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 of mystery in the novella, giving an atmospheric rendering of the case’s own strangeness and lack of resolution. Secondly, with a Victorian readership that would have been familiar with many of the tropes of gothic literature, Doyle plays with the reader’s expectations, transposing elements of the gothic into the detective genre, unsettling the readership and thus conjuring a sense of the uncanny—which only serves to reinforce the sense of mystery at the heart of the story.
The Sign of The Four takes place in London and its suburbs, only giving the reader a sense of another location when Jonathan Small tells his story in the final chapter. London is conjured in an expressly gothic atmosphere, intensifying the story’s sense of mystery and danger. The city is painted as an obscure, foreboding place, shrouded in “dense drizzly fog,” with the lamps casting “splotches of diffused light.” The setting in this instance mirrors the set-up of the story itself. The low visibility on the London streets represents the mystery of the case at the heart of the novella—Sherlock Holmes is literally trying to bring light to the unknown through his detective work. The city is further characterized as having “monster tentacles.” This speaks to the Victorian gothic idea of the monstrous and uncanny, in turn characterizing the story of the treasure and those who wish to attain it as outside of the norms of society.
With Pondicherry Lodge, the home of the deceased Major Sholto, Doyle ramps up the sense of gothic horror. This draws the reader deeper into the story, suggesting that there is much more going on than meets the eye. As with the gothic genre, the darker elements of the story build a sense of foreboding and danger. Pondicherry Lodge follows conventions of Gothic horror. Holmes, Dr. Watson, Miss Morstan and Thaddeus Sholto arrive there at night, with only the moon to provide illumination. The house is situated inside a “very high stone wall” and is accessed by an “iron clamped door.” This feeling of inaccessibility, like the London setting discussed above, can be read as a direct representation of the story more generally. Holmes and Watson, at this point in the story, are “outside” of the knowledge required to solve the mystery of the sign of the four, trying to figure out a way in. Once inside, Holmes leads his fearful entourage through the cavernous building using a lamp. As they go deeper into the house, the sense of foreboding increases—in keeping with the gothic technique of building tension through the traversing of passageways. At the end of this journey into this house, Holmes discovers the body of Bartholomew Sholto, which is stuck grotesquely in a grinning pose. They find him in a laboratory setting which seems to gesture towards that of Frankenstein’s lab in the novel of the same name. Doyle deliberately introduce elements from the Victorian gothic imagination into the setting of The Sign of the Four, developing the irresolution which requires Holmes’ expertise and introducing a sense of the uncanny—a common element in gothic literature—into the detective fiction genre.
Finally, perhaps Doyle’s use of Victorian gothic ideas can go some way to explaining the character of Tonga. Gothic convention dictates that the story needs some kind of supernatural embodiment of evil. Though Tonga is human, Doyle’s descriptions of him make him only just human and imbue him with a strong sense of the uncanny. Tonga’s strange appearance—he is grotesque and extremely short—sets him out as different from the other characters. Furthermore, his mysterious origin story and his use of blow darts as a lethal weapon mark him out as even more alien to the culture of Victorian England. This plays on Victorian fears of “the other,” which essentially expresses suspicion of the unknown. It’s worth pointing out the association in the Victorian imagination between “savagery” and the practice of witchcraft; that is, there is a link between the Victorian fear of “the other” with the gothic trope of the supernatural. Elements of the gothic genre, then, are blended with Doyle’s detective fiction to intensify the atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. This played to a particularly Victorian psychology, but also explains why readers are still enticed and intrigued by The Sign of the Four today.
The Victorian Gothic ThemeTracker
The Victorian Gothic Quotes in The Sign of the Four
“But you have yourself had some experience of my methods of work in the Jefferson Hope case."
"Yes, indeed," said I, cordially. "I was never so struck by anything in my life. I even embodied it in a small brochure with the somewhat fantastic title of 'A Study in Scarlet.’"
He shook his head sadly. "I glanced over it," said he. "Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid."
"But the romance was there," I remonstrated. "I could not tamper with the
“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.
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.
"Your servant, Miss Morstan," he kept repeating, in a thin, high voice. "Your servant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little sanctum. A small place, miss, but furnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of South London."
We were all astonished by the appearance of the apartment into which he invited us. In that sorry house it looked as out of place as a diamond of the first water in a setting of brass. The richest and glossiest of curtains and tapestries draped the walls, looped back here and there to expose some richly-mounted painting or Oriental vase. The carpet was of amber-and-black, so soft and so thick that the foot sank pleasantly into it, as into a bed of moss. Two great tiger-skins thrown athwart it increased the suggestion of Eastern luxury, as did a huge hookah which stood upon a mat in the corner. A lamp in the fashion of a silver dove was hung from an almost invisible golden wire in the centre of the room. As it burned it filled the air with a subtle and aromatic odor.
Inside, a gravel path wound through desolate grounds to a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic, all plunged in shadow save where a moonbeam struck one corner and glimmered in a garret window. The vast size of the building, with its gloom and its deathly silence, struck a chill to the heart. Even Thaddeus Sholto seemed ill at ease, and the lantern quivered and rattled in his hand.
I stooped to the hole, and recoiled in horror. Moonlight was streaming into the room, and it was bright with a vague and shifty radiance. Looking straight at me, and suspended, as it were, in the air, for all beneath was in shadow, there hung a face,—the very face of our companion Thaddeus. There was the same high, shining head, the same circular bristle of red hair, the same bloodless countenance. The features were set, however, in a horrible smile, a fixed and unnatural grin, which in that still and moonlit room was more jarring to the nerves than any scowl or contortion. So like was the face to that of our little friend that I looked round at him to make sure that he was indeed with us. Then I recalled to mind that he had mentioned to us that his brother and he were twins.
The police had brought a cab with them, and in this I escorted Miss Morstan back to her home. After the angelic fashion of women, she had borne trouble with a calm face as long as there was some one weaker than herself to support, and I had found her bright and placid by the side of the frightened housekeeper. In the cab, however, she first turned faint, and then burst into a passion of weeping,—so sorely had she been tried by the adventures of the night. She has told me since that she thought me cold and distant upon that journey. She little guessed the struggle within my breast, or the effort of self-restraint which held me back. My sympathies and my love went out to her, even as my hand had in the garden. I felt that years of the conventionalities of life could not teach me to know her sweet, brave nature as had this one day of strange experiences. Yet there were two thoughts which sealed the words of affection upon my lips. She was weak and helpless, shaken in mind and nerve. It was to take her at a disadvantage to obtrude love upon her at such a time. Worse still, she was rich. If Holmes's researches were successful, she would be an heiress. Was it fair, was it honorable, that a half-pay surgeon should take such advantage of an intimacy which chance had brought about? Might she not look upon me as a mere vulgar fortune-seeker? I could not bear to risk that such a thought should cross her mind. This Agra treasure intervened like an impassable barrier between us.
“Now, then, listen to this. 'They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and fierce are they that all the efforts of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.' Nice, amiable people, Watson!”
"It is a romance!" cried Mrs. Forrester. "An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl."
"And two knight-errants to the rescue," added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me.
"Why, Mary, your fortune depends upon the issue of this search. I don't think that you are nearly excited enough. Just imagine what it must be to be so rich, and to have the world at your feet!"
It sent a little thrill of joy to my heart to notice that she showed no sign of elation at the prospect. On the contrary, she gave a toss of her proud head, as though the matter were one in which she took small interest.
At the sound of his strident, angry cries there was movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself into a little black man—the smallest I have ever seen—with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature. He was wrapped in some sort of dark ulster or blanket, which left only his face exposed; but that face was enough to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury.