Holmes - The Empire Man

in-class writing assignment 1/22/96

In order to understand the characters in "The Sign of Four" within the context of their association with the British empire, one can examine their traits and habits and compare them to the traits and habits of the British empire. If, indeed, Holmes is "the empire man" it follows logically that he is symbolic of the empire's character by his own actions. It is important to note, however, that Holmes is not a complete reflection of the British empire by himself. It is Watson who embodies the portion of "empire man" not found in Holmes. Together, as a couple, they form an amalgam of the British character.

Watson, perhaps the simpler of the two, embodies the romantic character of the British. He is a veteran, who thinks often of his doings in a romantic light. Further, his feelings for the female protagonist of the story show that his emotional sentiment is strong and quick to fancy. Watson also seems to represent the empathetic character of the British. He is a doctor, and thus charged with the task of caregiving. He is also very aware of the needs of the people around him. For example, he is forever ensuring the safety and comfort of miss Morstan. In a sense, Watson represents all that is empathetic, romantic, or quite possibly deluded about the British empire. He is, in a certain sense, also a buffoon. His British character is overplayed, almost to the point of silliness. He might embody what a non-Brit would imagine as the true Britishman. From the point of view of a person from another country, he may seem almost ridiculous. However, Watson is more of a complement to the true empire man - Sherlock Holmes. He exists as a reminder of the softer side of the empire, and not as a representative of it's true character.

Holmes, on the other hand, represents all that is imperial, wily, and dangerous about the British empire. Like the empire, Holmes must stay constantly in motion. His mind is ever expanding, as is the empire at this time. When he is unable to keep active, he resorts to drugs. Perhaps, like Holmes, the empire itself must keep in constant motion lest it fall into decadence and laziness.

In addition, the sheer competence and master of Holmes is indicative of the empire. He is ultimately proficient in all manner of skill and knowledge. This mastery of his environment is a direct parallel to the mastery of the British empire. It is cunning, and perhaps even manipulative. Like the British empire, Holmes always comes out on top - in control of the situation. He is an icon for the proficiency of the British people. However, this mastery is not without a price. With it comes a self serving and overbearing image. This is in direct contrast to Watson. As a pair, they represent both sides of the empire's character.

As the empire man, Holmes is perpetually looking out for the interests of the British. He serves the British interests, be they just or not. Take for example the Agra treasure, which is essentially booth stolen from another country. Rather than returning the treasure to It's rightful owner, he returns it to the families of the Brits who stole it. This is certainly symbolic of the maternal character of the empire. The empire, like Holmes, takes care of it's own, regardless of whether it is just or not.

In addition, Holmes is always just a little bit more cunning than his criminals. It is no surprise that the criminals in "The Sign of Four" are foreigners. Thus, Holmes the Brit is forever pitted against wily and dangerous foreigners - always coming out on top. This is, again, a direct reflection of the empire, which strives to maintain mastery of it's territory.

Holmes is also symbolic of the schooled and learned character of the empire. He is educated, refined, and thoughtful. This is just how the British empire must have seen itself as it brought education and the English language to it's provinces. This idea of education others is a direct imitation of the Roman empire and it's attempts to "educate the heathens". In any event, Holmes embodies this idea also, as he teaches Watson, the police, and scientists anything from tracking people to the composition of tobacco ash.

Lastly and perhaps obviously, Holmes participates in the British culture - he boxes, works with police, and attends social gatherings. He is the model British Citizen.

In all, it is clear to see that Holmes and Watson together embody the character of the British empire. Both are necessary and complementary parts of the whole. In analysis, it is clear that parts of the whole are not so pretty. However, be that as it may, they give us, through their actions, a good feeling of the character of the British empire and it's people: At times overbearing, sometimes silly, but deadly efficient to the end.