Student Response to Sign of Four

Sensing and Deducting in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four

As I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, I could not ignore the constant references to the senses.  With Sherlock Holmes having incredible observation skills, the countless references to the senses suits the work well.  Watson aims to observe Holmes’ method in the hopes of becoming a better detective himself.  Deduction accompanies Holmes’ powers of observation, resulting in his ability to solve the cases that he undertakes.  Watson suggests while discussing observation and deduction that “the one to some extent implies the other;” however, Holmes firmly disagrees (Doyle 96).  This distinction separates Holmes from the other investigators, resulting in his supreme detective skills.  While most of us do not have the remarkable abilities that Sherlock Holmes possesses, Doyle provides us with the opportunity to hone our skills.  Doyle frequently references the senses and the body parts associated with them to highlight how one can interpret observations with deductive reasoning.  He invites us to become detectives ourselves by using these references to accurately place us in the events of the novella, providing us with the opportunity to interpret them.

The sense of sight is important in the investigative process and is clearly responsible for the various depictions of surroundings, objects, and people that serve as potential evidence throughout The Sign of Four.  A physical description is common as Holmes and Watson encounter something new.  Often when describing other people, physical characteristics represent inward characteristics.  Kirby Farrell argues that Holmes uses detection, combining his “scrutiny of outward signs with [his] intuition about personality to unfold the ‘plots’ of other people’s lives” (Farrell 47).  Watson adopts Holmes’ methods by indicating that Small’s prominent “bearded chin… mark[s] a man who [is] not to be easily turned from his purpose” (Doyle 157).  Miss Morstan’s expression is “sweet and amiable, and her blue eyes [are] singularly spiritual and sympathetic,” leading Watson to believe that she has “a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature” than any other woman he has encountered (99).  Descriptions of eyes are also common, ranging from “questioning” (106), “smil[ing]” (143), “glow[ing],” “burn[ing]” (155),   “twinkling” (157), “shining” (160), and “blaz[ing]” (162).  Doyle emphasizes sight by portraying other characters being observed or observing, such as Mr. Sholto having an alibi since he was “never out of sight of someone or other” (147) and Small having various jobs where his observations are key, including an overseer of coolies in India (163).  Farrell notes that Small mirrors Holmes through his ability to “[track] down a fugitive criminal (Sholto)” (Farrell 35); therefore, Small relies on his own sense of observation and deduction.  Footprints are also a significant clue for Holmes and Watson in Pondicherry Lodge, and Holmes interprets them to conclude that one culprit is a “wooden-legged man” and that the other culprit, having footprints “half the size of those of an ordinary man,” is Tonga (Doyle 120, 122).  With many events happening during the night, characters require a source of light to observe the situation.  While shining a light on events symbolizes finding clues or solving the mystery, the light and dark contrast also alludes to the contemporary tensions between England and India.

Sight is largely responsible for much of the evidence in the text, but the emphasis on smell, hearing, and touch are also apparent.  Holmes discovers the scent of creosote emanating from some of the footprints in Pondicherry Lodge, and Holmes recruits Toby, a “specially trained hound,” to follow the smell and hopefully find the culprits (122-23).  Hearing obviously allows for the interviews that Holmes and Watson conduct, and these interviews are key to their investigation.  Farrell suggests that listening to confessions results in Holmes functioning “as a crude sort of psychoanalyst” (Farrell 47).  When interviewing people under investigative circumstances, Holmes insists that one should “never let them think that their information can be of the slightest importance” in order to prevent them from “instantly shut[ting] up like an oyster,” and one can most likely obtain the information that one desires if one “listen[s] to them under protest” (Doyle 138).  Doyle emphasizes different voices in the novella, including the “deep rich tones” of Miss Morstan (103), the “thin, high voice” of the Hindu servant (107), the “thick and foggy” voice of Small (137), and the “husky and confidential” voice of Mr. Athelney Jones (147).  The voices represent the inner qualities of the characters, and Small’s voice has the most negative association.  In Pondicherry Lodge, the characters also strain their ears to hear “the saddest and most pitiful of sounds—the shrill, broken whimpering of a frightened woman” (116).  Lip descriptions are common in the novella and often symbolize a character’s willingness to communicate.  Parted lips represent the desire to communicate while sealed lips imply secrecy or an unwillingness to communicate (160-61).  Although Holmes and Watson touch various pieces of evidence to gain understanding, the more powerful references to the act of feeling are those that involve the physical reactions that characters have themselves.  For example, Miss Morstan’s quivering indicates her “intense inward agitation” (99), Watson’s “hot” reaction to Mr. Sholto’s lack of delicacy regarding Miss. Morstan’s deceased father signifies his anger, and Miss Morstan and Watson holding hands suggests their affection for one another (116).  Although emotion is not a sense, Doyle repeatedly references the heart when depicting emotions, including love, fear, sorrow, and sympathy.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s emphasis on the senses often highlights what our bodies’ leave behind, which Holmes and Watson use as clues to solve mysteries.  Our bodies are able to interpret our surroundings and communicate in ways that we do not always realize.  As Farrell concludes, The Sign of Four “promises the reader ‘mental exaltation’” and “provides clues to the meanings of its own addictive illusions” since the novella’s structure “supports serious investigation” (Farrell 48).  Doyle encourages our own detective work as we read The Sign of Four.  We rely on our sense of observation and deduction, and we are able to use Holmes as a model to improve our skills just as Watson does.

Works Cited

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. A Study of Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

Farrell, Kirby. “Heroism, Culture, and Dread in ‘The Sign of Four.’’” Studies in the Novel 16.1 (Spring 1984): 32-51. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

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