An Example of Cultural Criticism:

A Reading of The Sign of the Four


The purpose of the following lesson is to model a reading of The Sign of the Four according to the practices of cultural criticism. In this discussion, we will explore how a social conflict between English and "Oriental" (which is represented overtly by the references to the Indian Mutiny of 1857) is represented covertly in the narrative through the values associated with the detective figure and the various figures he encounters in the case. Students will gain experience in analyzing a novel as "socially symbolic," in Jameson's terms.


The novel

Activities and Procedures

  1. Put two epigraphs on chalkboard: 1) "'It is a romance!' cried Mrs. Forrester." (SF 70) and 2) "It is a curious medley, and full of horrors." (SF intro xli). #1 comes from the novel itself and suggests to me the ambivalent relationship between this book and "romance" as a genre; #2 comes from a reviewer of the novel and suggests to me that at least one early reader had difficulty assimilating the incident-full plot. Both quotations raise the issue of this book's relation to what Stevenson defends as romance. Is this a romance?

  2. Review Moretti's argument about how literature as rhetoric involves social conflicts and Jameson's ideas about how the ideological struggle between dominant and oppressed classes is often represented through contradictions or "double binds" in a narrative.

  3. Point out how Jameson relies on the concept of the "binary opposition" (e.g. good/bad, light/dark) in poststructuralist theory and cultural studies. Binary oppositions can operate in culture to privilege one term in the dyad, which is associated with the dominant class, while delegitimating or erasing the other, which is assigned to the oppressed class.

  4. Provide example of an "antinomy" from the introduction to SF. Editor points out that in this book Holmes is "very different from the character presented" in his first novel, A Study in Scarlet (xxv). Suggest hypothesis that this "sensational" difference is related to an ideological contradiction.

  5. Ask for whatever associations students have with the figure of Sherlock Holmes. List them on board. Ask next for specific details that are connected with him and help to characterize him in this novel. Add to list.

  6. Ask students to find antitheses to these characteristics/qualities in the novel. If Holmes represents x, who or what is associated with y? Provide example: Holmes is connected with diligence and energy, while Bartholomew Sholto is connected with luxury or idleness.

  7. Look at these two lists for the representations of social conflict they might contain. Hypothesize what "cultural codes" or values are connected with the items/figures.

  8. Return to introduction's "contradictory" pictures of Holmes. Question: Though we've found Holmes associated with one side of our list, are there ways in which he also gets associated with the other side? Example: Watson links the detective with the criminal (42-3).

  9. Speculate on what ideological purposes these contradictions might serve. Do they undermine the "order" established in the oppositions between West and East, detective and criminal, domestic and exotic? Or do they reinforce the social relations?

  10. Note, as help in thinking about this, the suggestive phrasing Watson uses to describe his acquisition of Miss Morstan (94). This "treasure" (domestic affections) can only be achieved after illicit treasure of colonial conquest is absorbed by England's River Thames. Perhaps the "absorption" of the exotic by the domestic is main ideological achievement of the book.

  11. A final symbol of the narrative's working out of contradictions: the Sholto twins--one greedy, the other beneficent, but otherwise identical--demonstrate how in this novel x can both equal and not equal y. They're the same, but different, just as Holmes seems to resemble and yet categorically differ from "the Other."