Should the reader feel empathy towards Jonathan Small?

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kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter Eleven of "The Sign of Four," the reader meets Jonathan Small for the first time. While Holmes had made it clear that Small has played a pivotal role in the murders, one cannot help but feel sympathy for him. On capture, for instance, Holmes says to Small that he is sorry for what has happened, to which Small replies:

"And so am I, Sir," he answered, frankly. "I don't believe that I can swing over the job. I give you my word on the book that I never raised hand against Mr Sholto...I had no part in it, sir. I was as grieved as if it had been my blood-relation...It was done, and I could not undo it again."

Here, the reader sees a softer side to Small. He is saddened by Sholto's death, repentant of the past, and makes a religious reference to the Bible, i.e. "the book," which suggests that he is a man of morals.

But the reader's sympathy for Small does not last long. In the final chapter, for instance, Small's true colours are revealed when he throws the jewels in the river so that Miss Morstan, the rightful owner, cannot take them from him. As Small says:

It is my treasure; and if I can't have the loot I'll take darned good care that no one else does.

This selfish and materialistic attitude contrasts sharply with Small's earlier portrayal. But Small has had a difficult life, as he later relates, which may prompt the reader to feel some small sympathy towards him. His time in India, for example, was one of great stress and uncertainty as he was caught up in the Great Mutiny. It cannot detract, however, from his criminal activities, which resulted in the deaths of two people, even if he did not directly end their lives.