Detecting Orientalism in Sherlock Holmes


Published in 1890, Arthur Conan Doyle's second novel, The Sign of the Four, was not an initial commercial success, unlike his many short-stories. It's themes of colonial occupation and presence of oriental elements makes it a seminal text from the fin-de-siecle that explores a new discomfort with British Raj following the Sepoy Rebellion. The plot centers around the Agra treasure, a collection of precious gems, jewels, and metals, stolen by Major Sholto during the chaos of the rebellion who brings it back to England. Jonathan Small, an English convict who was in on other plans to steal this treasure, eventually steals it back from Sholto's son with the help of an Andaman Islander. The treasure hunt narrative is the main plot driver, raising questions about the rightful possession of an Eastern treasure, although the text is full of other Western imaginations of the Orient and the East.

Orientalism and Colonialism

Orientalism refers to an outside, prejudiced view of the Orient, or the East, in juxtaposition to the Occident, or the West. According to Edward Said's seminal 1978 text Orientalism, the term refers to the patronizing attitudes assigned by the West in its conception of the East and eastern cultures, viewing them as underdeveloped and static states inferior to the West. The East referring to Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African countries, Said argues the West essentials these societies.

Looking at Doyle's The Sign of the Four in light of this theory, it's exploration of Colonial occupation and the Sepoy Rebellion make it an interesting item to investigate. As this plot center's around the Agra treasure, an object of Indian origin, the rightful possession of the treasure comes down to a question of Empire. England's occupation of India was an issue for the empire at the time this text was published, so its inclusion of the Sepoy Rebellion that took place in 1857 offers a reflection of the Empire's complex and violent relationship with India. This research is considering the effects of these issues through the presence of Orientalisms in the novel as a way to parse out some of the complexities of Colonial occupation.