Student Response to Sign of Four

Cocaine and Work in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four

As a history minor, I was not at all surprised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s presentation of cocaine use in The Sign of the Four as a normal and prevalent Victorian habit. Opium and its derivatives were thought to be useful as therapeutic drugs for an astonishing period of time during the first half of the nineteenth century. However, I was struck by Sherlock Holmes’ reasoning for the use of the drug. Holmes’ addiction to cocaine is both a substitution for the pleasure he finds in his work as well as a way of separating Holmes from his own decidedly irrational emotions and leaving him with “an extraordinary genius for minutiae” (Doyle 4).

Sherlock Holmes appears to get from cocaine the same satisfaction that he acquires through his work, so much so that Holmes appears to substitute work with cocaine or vice versa. The first line of the novella depicts Holmes reaching for his syringe to inject himself with the narcotic. Holmes claims that the mental stimulation of his work and cocaine is “[his] own proper atmosphere” (Doyle 2). Simply put, Holmes argues that he uses either cocaine or his work to escape a boring life. Holmes portrays his detective work and drug addiction as equally satisfying pursuits to the point where they can be substituted one for the other without hesitation. In Holmes’ mind, detective work is addictive and produces the same physiological effects as cocaine because “work is another form of the wonderful ‘poison’ that he is addicted to” (Keep 211). The detective demonstrates this when, at the beginning of the novella, he states that “the pleasure of finding a field for [his] peculiar powers… is [his] highest reward” (Doyle 2). However, upon the conclusion of the novella, Watson asks what Holmes’ own reward is for solving the case, to which Holmes responds: “for me…there still remains the cocaine-bottle” (Doyle 107). Holmes’ “highest reward” can be either pleasure from work or pleasure from cocaine, they both will satisfy his addictive need for mental stimulation.

While Holmes does use cocaine to escape a “dull routine” (Doyle 2) between jobs, The Sign of the Four also presents Holmes’ addiction to cocaine as a way of separating the fact and fancy of his life. Similar to Dickens’ Hard Times, Holmes is opposed to that which is not based on reason and rationality. Holmes best articulates this sentiment when he tells Watson that “love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which [he places] above all things” (Doyle 107). Cocaine allows Holmes “a way of approximating the stimulation, the excess of feeling he feels when confronted with a problem” (Keep 210). The detective’s aversion to love and emotion is somewhat hypocritical considering the intense pleasure he finds through either cocaine or his work (as he presents both so equally). Holmes himself describes his drug as “transcendently stimulating” (Doyle 1), and his work as “mental exaltation” (Doyle 2). Though he claims to be opposed to anything not fact-based, Holmes uses distinctly spiritual phrases to explain his relationship with both work and drugs.  Clearly, Holmes is emotionally attached to his work and by extension, his cocaine.

Works Cited

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Sign of the Four. Middletown: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. 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. Web.

2 thoughts on “Student Response to Sign of Four

  1. I find your discussion of Sherlock’s addiction to work and cocaine here interesting on several levels. For starters, the contrast it presents in the original Sherlock’s blasé attitude toward drug use, and essentially addiction. When compared with modern adaptations such as BBC’s Sherlock or CBS’s Elementary, which show the seedier and harsher side-effects of this kind of attachment, we realize how truly distant we are from Victorian society in our perception of drugs and how they affect bodies. Secondly, I find the discussion of drug use and addiction interesting as I believe it reveals an increasing Victorian anxiety regarding drug use, an anxiety present in Dracula as well, where blood serves as a type of drug. The result of the “drug” use there is transformation into a less than human creature that feeds upon others to sustain its addiction. I believe we can apply this model, in a sense, to Sherlock as well, as he “feeds” off the strife of others, using their problems to sustain his intellect rather than his body. Richard J. Walker discusses the issue of drug use in the Victorian era, particularly opium, at length in “The blood is the life: Bram Stoker’s Infected Capital,” which you might find a worthwhile read for more information of Victorian drug practices and perceptions.


  2. I enjoy your discussion of Sherlock Holmes and his addiction to work and cocaine, equating the pleasure that he finds in both stimulants. His drug-like obsession to his work not only reflects modern work ideals but also identifies similar work anxieties of the period. Victorians worked long hours in dangerous conditions, and although their experiences most likely differed from those of Holmes, work was equally significant in their lives for their survival. Your reference to the fact and fancy of Hard Times is intriguing in relation to the fact and fancy of Holmes’s life. Relating to the discussion of work, the Hands in Hard Times represent those whose identities symbolize their working function. The Hands provide an interesting contrast to Sherlock Holmes. Both work to enrich their lives, but the enrichment varies from necessity to pleasure.


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