I have been tasked with writing a 1500-word thematic essay (my first!), and I have no idea how to approach my essay plan and what areas a thematic essay should cover. Is anyone able to offer guidance on this? My essay question is as follows: “The literature of the age questioned as well as reflected Victorian domestic values. To what extent do you agree with this statement in relation to The Sign of Four and ‘The Beach of Falesá’?"

To answer the question, consider how the works neither totally reflect nor question Victorian domestic values. Arthur Conan Doyle questions the centrality of domesticity with Sherlock’s disavowal of marriage. Yet he reflects the importance of the domestic arrangement via Watson and Morstan. Meanwhile, Robert Louis Stevenson exposes the transactional, unfeeling nature of Victorian domestic values. Conversely, Stevenson shows the importance of the domestic sphere because John Wiltshire picks out a wife immediately.

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An essay on how Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four and Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Beach of Falesá” question and reflect Victorian domestic values could center on marriage. In both works, marriage plays a key role, which connects to the Victorian belief that men needed wives and that the woman’s rightful place was at home in the domestic sphere. Yet as the prompt notes, it’s not so cut and dry. The essay should try and articulate the ambiguities.

Doyle’s novel arguably questions Victorian domestic values because Sherlock Holmes disavows marriage and a domestic life. “I should never marry myself,” declares Holmes. He prefers “true cold reason” over the “emotional thing” of love. With Holmes, Doyle demonstrates that not everyone has to get married and create a domestic life with someone else.

However, with John Watson and Miss Mary Morstan, Doyle reinforces the inevitability of marriage. With Morstan specifically, Doyle seems to show that a woman’s rightful place is in the domestic sphere. Indeed, outside of the home, Morstan can’t seem to function by herself. She needs men—i.e., Holmes and Watson—by her side.

At least in Doyle’s novel, the female character has some say in whom she creates her domesticity with. Watson asks Morstan to marry him. She says yes because they’re in love.

In Stevenson’s short story, the primary female character, Uma, is not granted the modicum of agency that Morstan possesses. John Wiltshire does not propose to Uma so much as claim her. After spotting her, he says, “She’ll do.” It’s as if he’s purchasing an object. Love has nothing to do with it.

However, the transactional nature of Wiltshire and Uma’s marriage could be read as Stevenson drawing attention to the unfeeling nature of Victorian domestic values. This quality, alas, is not absent from Doyle’s novel either. Even if Watson truly loves Morstan, that love does not preclude him from viewing her as an object. “I get a wife out of it,” Watson tells Sherlock. This quip makes Morstan seem more like a prize than a human being.

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