AQA English Literature - Macbeth or The Sign Of Four (22/05/17)Watch
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Conan Doyle begins by establishing the authority of the gazetteer from which Holmes takes his information about the Andaman islanders: ‘a bulky volume’, ‘the first volume’, ‘now being published’, ‘the very latest authority’. These phrases all emphasise that the book is detailed and up-to-date. Although most of the extract consists of the text of the gazetteer, the writer uses discourse markers to show Holmes’ attitude: “What have we here?... Hum! hum! What's all this?...- Ah here we are!” The two rhetorical questions create an arrogant tone: Holmes knows what he is going to find in the book. The exclamation reflects his sense of satisfaction when he finds it. Holmes’ superior and arrogant tone is echoed in the text of the gazetteer: “'The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth, though some anthropologists prefer the Bushmen of Africa.” The phrase ‘claim the distinction of’ is sarcastic as the compilers of the dictionary do not consider being the smallest race on earth as a positive attribute. The verb ‘prefer’ confers a sense of authority on the (European) anthropologists who choose which non-European race is the smallest. The description of the Andaman Islanders is entirely negative and shocking for a modern reader: “'They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes, and distorted features.” The adjectives ‘hideous’, ‘misshapen’, ‘fierce’ and ‘distorted’ build a grotesque physical image of these people. Conan Doyle uses a lexical group of words associated with violence to describe the behaviour of the Andaman Islanders: “…braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.” The writer refers specifically to the weapons ‘stone-headed clubs’, ‘poisoned arrows’ and rituals ‘a cannibal feast’ to show that these are a primitive, tribal people. This description is juxtaposed with Holmes’ educated use of sarcasm: “Nice, amiable people, Watson!” In the novel as a whole, Conan Doyle usually presents conventional Victorian attitudes to race: that the English are superior and any non-European races are ‘savages’. Both Indian people and the Andaman Islanders are described in a derogatory manner that is shocking to a modern reader. However, there are some exceptions to this way of thinking which suggest that the writer was aware of the racism that was prevalent in nineteenth century England. Jonathan Small is presented as less prejudiced than the other characters in the novel: he remains loyal to his three Indian allies (Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar), telling Major Sholto that he doesn’t care if they are ‘Black or blue’. He also shows some admiration for Tonga describing him a ‘a fine boatman’ and ‘staunch and true’. When Small explains to Holmes how he made a living by exhibiting Tonga, he refers to the Andaman Islander a ‘poor Tonga’ showing that he did not feel it was right to treat another human being in this humiliating way. Conan Doyle presents Small as able to treat non-white people as equals. On the other hand, Small is also shown to express attitudes that are unacceptable to a modern reader: he refers to the Indian rebels as ‘black devils’ and ‘black fiends’; he calls the Indian guard that he murders with his wooden leg ‘a vile Pathan’. Conan Doyle manipulates Victorian attitudes to race by making several villains in the novel not English. Both Indian servants, Lal Chowder and Lal Rao are complicit in crimes; Tonga murders Bartholomew Sholto. As the stereotypical view of black people in Victorian England was that they were untrustworthy, deceitful and often violent, many writers used this to introduce an element of exotic tension into their works. Emily Bronte exploits this prejudice by making Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights ‘dark-skinned’. The writer makes some positive references to aspects of Indian culture: the Indian servant who opens the door to Thaddeus Sholto’s house is described as contrasting with the ‘commonplace doorway of a third rate’ house. This phrase suggests that the character seems superior to the English place where he works. The Indian metal-work of the treasure chest is also admired by Watson and Mary Morstan. Khan, Singh and Akbar are presented having ideas about honour on a par with the English. However, overall the impression that the writer leaves with a modern reader is an attitude of racial superiority that is unacceptable and often shocking.
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