In The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s diction demands thorough scrutiny of his characterization techniques. Through the novel’s host of diverse characters, this Sherlock Holmes adventure manages to escape the confines of mystery tropes to deftly address British imperialism. In particular, a critical analysis of Doyle’s characterization of Jonathan Small and his crony, Tonga, reveals the novel’s critique of imperialism as a practice which corrupts the conquerors and the conquered into rapacious enemies of Britain.
In keeping with the nature of detective plots, Doyle withholds a descriptive illustration of his villain, Jonathan Small, until the last two chapters of The Sign of the Four, “The Great Agra Treasure” and “The Strange Story of Jonathan Small”; however, prior to these chapters, a few details arise periodically to pique the reader’s interest. For instance, when Thaddeus Sholto describes Small spying on his dying father, he depicts Small as a man “with a bearded, hairy face, with wild cruel eyes and an expression of concentrated malevolence” (Doyle 29). This provoking description coupled with the fact that Small was peering through a window at a man on his deathbed undoubtedly garners a sense of profound dislike for and distrust of his character. After this mentioning, Small is primarily referred to as “the wooden-legged man,” which ascribes a piratical, suspicious quality to his character (41). In fact, Small’s ominous presence closely mirrors the imagery Doyle uses to describe London. Descriptive phrases such as “dense drizzly fog,” “murky, shifting radiance,” and “eerie and ghostlike” evoke mystery and draw a parallel between Small and Britain’s shared duplicity, which is crucial to understanding Small as an emblem of British imperialism. Doyle effectively maintains this sinister characterization of Small throughout The Sign of the Four.
In the eleventh chapter, “The Great Agra Treasure,” Doyle builds upon these physical descriptions to establish Jonathan Small as an ignoble figure. To open the chapter, Doyle notes how the “sunburned reckless-eyed fellow…[with] a singular prominence about his bearded chin…heavy brows and aggressive chin” still maintains a “face in repose” (89). Here, Doyle manipulates the image of the quintessential British gentleman by juxtaposing Small’s rugged features and his composure. This “mask of stoicism” falls in the final chapter once Small plunges into his self-righteous confession, which promptly undermines his previous association with British gentility (96). Thus, even though Small is British, Doyle creates a clear distinction between his likeness and that of a typical affluent Englishman through this physical description. In other words, he distinguishes this faux British gentleman from The Sign of the Four’s heroes to highlight his corruption. The rift only widens once Doyle expounds upon Small’s ruthless, egocentric personality in the final chapter.
Notably, Jonathan Small is the titular character in the final chapter, thereby directing the reader’s attention towards Small’s narrative. Having joined the Third Buffs as an eighteen-year-old, Small has spent the better part of his adult life either enabling the British subjugation of India or pursuing the Agra treasure (97). By providing this background, Doyle positions Small in the conqueror archetype, and if Small is to represent British proponents of imperialism, the association effectively admonishes this stance on colonization. This conclusion is especially true because whilst Small details his life story, he does so with an air of self-righteousness as if he feels his heinous actions are justified. This egotistical view persists even when he admits to killing a Sikh man for the Agra treasure. After this nonchalant confession, Small calmly holds “out his manacled hands for the whiskey and water which Holmes brewed for him” (106). Without a doubt, his irreverent attitude regarding this murder is despicable and reflects poorly on imperialists by association.
However, Jonathan Small does not operate alone, and Tonga, as his henchman, represents the conquered stereotype in The Sign of the Four. In his description of Tonga, Small praises his steadfast servitude, referring to him as “staunch and true” and his “little chum” (114). Though patronizing, Small’s language demonstrates his appreciation of Tonga’s fidelity. Unsurprisingly though, Small’s view of Tonga directly contrasts with Sherlock Holmes’s perception of him. Once Holmes deduces Tonga’s identity and role in Bartholomew Sholto’s murder, he exhibits more contempt for the criminal’s “savage instincts” than for Small’s implicit connection (58). During the investigation, Holmes states to Dr. Watson that upon discovering the criminals’ lair, “if [Tonga] turns nasty I shall shoot him dead” (59). Holmes’s willingness to obstruct justice due to his racism illustrates the misguided assumptions Doyle strives to discredit in The Sign of the Four. Even though Holmes voices these questionable thoughts, Doyle invites the reader to assess the brilliant detective with a critical eye. While Holmes and some British readers of Doyle’s time may have perceived Tonga’s savagery to be independent of Small’s influence, the symbiotic relationship between the two men suggests that Tonga’s murderous tendency resulted from his allegiance with Small, who had already succumbed to imperialistic greed before the two even met.
By presenting these abstruse characterizations, Doyle undermines the assumed advantage of imperialism: wealth. In effect, the Agra treasure consumes Small’s life, altogether corrupting his propriety. As a catastrophic side effect, this journey also entraps Tonga and leads to The Sign of the Four’s tragedy. If Small and Tonga represent the conqueror and conquered as well as each’s susceptibility to avarice, then the Agra treasure represents the allure of resources which instigated Britain’s Age of Imperialism during Sir Conan Doyle’s lifetime. Fictional aspects aside, The Sign of the Four presents a compelling argument against imperialism for the sake of mitigating corruption.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of the Four. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.