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.
Miss Morstan’s main motivation for contacting Holmes is to try and find out what happened to her father, Captain Morstan. But a knock-on effect looks likely to be that, if Holmes is successful in cracking the case, Miss Morstan will inherit a large share of the treasure and be catapulted into the upper class by virtue of her newfound wealth. Through Dr. Watson and Miss Morstan’s developing relationship, Doyle examines what effect this wealth might have. In the fourth chapter, “The Story of the Bald-headed Man,” Holmes, Watson and Miss Morstan go to visit Thaddeus Sholto. He is the son of Major Sholto, who was a friend of Miss Morstan’s father. He reveals the story of the treasure, and that his brother, Bartholomew, had discovered it hidden in the family home after their father died. Thaddeus reveals the immense worth of the treasure, which sets up the plot point that, if the treasure is found, Miss Morstan’s life will be changed beyond recognition by her new riches.
This makes Watson uneasy. As the novella progresses and his feelings towards Miss Morstan intensify, he is afraid to mention them because he feels that she will assume he is hoping for a part of the fortune. Watson assesses that Miss Morstan’s impending wealth will make her part of the upper classes and, essentially, put her out of his league. Wealth, then, is intimately linked to social status, and social status defines who can fall in love with whom. When Watson takes the box of treasure to Miss Morstan towards the novella’s end, they are both relieved to learn that it is empty—the life-changing treasure is nowhere to be seen. This gives Watson the confidence to confess his love, which Miss Morstan reciprocates. Wealth, then, was a kind of threat hanging over their heads rather than an indicator of happiness; with that threat removed, they are allowed to give an honest account of how they feel. In the case of Miss Morstan, then, wealth is linked to upper-class superiority and exclusivity. The slightly glib point suggested by Doyle is that love is the “true” treasure of the novella. It’s up to the reader to decide if the novella’s love affair is convincing or not, given that it is relatively undeveloped (though keen Sherlock Holmes fans will note that Miss Morstan appears as Watson’s wife in later stories).
Alongside the question of whether wealth can lead to happiness is whether or not it is a good idea to actively pursue wealth. In truth, all of the characters associated with the treasure—those that want to possess it—meet a bad end one way or another. Doyle thus suggests that the pursuit of wealth itself can become a kind of sickness, corrupting the very lives of those who wish to benefit from its potential riches. The treasure seems to act as a kind of curse throughout, both in the main narrative and in Jonathan Small’s retelling of his life story. Because it holds such promise of wealth, it possesses a deadliness of equal intensity. For example, the merchant tasked with looking after the treasure is killed by Small and his accomplices. Captain Morstan dies from a heart attack in an argument about the treasure. Likewise, the deaths of Major Sholto and his son, Bartholomew, are a direct result of the treasure. Bartholomew’s face is stuck with a rictus grin, suggesting something of the paradox of the supposed happiness of wealth versus the deadliness of its pursuit. Jonathan Small’s life has been ruined by pursuit of the treasure, and all of his efforts have been in vain. The best he has managed is to cast the treasure into the Thames river, thereby denying anybody else the wealth that he feels was his due. Tonga, his accomplice, dies too.
Not a single character in the novella, then, ever actually benefits from the treasure; in fact, most of them die or have their lives ruined. The happiest ending is reserved for Watson and Miss Morstan, who never once seems truly concerned about the finding the treasure—she only wants to know what happened to her father. Doyle, then, seems to equate the pursuit of wealth with unhappiness and ill fortune—the exact opposite of what the treasure promises to others.
Wealth Quotes in The Sign of the Four
"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.
"'I have only one thing,” he said, “which weighs upon my mind at this supreme moment. It is my treatment of poor Morstan's orphan. The cursed greed which has been my besetting sin through life has withheld from her the treasure, half at least of which should have been hers. And yet I have made no use of it myself, so blind and foolish a thing is avarice. The mere feeling of possession has been so dear to me that I could not bear to share it with another. See that chaplet dipped with pearls beside the quinine-bottle. Even that I could not bear to part with, although I had got it out with the design of sending it to her. You, my sons, will give her a fair share of the Agra treasure. But send her nothing—not even the chaplet—until I am gone. After all, men have been as bad as this and have recovered.”
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.
"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.
“But it does seem a queer thing," he added, with a bitter smile, "that I who have a fair claim to nigh upon half a million of money should spend the first half of my life building a breakwater in the Andamans, and am like to spend the other half digging drains at Dartmoor. It was an evil day for me when first I clapped eyes upon the merchant Achmet and had to do with the Agra treasure, which never brought anything but a curse yet upon the man who owned it. To him it brought murder, to Major Sholto it brought fear and guilt, to me it has meant slavery for life."
"The treasure is lost," said Miss Morstan, calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down, until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us. "Thank God!" I ejaculated from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile. "Why do you say that?" she asked.
"Because you are within my reach again," I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. "Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, 'Thank God.'"
"Then I say, 'Thank God,' too," she whispered, as I drew her to my side. Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.
Major Sholto was the hardest hit. He used to pay in notes and gold at first, but soon it came to notes of hand and for big sums. He sometimes would win for a few deals, just to give him heart, and then the luck would set in against him worse than ever. All day he would wander about as black as thunder, and he took to drinking a deal more than was good for him.
One night he lost even more heavily than usual. I was sitting in my hut when he and Captain Morstan came stumbling along on the way to their quarters. They were bosom friends, those two, and never far apart. The major was raving about his losses.
“It's all up, Morstan,” he was saying, as they passed my hut. “I shall have to send in my papers. I am a ruined man.”
“Well, Small,” said the major, “we must, I suppose, try and meet you. We must first, of course, test the truth of your story. Tell me where the box is hid, and I shall get leave of absence and go back to India in the monthly relief-boat to inquire into the affair.”
“Not so fast,” said I, growing colder as he got hot. “I must have the consent of my three comrades. I tell you that it is four or none with us.”
“Nonsense!” he broke in. “What have three black fellows to do with our agreement?”
“Black or blue,” said I, “they are in with me, and we all go together.”