The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four Literary Elements


Mystery; Adventure

Setting and Context

London, early 1800's

Narrator and Point of View

This story is narrated by Watson and is told from his point of view; however, there is a lengthy "story within a story," which is told from the point of view of Small.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood are, mysterious, suspenseful, and analytical.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Holmes and Watson are the protagonists, with Small and Tonga as the antagonists.

Major Conflict

The major conflict is the murder of Bartholomew Sholto and who committed it, as well as the mystery surrounding Mary Morstan's past.


The climax of this story comes when Holmes, Watson, and the police are chasing Small and Tonga down the Thames.


The clues that Holmes finds at the scene of the crime foreshadow a peculiarly built individual, who turns out to be Tonga.


"The Sign of Four" itself is an understatement. This rather vague and cryptic message understates the violent death that befalls those to whom the note is affixed. Its significance is vastly understated when it first appears in Sherlock's hand, courtesy of Mary. It is only later that we realize its true value.


-"The Sign of Four" is an allusion to Small and his three Arab compatriots.

-"'Which is it to-day,' I asked, 'morphine or cocaine?'" (89.) This statement at the very beginning of the story alludes to the fact that Sherlock takes a variety of drugs, and perhaps is a drug addict, since it can feature so prominently in his process.

-"Had your father, Miss Morstan, refrained from throwing a strain upon his hear, he might have been alive now" (101). This is said by Thaddeus to Mary when they first meet, implying that her father is dead. So far, Mary has suspected it and our detectives have assumed it, but Thaddeus's allusion to it makes it seem much more likely–though we still don't have concrete proof.

-On page 101, Thaddeus makes several allusions to Brother Bartholomew without explaining who he is. The trio waits patiently for the man to begin his story and explain who this man is, but Thaddeus continues to simply allude to Brother Bartholomew until the middle of page 102 where he reveals that Bartholomew is his twin brother.


-The imagery surrounding Tonga, namely his peculiar build, dwarfish appearance, and hideous appearance, are necessary to substantiate Holmes' deductions at the scene of the crime.

-"Sherlock Holmes took his bottle form the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction" (89). This imagery captures the physique as well as the mental condition of Sherlock: it reveals that he is a drug addict, and has been for some time; it also reveals that his view of himself is clear and critical, almost without emotion.

"He applied a taper to the great bowl, and the smoke bubbled merrily though the rose-water. We sat all three in a semicircle, with our heads advanced and our chins upon our hands, while the strange, jerky little fellow, with his high, shining head, puffed uneasily in the centre" (101). This imagery allows the reader to imagine themselves there within the circle of people. It also gives us a clearer picture of the mysterious Thaddeus Sholto and how he appears to the detectives and Mary.


-Tonga is an intentionally paradoxical character. According to Small, there is no one more loyal and faithful than his small friend. However, Tonga is nonetheless a bloodthirsty and brutal character, taking great pride in the murder of Bartholomew.

-It is also paradoxical that such an intelligent and analytical character like Holmes uses drugs (89).


The repetition of the phrase "Sign of Four" is an intentionally ominous parallel that Small uses to signify the relation to the deaths of the elder Sholto and Bartholomew. Its purpose is to leave a sign that a crude form of justice has been served.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

'The Four' is a helpful metonymy which is used to indicate Small and his three Arab companions.

In much the same way, there is an often repeated synecdoche connected with 'the iron trunk', which contains the Aggra treasure. Throughout the story, various characters plot, scheme, and kill to obtain "the trunk." In reality, there end goal is obviously the treasure within.