Tag Archives: 19th Century Novel

Foreignness in The Sign of Four

The social and historical context and of Sign of the Four is really important when exploring ideas about foreignness.

Set in the midst of the British Empire, several imperialistic attitudes are explored in novel. This is especially apparent when the character Tonga is discussed. He is often referred to as a ‘savage’ and marked out by his physical appearance.  As a reader, we can be critical of Conan Doyle’s presentation of Tonga, exploring how Conan Doyle unfairly categorises Tonga as a savage, animalistic characters.

Key Interpretations:

  1. Through the character Tonga, Conan Doyle presents foreign characters as uncivilised and lacking British morals.
  2. Conan Doyle’s physical descriptions mark Tonga out as unusual.
  3. Conan Doyle presents elements of foreignness as exciting, exotic and associated with wealth.
  4. Conan Doyle presents foreign characters as closer to animals in their actions and behaviour.

Exploring Foreignness: Key Resources

Start off by reading this past paper question and annotating the extract:

Tonga Past Paper Question

Use this A3 sheet to explore different ideas of foreignness:

A3 – Foreignnes

Read the attached extracts. Look for key quotes which help discuss the four interpretations mentioned on the A3 sheet.

Foreignness Extracts

Key Terms that you must understand:

  • Imperialism
  • Colonialism
  • British Empire
  • Orientalism



The Presentation of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is obviously a very important character in The Sign of the Four. When revising his character, however, you must think carefully about the different sides of his character and how he matches to different key themes in the novel.

Here are some ideas you might want to consider when revising:

  1. Sherlock Holmes is central to the theme of duality. He fluctuates between states of extreme depression and listlessness, which he uses to justify his drug use, to states of extreme action and obsession when working on a case.
  2. He is central to theme of emotion vs. rationality. Unlike Watson, he is totally rational and does not indulge in any emotional response to his clients or their problems.
  3. He is a unique detective – the only ‘consulting detective’ and has developed his own method of detection, focussing on deductive reasoning and inference.
  4. He is an interesting and eccentric individual. He is able to take on elaborate disguises, can play the violin and was a talented amateur boxer. He also uses unusual methods to aid his investigations, such as The Baker Street Irregulars and Toby the dog.

Writing about Sherlock Holmes:

All of the ideas above could be incorporated into an essay about Sherlock Holmes. Remember, though we can’t guess what the essay question will be, you need to be confident in adapting your existing knowledge to whatever question you are given.

Here are some possible questions you may be asked (remember, you will be given an extract as a starting point).

  • Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant example of an early fictional detective. To what extent do you agree?
  • Explore how Conan Doyle presents Sherlock Holmes as an interesting character.
  • Sherlock Holmes is a great detective, but not a perfect person. To what extent do you agree?
  • Explore how Conan Doyle presents Sherlock Holmes as a dedicated and interesting detective character.

Key Quotes:

Ch. 1. Trying to justify his drug use to Watson: ‘I abhor the dull routine of existence’
Ch. 2. When listening to Mary’s case: ‘He leaned forward in his chair with an expression of extraordinary concentration upon his clear-cut, hawklike features’
Ch. 1. Watson talking to Holmes: ‘You really are an automaton,—a calculating-machine!”
Ch. 12. After Watson announces his wedding: “He gave a most dismal groan. “I feared as much,” said he.”
Ch. 1. Describing his method to Watson: “eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”
Ch. 6. Examining the crime scene: He whipped out his lens and a tape measure, and hurried about the room on his knees, measuring, comparing, examining,
Ch. 5. When McMurdo grants them entrance to Pondicherry Lodge: “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high.”
Ch. 9. When Holmes fools Watson and Jones with his disguise: “Ah, you rogue!” cried Jones, highly delighted. “You would have made an actor, and a rare one.”

Some useful documents:

The presentation of Sherlock Holmes (revision)

Paper 1 Past Paper


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: