Sign of the Four: Exam Tips and Revision

Key Information:

The Sign of the Four exam is the second part of your English Literature Paper 1 (the other half is on Romeo and Juliet) There will be one question for you to answer. You will be given an extract from the story and one question. The question will ask you to discuss the presentation of a particular theme, character, or idea in the extract and in the novel as a whole. (Click here for an example)

The question is worth 30 marks and is half of the available marks in the English Literature exam,  so 45 minutes would be a good amount of time to spend on this question.

The exam questions could be about characters, themes or a another key idea in the novel Have a look through these two examples:

Starting with this extract, explore how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery. Write about:

  • how Conan Doyle uses places to create a sense of mystery in this extract
  • how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery in the novel as a whole.

‘Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant early example of a fictional detective.’ Starting with this extract, how far do you agree with this statement? Write about:

  • how Conan Doyle presents Holmes in this extract
  • how Conan Doyle presents Holmes in the novel as a whole.

You can from these examples that the questions can be worded in quite interesting ways and can focus on characters, themes ask you to respond to a statement. Remember, there is no specific right answer here. So long as you explore and analyse the extract and bring in your wider knowledge of the novel, you will be fine. The examiners want to read the work of people who have clearly read the book carefully and have interesting ideas to share.


You need to have a good knowledge of the following themes and charcaters:


  • Duality
  • Love and Friendship
  • Englishness and Foreignness
  • Crime & Punishment
  • Wealth & Treasure
  • Justice vs.Evil
  • Emotion vs. Rationality.


  • Sherlock
  • Watson
  • Mary Morstan
  • Tonga
  • Jonathan Small
  • Athelney Jones
  • Thaddeus Sholto
  • Captain Morstan,

When revising, it’s a good idea to focus on one area at a time, and try to tackle areas you may not feel to comfortable with.

There are lots of different ways to revise, but whatever you do, you should be aiming to practise answering essay questions in timed conditions.

Let’s say you wanted to revise the character of Mary Morstan. I would start by going over your notes, or using the internet to find out a few key things:

  • What parts of the play do the appear in?
  • What do they do / say?
  • Why are they important? What themes do they link to?
  • What key quotes could I remember?
  • What is Conan Doyle using this character to tell me?

When finding this information, you could record it in your book, or using flash cards, or a mind map. Then, imagine you were preparing an essay on these two characters. Try devising a specific exam question and adapting the information you have gathered into an essay plan. (sign-of-four-essay-planning)

10 essays I could revise / plan / attempt:

  1. How does Conan Doyle use the character Tonga to present ideas about Foreignness?  
  2. How does Conan Doyle present the relationship between Holmes and Watson
  3. How does Conan Doyle present female characters and attitudes towards women?
  4. How does Conan Doyle contrast Sherlock Holmes with the Athelney Jones?
  5. How does Conan Doyle present the character Jonathan Small?
  6. How does Conan Doyle present different ideas about Justice and evil?
  7. How does Conan Doyle use the characters of Watson and Holmes to present contrasting characters?
  8. How does Conan Doyle present wealth as and treasure as an important element of the plot?
  9. How does Conan Doyle present ideas about love and friendship in the novel?
  10. How does Conan Doyle create a sense of adventure in  The Sign of the Four?

Useful Links and Resources:


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