Use of language in The Sign of the Four

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:

  • Examine words and phrases
  • Think about the sorts of words he chooses (positive, negative, descriptive)
  • Explore layers of meaning (what else could a phrase refer to or suggest?)
  • Notice any literary techniques (simile, metaphor, alliteration)
  • Explain the effects of the language used – how does it make you feel?

Evidence and explanation of the language used

How?Why?Effect?
Narrative voiceConan 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.
SimileThaddeus 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.
DialogueConan 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 vocabularyConan 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 allusionsHolmes 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.

How to analyse language

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:

  1. "Dear little chap!" - we know Holmes is playing a part here, complimenting Mrs Smith on her son. His language is formal and patronising.
  2. "I'd like a shillin'," - Conan Doyle replicates real speech by showing how the boy drops the 'g' at the end of the word 'shilling'. This contrasts with Holmes' use of Standard English and suggests that the boy is of a lower social class.
  3. Here you are, then! Catch! - the imperative 'Catch!' shows the reader that Holmes has thrown a coin to the boy. The reader knows that Holmes' intention is to appear generous and trustworthy to Mrs Smith.
  4. Lor' bless you, sir, - Again, Conan Doyle captures the speech patterns of the lower social classes, showing how Mrs Smith says 'Lor' instead of 'Lord'. Her use of the formal mode of address in 'sir' also shows her recognition of Holmes' higher social status. Conan Doyle uses dialogue to mirror social conventions of the time and to establish relationship between the speakers.
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