THE SIGN OF FOUR: AQA ENGLISH LITERATURE PAPER 1

I’ve been looking this morning at Conan Doyle’s little Sign of Four novella as I know a lot of you are doing this in your Lit exam. I’m guessing the reason a lot of teachers chose it is because it’s short.

But, it’s not the easiest text to unpick, as much as anything because, like all Holmes books, it was originally written to entertain, not to enlighten or educate. In a way you’re being asked to analyse the Victorian version of 24. But without Jack Bauer.

Having said that, there is plenty to get our teeth stuck into, and if we first look at how we might tackle the question in the sample AQA paper, and then get you to apply this same technique to another extract, you should be able to apply this to anything that comes up in the exam.

To be honest with you, I haven’t looked at any other revision materials when assembling the below: as I’ve said in previous posts, my job isn’t so much to teach you the whole book (as this was your teacher’s job – no, really, it was – were you paying attention in class? Friday last period? Didn’t think so). What I want instead to do here is to teach you an approach to the exam, and in so doing ensure that everything you write in the exam gets you at least one mark.

So, without further ado, let’s first of all think about what that little book is all about…

A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE NOVELLA

Like all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, The Sign of Four follows a strict structure. It’s what we see with pretty well all crime mysteries: a stranger brings a seemingly unsolvable case to Holmes, he investigates and shows us his genius, the villain is apprehended, and balance is restored at the end.

However, what is interesting about this story is not necessarily the plot, which to be honest is a pretty flimsy and not all that interesting tale of missing jewels and a long and rather boring explanation in the last chapter as to how Jonathan Small came to have the jewels in the first place and why he came to reclaim them and blah blah.

I wouldn’t worry too much if the plot didn’t interest you, as this is not what is important in the novella. It’s a bit like the plots from James Bond movies: you don’t go to see a Bond film because of the plot – you go because you love the character, the locations, the gadgets, the clever lines etc. Imagine Holmes as a Victorian Bond – the readers loved him as a character: the plots were secondary. Same with 24: can you honestly remember any of the plots, other than they were all about terrorists?

What the novella does well, however, is explore some interesting themes: and one of which could well come up in the exam. Some key themes are:

  • The attitude to race – how Europeans view ‘savage’ foreigners
  • The attitude to gender – how men see women
  • Class difference – upper, middle, lower
  • The genius of Holmes – the enigmatic outsider, the loner etc.

In addition, when thinking of the main characters in the novella, only two could realistically come up in the exam. Of course, they are Holmes and Watson.

Why? Because, as I said in my analysis of Macbeth, what the examiner will almost certainly be looking for is how characters develop and change as the novel/play develops. Of course, you’re not going to see much change in either character as the book is not about character development.

Think about Holmes at the start of the book and Holmes at the end, and compare him to Macbeth, or Romeo, for example. They go through huge changes and are massively affected by the events of the plays. Holmes begins with his cocaine and ends with his cocaine – Conan Doyle even seems to be making a point that nothing ever changes Holmes as he’s a bit of a machine.

The examiner might therefore focus more on themes and techniques than characters, but I have a feeling in this first exam they’ll go for Holmes. I’ve included a possible passage at the end of this that you can have a go at analysing using the technique below.

A REMINDER ABOUT HOW JEFF WILL MARK YOUR PAPER

Let’s just remind ourselves of what the examiner will be looking for when marking this paper. This is a repeat of what I said when thinking about how to tackle Macbeth in a previous post, but is no less relevant here. In fact, the examiner is looking for the same things across all texts: it doesn’t matter what the text is, they are marking you in the same way.

Jeff (our friendly exam marker – remember him?) is given strict instructions as to how to mark your paper. I’m not giving any secrets away here as you can find this in the sample mark scheme on the website. Let’s take a moment to look at these instructions, as this will enable you truly to get inside his head.

  1. First off: he reads through your answer and assigns it to a certain level. He does this by checking your answer against the bullet points which link to those assessment objectives above. Here’s an example from level 4 (which would relate in the end to around a grade 4-5):
Level 4

Clear understanding

16–20 marks

AO1
  • Clear,explained response to task and whole text
  • Effective use of references to support explanation
AO2
  • Clear explanation of writer’s methods with appropriate use of relevant subject terminology
  • Understanding of effects of writer’s methods on reader
AO3
  • Clear understanding of ideas/perspectives/ contextual factors shown by specific links between context/text/task
  1. What he then does is consider where in this level you sit, and awards marks accordingly. Each of the above has a further level of detail that he can refer to when making up his mind:
How to arrive at a mark:
At the top of the level, a candidate’s response is likely to be clear, sustained and consistent. It takes a focused response to the full task which demonstrates clear understandin It uses a range of references effectively to illustrate and justify explanation; there will be clear explanation of the effects of a range of writer’s methods supported by appropriate use of subject terminology. Clear understanding of ideas/perspectives/contextual factors.

