The murder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” takes place in a crumbling and isolated manor belonging to the once-noble Roylott family whose wealth is now gone. Although he is destitute, Dr. Roylott—the last remaining member of the Roylott family—still feels entitled to the life of an aristocrat in which he lives well without working. His greed leads him to murder one of his stepdaughters, Julia, and attempt to murder the other stepdaughter, Helen, in order to protect his claim to monthly payments from his late wife’s wealth. Therefore, the Roylott family’s decline in wealth and status leads directly to Dr. Roylott’s moral decline into greed and murder. This shows that desperation in the face of decline—especially in the absence of meaningful social and familial ties—can lead to depraved and immoral behavior.
Early in the story, when Helen Stoner first appears at the apartment of Holmes and Watson, she notes that she is living with her stepfather, who is “the last survivor of one of the oldest Saxon families in England, the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.” The Roylott family was once one of the richest families in all of England, with a series of vast estates and a massive fortune. Over the course of a century, though, a few different heirs slowly drained the family wealth with their wasteful lifestyles and gambling habits. Due to this decline in family wealth, Dr. Roylott’s father was reduced to living as “an aristocratic pauper,” as there was no family fortune left for him.
In addition to the Roylott family’s financial decline, Helen also depicts Dr. Roylott as someone who has undergone a psychological decline from the days in which his family was respectable. When Roylott and his two stepdaughters return from India to live at his family’s decrepit country manor, the neighbors are excited “to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat.” But rather than make himself a prominent figure in the community, as his family once did, Dr. Roylott shuts himself inside of the house and gets angry with the townspeople who cross his path. By telling Holmes and Watson all of this, Helen is trying to emphasize that the precipitous decline in this family’s wealth and status could lead its last surviving member to desperation. Indeed, a combination of his financial strain (and his greed in the face of it) and his psychological disturbance leads him to commit murder so that he can keep the last of his ex-wife’s funds.
A physical embodiment of the Roylott family’s decline in fortune and respectability, the Stoke Moran Manor itself is visibly crumbling after many years without upkeep. Only one wing of the mansion is inhabitable by the time that Helen Stoner comes to see Holmes and Watson; the other wing and central portion of the manor are in a state of near-ruin, with a caved-in roof and boarded windows. The diminishing size of the manor parallels the diminishing size of the family, while its state of ruin reflects the family’s decline in wealth. The exterior of the home, too, is slowly reverting back into wilderness from its presumably once well-manicured state. Not only have the grounds been drastically reduced to only a few acres, they have also been left to grow into a shrubby expanse that conceals wandering exotic animals and a group of traveling gypsies who live in tents on the property. In a way, the mysterious and sinister grounds can be seen as a reflection of Roylott’s psychological state. While it’s clear for most of the story that he is a dangerous and mysterious man, it’s not clear for much of the story whether he—or whether the ambient dangers of the property—are responsible for the murder.
Through depicting the last descendant of a once-noble family driven to murder by greed and desperation, Doyle is showing that decline and loss can provoke violent emotions and behavior. However, Doyle offers a glimpse of hope: Helen Stoner is an orphan whose sister is dead and whose life and money are tightly controlled by her evil stepfather. Like the Roylotts, Helen’s family has declined in wealth, size, and status, but Helen—unlike Dr. Roylott—does not become violent or immoral in the face of this grim reality. Instead, she hires Holmes and Watson to protect her. Doyle isn’t clear about what saves Helen from moral decline, but it’s noteworthy that she has meaningful social ties: a fiancé and an aunt whom she loves. Perhaps, then, family could be a redemptive force for Dr. Roylott, if only he knew how to love his stepdaughters rather than take advantage of them.
Greed, Desperation, and Decline ThemeTracker
Greed, Desperation, and Decline Quotes in The Adventure of the Speckled Band
The family was at one time among the richest in England, and the estates extended over the borders into Berkshire in the north, and Hampshire in the west. In the last century, however, four successive heirs were of a dissolute and wasteful disposition, and the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler in the days of the Regency. Nothing was left save a few acres of ground, and the two-hundred-year-old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage.
Instead of making friends and exchanging visits with our neighbours, who had at first been overjoyed to see a Roylott of Stoke Moran back in the old family seat, he shut himself up in his house and seldom came out save to indulge in ferocious quarrels with whoever might cross his path. Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics.
So tall was he that his hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and his high, thin, fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey.
The building was of grey, lichen-blotched stone, with a high central portion and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin.