The Speckled Band - The White Man's Burden
in-class writing assignment 1/29/96
In "The Speckled Band" we can see quite clearly the concept of "the white man's burden." In fact, it might be better referred to as the "white man's punishment." Throughout the two Doyle stories that we have looked at, there is the idea of ironic backlash upon the participants of the story. In the "Sign of the Four", this took the form of the Agra treasure, and the curse that seemed to follow it. In this story, it is not so much a physical object which carries the curse, but rather imperialism as a whole.
The antagonist, Dr. Roylott, is certainly evidence of this. His fortunes, which were attained entirely in colonial India are lessened and diminished back in London. He attained greatness from his lowly inherited stature by going abroad to study in Calcutta. However, in true keeping with the darker side of the colonial spirit, he caused a great stir by mortally beating his servant. This is, perhaps, not unlike the harsh treatment of the natives in various parts of the empire by the English. This insight allows us to infer that Dr. Roylott may be some kind of dark metaphor for the colonial empire itself.
If this is so, then what does the metaphor of Dr. Roylott suggest about the empire itself? Certainly, the empire subsists and thrives on the "fat" of the colonies, just as Dr. Roylott achieved his title in a colony. The empire is also abusive, and mistreats the subjugated inhabitants just as Dr. Roylott has. If these two points are held in common by both the doctor and the empire, then it is not unlikely that they share a third similarity - their ultimate demise.
In the store, there are several points that seem to back up the metaphor theory. Not the least of which is the use of animals in the story. The cheetah and baboon seem to serve very little purpose directly in the story. Rather, they seem to be metaphors as well. If we imagine that the doctor represents the empire, and that he keeps these two exotic animals with him, then what can the animals themselves symbolize? The cheetah, which is a fierce and dangerous predator can easily be seen as representing the danger found in foreign lands. The cheetah is a metaphor for the danger (and perhaps grace) of the untamed wilderness. The baboon, a relative of humans, is representative of the "heathen" population in the colonies. To an imperialist Brit, the savages might have seemed little more than evolved baboons themselves. The important thing to remember, though, is that Dr. Roylott has mastered these metaphorical creatures just as the empire has mastered the beasts and peoples of it's colonies.
Or has it? It is in the third animal metaphor that the mastery falls short. In the guise of the swamp adder, the uncontrollable force of the colonies is shown. It is, perhaps, a bit ironic that Dr. Roylott was slain by one of the creatures upon which he exerted his control. If we apply this backlash effect to the British empire, we can clearly see the recurring theme of the white man's punishment. It shows us that to attempt to push this colonial power too far can bring about the empire's demise.
Dr. Roylott, then, seems to be the ultimate metaphor for the empire. He is cold, harsh, and
masterful. He is canny, but fallible. He exerts his powers to achieve his own malevolent
ends. He is white power personified. However, just as Dr. Roylott fell to the snake, the
white empire can also fall to the ironic backlash of it's own exertions of power. Clearly,
the colonies represent a land rich with opportunity. They also show, however, that there is
only a certain point to which one can push that power. When power turns to abuse, in the
colonies as well as in the manner of Stoke-Moran, it's results can be deadly.