At the bottom of the level, a candidate will have Level 3 and be starting to demonstrate elements of understanding and/or explanation of writer’s methods and/or contexts.

TOP TIP

Each of the different levels has key words attached to it. It’s worth looking at these now so that you can see the difference between the levels, because the AOs don’t change – just how you respond to them.

Level Key words
1 Simple comment
2 Supported response, some awareness
3 Some explained response, some understanding
4 Clear explained response, clear explanation, clear understanding
5 Thoughtful, developed response, examination of writer’s methods, thoughtful consideration of ideas
6 Critical, exploratory, analysis of writer’s methods, exploration of ideas

 

You can see here that each level expects more from you. To get those top grades (and this is why you’re reading this, let’s be honest), you need therefore to:

  • Show thought, care, and consideration for what the writer is trying to achieve;
  • Clearly examine how the writer uses techniques and the effects they have;
  • Get right under the surface of the text – remember that characters aren’t real people but rather are created to explore ideas, themes and so on (more on this later);
  • Show an exploratory approach using phrases such as ‘this suggests….’, ‘the writer shows us that..’, ‘we could say that…’. It is this more tentative language that actually shows greater thought and depth, as you are not afraid to test out ideas and assumptions.

We’ll now use this approach when tackling the question.

THE AQA PRACTICE QUESTION ON THE SIGN OF FOUR

Here is the rather boring question from the sample paper. I hope they come up with a better one in the exam proper (I guess at least you know this one won’t come up):

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

Read the following extract from Chapter 3 and then answer the question that follows.

In this extract Holmes, Watson and Mary are on their way to their first mysterious meeting.

At first I had some idea as to the direction in which we were driving; but soon, what with our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I lost my bearings and knew nothing save that we seemed to be going a very long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.

“Rochester Row,” said he. “Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river.”

We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames, with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side.

“Wordsworth Road,” said my companion. “Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.”

We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings – the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. At last the cab drew up at the third house in a new terrace. None of the other houses were inhabited, and that at which we stopped was as dark as its neighbours, save for a single glimmer in the kitchen-window.

Starting with this extract, explore how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery.

Write about:

• how Conan Doyle uses places to create a sense of mystery in this extract

• how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery in the novel as a whole.

[30 marks]

 

 

STEP 1

As we have seen in previous posts, what we first of all need to do is look carefully at the question and underline the key words:

Starting with this extract, explore how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery.

Write about:

  • how Conan Doyle uses places to create a sense of mystery in this extract
  • how Conan Doyle creates a sense of mystery in the novel as a whole.

So, we need to focus just on places in this extract, but in the whole of the novella we can look at anything that creates mystery.

STEP 2

We’ll do what we have done before, and that is underline anything that stands out from the text and links to mystery:

At first I had some idea as to the direction in which we were driving; but soon, what with our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I lost my bearings and knew nothing save that we seemed to be going a very long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.

“Rochester Row,” said he. “Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river.”

We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames, with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side.

“Wordsworth Road,” said my companion. “Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.”

We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings – the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. At last the cab drew up at the third house in a new terrace. None of the other houses were inhabited, and that at which we stopped was as dark as its neighbours, save for a single glimmer in the kitchen-window.

STEP 3

Next up, we begin to make exploratory notes. What do I mean by this? Well, our notes should immediately start to test out ideas, perhaps by asking questions that we can then start to answer when we write our answer out in full. I think it’s important to make these notes as they allow you to begin testing theories and ideas. And this is what will get you the grades 8 and 9.

We can either jot them down around the extract, or make separate notes. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the latter approach as the exam marker can see your notes and might even award you additional marks if you run out of time, as he can see the points you’ve made even if you weren’t able to get them into the essay.

My suggestion here is to divide your page in 2 and write notes from the passage in the left hand column, like this:

‘lost my bearings’ – Watson losing his way – not as observant as Holmes – much of the novella’s mystery coming from Watson’s naivety and lack of attention – important contrast to Holmes?

 

‘never at fault’ – links to above – Holmes’ attention and powers of observation – fog metaphor for the mystery of the novel? Reaction to this shows both characters?

