tendency to view
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the other cultures as not civilized enough to their level. The British officials in the colonies
accrued a lot of wealth from their colonial visits as seen from the character Abdullah Khan. He
tells Jonathan Small, "We only ask you to do that which your countrymen come to this land for.
We ask you to be rich" (Doyle, Loc-1897). The general feeling amongst the British visiting the
colonies was that the treasure they had was theirs for the taking. As Khan is seen telling Jonathan
Small, the colonies are simply sources of wealth for the British Imperialists. Though they do not
value the people or even their culture, they still consider the economic opportunities presented by
the colonies as massive (Keep 207). They exploit them by taking whatever gems they find and
even acquire large tracts of land for themselves despite the remarkable loathing of the local
cultures. While the imperialists loot the riches from their colonies, the so-called savages wallow
in poverty despite being the owners of these spoils (Farrell 34). In addition, Keep addresses,
Cocaine is, in this sense, the archetypal colonial product: it traces an arc from raw substance
originating on the ill-defined[India]periphery of empire(210). Also, He further discusses that
Holmes symbolizes Imperialism, which he needs cocaine to stimulate his mind, as Britain
needed Narcotics to earn money. Thus, India is like drug, which imperialists could not resist its
interest temptation, as well as poison, which they were afraid of colonial insurrections (210-11).
The Sign of Four is an outstanding work of literature that witnesses social transformation
and imperialism in the Victorian era. Sherlock Holmes acts as a guard of society fighting against
barbaric and savage natives, representing for rebellions from British colonies and threatening the
stability of the heart of the empire. However, unwittingly, he also cannot resist an addiction to
exotic products, as symbolizing how imperialists relied upon the irresistible economic
stimulation offered by colonies. The novel completely records the conflicting feeling among
British towards colonialism. Although Sherlock Holmes is influenced by Imperialism, he still
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represents a spirit of sophisticated analysis and the use solid evidence to solve problems.
Nowadays, he transcends the imperialist context in which he was originally written, serving as a
classic hero without super powers, just his intelligence owned by even ordinary people.

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Works Cited
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Sign of the Four. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Kindle
eBook. Online.
Dove, George N. The Reader and the Detective Story. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State
University Popular Press, 1997. Print.
Farrell, Kirby. "Heroism, Culture and Dread in The Sign of the Four." Studies in the Novel 16.1
(1984): 32-51. Print.
Keep, Christopher, and Don Randall. "Addiction, Empire, and Narrative in Arthur Conan Doyle's
"The Sign of the Four"." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 32.2 (1999): 207-221. Print.
Mcbratney, John. "Racial And Criminal Types: Indian Ethnography And Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle's The Sign Of Four." Victorian Literature and Culture 33.01 (2005): 149-167.
Panek, LeRoy. An introduction to the detective story. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green
State University Popular Press, 1987. Print.