The Sign of the Four


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Themes and Colors
Empire and Imperialism Theme Icon
Wealth Theme Icon
Rationality vs. Emotion Theme Icon
The Victorian Gothic Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sign of the Four, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Empire and Imperialism

The Sign of the Four is the second story in the world-famous Sherlock Holmes detective fiction series. The novella is set in the late nineteenth century, a time when the British Empire was immensely powerful and wide reaching under the reign of Queen Victoria. The Empire is a significant presence in the book, both informing the particular details of the mysterious story, which are centered around the Agra treasure hidden in British-controlled India, and in…

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Central to The Sign of Four is the idea of wealth and opulence—the Agra treasure at the heart of this Sherlock Holmes story represents a life-changing amount of riches. The book asks whether this kind of wealth equates to happiness, and whether it is right to pursue wealth at all costs. Different perspectives are presented by the life stories of different characters, ultimately culminating in a sense that being rich does not mean being happy.

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Rationality vs. Emotion

Doyle presents Sherlock Holmes as the epitome of a particular kind of intelligence, which is razor-sharp, individual, and untainted by emotion. Holmes himself makes this divide clear, frequently expressing the view that emotions merely get in the way of his kind of work. This division plays out throughout the book, making the novella in part a kind of tussle between cold, unflinching rationality on the one hand and emotional life on the other. This spoke…

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The Victorian Gothic

Doyle makes use of conventions from the Victorian gothic genre to lend his detective novella a heightened atmosphere of mystery and fearfulness. Though the novella is undoubtedly in the detective genre, ideas from the Victorian gothic imagination function as a theme throughout, informing the gloomy London setting and the function of the plot itself. Doyle uses elements from the gothic genre for two principal—and overlapping—reasons. Firstly, the story’s gothic elements inform and enhance the sense…

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