 

‘fleeting view’ – again – this is London but is also the plot – Holmes always several steps ahead, Watson getting fleeting views but struggling to keep up etc.

 

And so on…

As you can see, what I’m doing is testing out ideas in note form. It’s so much better to do this than try to write straight out without any sort of plan. I haven’t done a strict plan here, but I would expect that each of the bullet points would either become a paragraph, or at least one part of a paragraph.

STEP 4

It’s now on to the bit you’re probably all dreading, and that is how to tie this into the rest of the novella. Here, you have to remember quotes, which isn’t easy when your head is crammed with other stuff and there’s someone sniffing a few rows back (please let that not be you: the world hates exam-sniffers. Take some tissues.).

I would suggest you using a particular memorisation technique that’s been around forever and is incredibly useful for remembering stuff that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to remember. It has enabled people to memorise the order of huge number strings or hundreds of playing cards. It’s called the Roman Room Technique.

You can find this technique here. I’ll try to write more specifically about it in another post, but this website will give you an idea as to how you can use it for quotes.

For now, I’ll assume that you’ve some key quotes memorised.

You’re now going to make notes on the rest of the novel in the right-hand column. So why did I divide the page like this? Because to get the good grades you’re going to suggest how the points you’ve made in this passage can be reflected in the novel as a whole.

If you analyse the passage, find some other bits of the novella to write about, but make no links, you’ll be in grade 5-6 territory. That’s not a terrible place to be by any means, but I know that you want more. And why shouldn’t you?

‘lost my bearings’ – Watson losing his way – not as observant as Holmes – much of the novella’s mystery coming from W’s naivety and lack of attention – important contrast to H?

 

When mentioning the date Sholto died, Watson cannot see the importance – H response ‘you surprise me’
‘never at fault’ – links to above – Holmes’ attention and powers of observation – fog metaphor for the mystery of the novel? Reaction to this shows both characters?

 

H knowing that small foot print is not that of a child: “try a little analysis yourself,”

said he, with a touch of impatience.

‘fleeting view’ – again – this is London but is also the plot – Holmes always several steps ahead, Watson getting fleeting views but struggling to keep up etc.

 

Like fog – moonlight reveals things slowly – discovery of body ‘bright and shifty radiance’

 

Now you’ve done this it’s time to write your answer.

KEY QUESTION: HOW MUCH SHOULD I WRITE?

I see this so often in forums. How much detail? How many quotes? How many paragraphs? The honest answer is that this is not about quantity – it is about doing enough to get the maximum number of marks. No more, no less.

In the case of this question, the very top marks will look for you to be exploratory, use precise quotes, analyse the effect of the writer’s methods on the audience, and explore ideas linking to the context of the play. If you can do all that in a few paragraphs all the better. Go for attacking one or more of the assessment objectives with every sentence, not writing 10 pages.

STEP 5

You’re now going to take these notes and turn them into beautiful paragraphs by using a particular structure. And no, it’s not PEE…

WHY PEE REALLY PEES ME OFF

Whoever thought of PEE first should be banned from teaching. For life. Why? It’s too simplistic. For those of you who don’t know what I’m on about (and seriously where have you BEEN?), PEE stands for Point, Evidence, Explanation. If you do this guess what? YOUR ESSAY WILL LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’S. And what I have been trying to stress to you with this guide? THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU WANT. You want your writing to jump out at Jeff, to make him take notice. So you are going to mix things up a bit. And I will show you how to do this below.

  1. You introduce the quote, by saying where in the novel it is (if you can’t remember the chapter number, just say beginning, middle or end).
  2. You bring in the quote, making sure it feeds into the sentence (in other words, when you read the sentence with the quote in it flows nicely). At this point you may also bring in the literary technique or language feature used.
  3. You explain how the quote answers the question. (The analysis bit.)
  4. You might explore here alternative points of view. You are saying more here, thinking of other ways in which quotes could be interpreted. This is the grade 8/9 zone.
  5. You then link this into the next point you’ll make.

So it’s less about PEE, and more IQEAL. Not as easy to remember, is it. Probably why PEE usually wins.

Let’s see it in action with the above notes. A few paragraphs like this would get you top marks:

The passage begins with Watson admitting ‘I lost my bearings’ in the fog. This immediately suggests that, unlike Holmes, Watson is less observant and less able to ‘keep up’. This is a common theme throughout the story, and an important element of the story’s mystery. Indeed, we see it on several occasions: when Holmes mentions the date of Sholto’s death and Watson is unable to see the significance of this, Holmes says ‘you surprise me’. Because the story is told in the first person, with Watson as the narrator, we are always a few steps behind Holmes, which adds greatly to the mystery.

