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 strongly to the novella’s Victorian readership, who were living at a time of immense scientific progress through figures like Charles Darwin. In terms of literature, Victorian tastes were moving away from the emphasis on emotions and the imagination touted by Romantic writers like William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley. Holmes thus represents a kind of superhero of rationality—superior to all other modes of thought—which in part explains his great popularity at the time and ever since.
Throughout the novella, Sherlock Holmes is presented as a kind of singular intelligence. Athelney Jones, who is Scotland Yard’s detective and thus a figure of the establishment, can’t get close to Holmes in terms of his detective abilities. Whenever Holmes figures out a part of the case, he frequently delights in revealing the logic behind his thinking, demonstrating how he operates on a different level from everyone else in the book. He is cast as a kind of detective superhero with heightened powers of rationality. Furthermore, he actively feeds on exercising these powers—other pursuits don’t interest him. Holmes describes his own mind as thus: “[It] rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work.” This mirrors the relationship between the novella and its readers, whose minds are excited—like Dr. Watson’s—by witnessing Holmes’s powers of logic at work.
Holmes therefore operates less out of a sense of moral duty than as a kind of addict of problem-solving. As he says, “I cannot live without brain-work.” Sherlock Holmes can be considered as an embodiment of Victorian ideals of rationality and logic, taking them to their furthest extreme. This both enables him to perform the incredible mind work and deduction that amaze the other characters, and sets him apart as an isolated figure. This isolation is entrenched by Holmes’ attitude towards other people. He lacks empathy and emotion, with Doyle offering his readers the opportunity to examine Holmes’ extreme rationality. Holmes abhors “the dull routine of existence.” While he mostly combats this with his work, the novella opens and closes with Holmes injecting cocaine. Though this wasn’t illegal at the time, it does horrify Watson, who sees the habit as self-destructive and dangerous. Holmes’ drug use further paints him as an outside figure, showing that normal existence is simply not enough for him. Holmes actually sees his drug use as helping him to be more perceptive and mentally alert, in the same way that artists at the time thought it would enhance their creativity. Holmes’ detective work and his drug use are therefore explicitly connected, two parts of the same solution to what he sees as the problem of modern life.
The character of Watson presents the counter-argument to Holmes’ extreme rationality. He is more in tune with emotional life and looks on his boss with a mixture of concern and awe. Watson is a more sensitive soul that Holmes. In fact, as the novella progresses, his main concern shifts from solving the case to proposing to Miss Morstan. His emotionality creates a tension with Holmes’ rationality. This tension is put starkly when Watson exclaims to Holmes, “You really are an automaton—a calculating machine.” Watson, as the narrator, gives voice to the readers’ own attitude towards Holmes. Like them, he is fascinated by Holmes’ coldly rational abilities but also unable to understand his complete denial of the world of emotion. This tension reaches its peak at the novella’s close. Here, Watson tells Holmes that he and Miss Morstan have agreed to marry. Instead of offering his congratulations, Holmes gives a “dismal groan,” lamenting that “love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.” Holmes therefore sees rationality and emotions as completely incompatible. This incompatibility is tied in with the Victorian ideals of progress. Holmes sees rationality as superior to emotionality—a kind of evolutionary advancement.
Rationality and emotion are thus set against each other in The Sign of the Four. Holmes represents the extreme of the former, while Watson and Miss Morstan represent a more emotional (and human) way of life. The reader is asked to question the price that Holmes has to pay in being so devoted to rationality and logic at the expense of emotions. Holmes embodies a particularly Victorian thesis—that an increase in rationality represents a superior way of being—and the reader has to weigh up whether that idea rings true.
Rationality vs. Emotion ThemeTracker
Rationality vs. Emotion Quotes in The Sign of the Four
"My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession,—or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world."
“May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?"
"None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth."
I had opened my mouth to reply to this tirade, when with a crisp knock our landlady entered, bearing a card upon the brass salver.
"What a very attractive woman!" I exclaimed, turning to my companion.
He had lit his pipe again, and was leaning back with drooping eyelids. "Is she?" he said, languidly. "I did not observe."
"You really are an automaton,—a calculating-machine!" I cried. "There is something positively inhuman in you at times."
He smiled gently. "It is of the first importance," he said, "not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit,—a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”
It was a September evening, and not yet seven o'clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed. I could see from Miss Morstan's manner that she was suffering from the same feeling. Holmes alone could rise superior to petty influences. He held his open note-book upon his knee, and from time to time he jotted down figures and memoranda in the light of his pocket-lantern.
"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. Whence, then, did he come?"
"He came through the hole in the roof," I cried.
"You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?"
"For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine-bottle." And he stretched his long white hand up for it.