How does Major Sholto's house represent 19th century society?

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luminos eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Major Sholto's house" is Pondicherry Lodge. In what way does do this residence evoke themes representative of 19th century society? In answering this question, I will focus on elements of the home -- physical and social -- that pertain to themes that were especially important to the 19th century, as opposed to other historical periods:

  • The house as a fortress to protect treasures stolen from native peoples
  • A social system in the house that reflects 19th central ideals of master-servant relationships
  • An exterior appearance that evokes industrialism
  • Surrounding grounds that have been dug up in order to find treasure -- evoking the theme of destroying the environment for economic rewards

Note that Major Sholto is already dead before the novel begins, but we are provided with background information from his son and Jonathan Small.

1. Major Sholto, who was hoarding in his house a vast treasure that had been stolen from an Indian rajah, was fearful of his British competitors, and took steps to turn that house into a kind of fortress.  

The years between 1815-1915 have been called Britain's "Imperial Century." Empire -- and the exploitation of native peoples -- defined British society as never before. In this story, Major Sholto is a guilty participant in this exploitation, and his moral concerns and worries don't concern native peoples, but the other British men he has competed with and cheated. He doesn't fear reprisals from the Indian rajah, or any Indians. He fears that another Englishman -- the man who originally stole the treasure -- is going to come after him.

So he hires prizefighters to act as house porters and body guards. His grounds are protected by a gate. He himself has shot at a trespasser. The reader is left with the picture of a fortress that protects a privileged, anxious imperialist against threats from other imperialists.

2. The social system in the house reflects 19th central ideals of master-servant relationships: Sholto's own servant believed him to be guilty of murder, yet was willing to serve him faithfully.

Nineteenth century society depended on strict hierarchical relationships between servants and masters, and it was no longer just aristocrats who employed servants. Middle class families did too, so loyal servant-master relationships were a concern for a much larger part of the population than ever before.

Major Sholto didn't actually kill the man. He tries and fails to convince his servant of this fact, but ultimately it doesn't matter to the servant. He doesn't mind, and is ready to Sholto him dispose of the body. The servant tells Major Sholto:

"I heard it all, Sahib," said he. "I heard you quarrel, and I heard the blow. But my lips are sealed. All are asleep in the house. Let us put him away together."

Thus, the running of Pondicherry lodge evokes the theme of intense loyalty from servants -- a theme of great concern for a sizeable part of 19th century society.

3. The exterior of the house evokes the utilitarian ugliness of the industrial age.

During the 19th century, society was greatly affected by the Industrial Revolution. Crafts were no longer done by individuals at home, but instead in huge, centralized factories. And the factories themselves were designed for efficiency, not aesthetics. In this context, the house's exterior could be considered representative of the industrial forces that have been transforming the 19th century world, particularly given the expectations a reader might have for a story of this kind.

After passing through the gate, we might expect to see an ornately decorated house that fits with our expectations of a gothic mystery -- something suggestive of medieval architecture. Or, failing that, we might expect to see a stately, Georgian home from a Jane Austen novel. Instead, we are presented with a building that is notable for its extreme plainness:

"…a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic, all plunged in shadow save where a moonbeam struck one corner and glimmered in a garret window. The vast size of the building, with its gloom and its deathly silence, struck a chill to the heart."

This is a big, ugly box, characterless except for its immensity, gloom, and lack of character.

4. The grounds of the house have been dug up and blighted in order to find the treasure.

The people of 19th century Britain were accustomed to the transformation of the natural environment in order to further economic aims. After his death, Sholto's sons are frantic to find the hidden treasure. In their greed they transform the land around the house into a sight that looks "resembles a gravel pit" and looks as though prospectors have mined it. This reinforces the impression of a domestic world that reflects the primacy of industry and economic exploitation of the environment.

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The Sign of Four

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