Watson stresses the difference between them when he says that Holmes is ‘never at fault’: that even in thick fog Holmes is able to navigate perfectly. We can see the fog as a metaphor for the mystery itself, and the two men’s responses to it symbolic of their character and abilities: Holmes’ ‘impatience’ when Watson cannot work out the owner of the footprint is a good example of this.

And so on…

If you’ve read my previous post on Macbeth, you’ll understand what I am doing here and why it would get you top marks. It’s probably worth repeating:

The passage begins with Watson admitting ‘I lost my bearings’ in the fog Putting passage into context – begin at the beginning and bringing in quote quickly
This immediately suggests that, unlike Holmes, Watson is less observant and less able to ‘keep up’. Explaining the quote
This is a common theme throughout the story, and an important element of the story’s mystery. Explaining how the quote answers the question
Indeed, we see it on several occasions: when Holmes mentions the date of Sholto’s death and Watson is unable to see the significance of this, Holmes says ‘you surprise me’. Additional detail from another part of the novel.
Because the story is told in the first person, with Watson as the narrator, we are always a few steps behind Holmes, which adds greatly to the mystery. And further detail, focusing on a point of structure.
Watson stresses the difference between them when he says that Holmes is ‘never at fault’: that even in thick fog Holmes is able to navigate perfectly. New paragraph brings in another introduced quote, linked to the previous paragraph ‘difference’
We can see the fog as a metaphor for the mystery itself, and the two men’s responses to it symbolic of their character and abilities: Language feature (metaphor) and further explanation.
Holmes’ ‘impatience’ when Watson cannot work out the owner of the footprint is a good example of this.

 

Another part of the story to compare.

You can see that the IQEAL structure is more or less followed here. Remember: it’s the E and the A that will get you better and better marks: explanation and additional ideas, including exploring alternatives, theories and so on. This is analysis at its best and will be what our good friend Jeff the exam marker will be looking for.

THE KEY POINTS FROM THE MARK SCHEME

You may have seen these before, but I think they are worth listing so that you can see exactly what the marker is looking for:

AO1

  • Watson’s perceptions of the unfamiliar nature of the journey/destination
  • Holmes’ apparent familiarity with the route and how this suggests competence
  • Holmes’ familiarity with unfamiliar places lending him an air of mystery
  • Lack of inhabitants of the villas and how this suggests mystery/threat

AO2

  • Use of language to describe elements of the journey: ‘tortuous’ etc
  • Use of weather to lend a sense of mystery: ‘fog’ etc
  • Particular words to suggest mystery: ‘labyrinth’
  • Use of description of the suburban setting to suggest unfamiliarity of the new and impersonal: ‘each’/‘again’/‘interminable’ etc

AO3

  • Generic features of detective fiction e.g. use of setting in detective fiction to increase sense of mystery
  • The influence of the gothic genre
  • Apparent threat and mystery suggested by setting: ‘public-houses’ etc
  • Language used to present the new environment as threatening and mysterious: ‘tawdry’/‘coarse’/‘glare’ etc
  • Presentation of Holmes as expert detective

YOUR TURN

Here’s another passage for you to practise, and a question. Something tells me that they will focus on the character of Holmes in the exam, and this is as good a passage as any to look at:

Read the extract from Chapter 1 and answer the following question.

In this passage, Watson has just questioned Holmes’ cocaine use.

He did not seem offended. On the contrary, he put his fingertips together and leaned his elbows on the arms of his chair, like one who has a relish for conversation.

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession,—or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

“The only unofficial detective?” I said, raising my eyebrows.

“The only unofficial consulting detective,” he answered. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson or Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths—which, by the way, is their normal state—the matter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert, and pronounce a specialist’s opinion. I claim no credit in such cases. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward.

 

Starting with this extract, explore how Conan Doyle presents the character of Sherlock Holmes

Write about:

  • how Conan Doyle presents Holmes in this passage
  • how Conan Doyle pr[esents Holmes in the novel as a whole.

 

Go through the exact same process as before, underlining quotes, drawing up a quick table, exploring these quotes, adding quotes and ideas from other parts of the story that further our understanding of Holmes.

If I was the examiner, I would set exactly this question as I think it’s an excellent one.

Which I’m not, by the way. So don’t be cross if it’s nothing like the above…

Don’t forget that  you can find my English Language revision course here.

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