Conan Doyle uses the narrative voice of Dr Watson to present the characters and scenes of this novel. This allows the reader to feel close to the action and to follow the plot as it unfolds. His language is occasionally romantic and philosophical, though much of the story is told through direct speech. Watson's narrative frames large sections of dialogue which are used to reveal the mystery of the sign of the four.
When analysing the language Conan Doyle has used, aim to:
|Narrative voice||Conan Doyle uses Holmes' companion, John Watson as a narrator.||Watson's viewpoint allows us to share his wonder at Holmes' skills as a detective.||We trust Watson and feel sympathetic towards him. He is softer than his companion and his voice offers insight into the story as well as his own character.|
|Simile||Thaddeus Sholto is described as having 'a bald, shining scalp which shot out from among it like a mountain-peak from fir-trees'||Conan Doyle does not use much figurative language in this novel. This simile makes Thaddeus seem strange in appearance.||This might imply something about Thaddeus' eccentric nature from his strange appearance.|
|Dialogue||Conan Doyle relies heavily on dialogue in this novel. For example, Holmes responds to Watson's confusion in the opening chapter with: '"It is simplicity itself," he remarked, chuckling at my surprise.'||Through Holmes' comment we learn both of Watson's surprise and of Holmes' superiority.||The use of dialogue adds to the realism of the writing and convinces the reader that these are true events that are related.|
|Complex vocabulary||Conan Doyle uses complex vocabulary for Holmes' dialogue.||His language reflects his superior intellect.||The reader might feel distanced from the character of Holmes and share in Watson's admiration for the detective's abilities.|
|Literary allusions||Holmes refers to writers and philosophers in his talk.||He quotes Richter and Goethe in their original German language.||Again, this highlights Holmes' vast intellect and knowledge. These allusions may have appealed more to a contemporary reader than a modern one.|
Here is an example of Conan Doyle's use of dialogue. It is a section from Chapter 8, when Holmes and Watson have followed Toby to the Smiths' home.
"Dear little chap!" said Holmes, strategically. "What a rosy-cheeked young rascal! Now, Jack, is there anything you would like?"
The youth pondered for a moment. "I'd like a shillin'," said he.
"Nothing you would like better?"
"I'd like two shillin' better," the prodigy answered, after some thought.
"Here you are, then! Catch! - A fine child, Mrs. Smith!"
"Lor' bless you, sir, he is that, and forward. He gets a'most too much for me to manage, 'specially when my man is away days at a time."
We can analyse this section and explore how the language creates a sense of character: