Term Paper, 2008
11 Pages, Grade: 2,3
2. Perception of evil persons
2.1 Selfish people
2.2 People seeking revenge
2.3 Indirect Revenge – “Evil in return”
2.4 The savage
2.5 Anthropological criminology
3. Restoration of Justice
3.1 The detection of evildoers – the detective’s job
3.2 The consequences of evil deeds
The development of the themes “evil” and “justice”
in The Sign of Four and Morality for Beautiful Girls
The themes “evil” and “justice” are vital in detective fiction – without people committing evil deeds, there would be no need to employ detectives whose job it is to restore justice by identifying the criminals. However, this is only the basis for the plots. At the end of the novel we do get to know the villain, but by then we also know who was believed by the various characters to be that person.
In the two novels I chose, The Sign of Four by Arthur Canon Doyle, first published in 1890 and Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith, first published in 2001, these villains are greedy, seek revenge or are savage. People fear them because they feel they do not have any social control over them. I will also deal with anthropological criminology which is discussed in both novels, more or less obviously. Throughout the essay I will show how the detectives and their helpers are used to contrast the wrongdoers.
Closely connected to the evil is the wish to restore justice. In both novels it is not the police or the judiciary that deal with this task. The detectives are needed to detect the wrongdoers and therefore they can decide how they will punish them – for example, it is their decision whether they want to take the matter to the police or not. Another statement that the novels make is the fact that evil people are punished directly by their own evil deeds, because they influence their later life.
According to Mma Ramotswe “ordinary people in Africa” (McCall Smith 2003: 74) don’t hate, but she knows that “beneath the world of the law-abiding people there is the world of the selfish and manipulative ones” (McCall Smith 2003: 191). This sentence implies that people who do not abide with the law are often selfish.
Mma Ramotswe is the opposite of selfish. Instead of cutting Mma Makutsi's salary, which she intended to do to keep up her business, she even promises her more (cf. McCallSmith 2003: 15), and she does not employ a maid just because she needs one, but also because she can afford one and therefore considers it as her social duty: “[…] if you were in a well-paid job and had a house of the size which Mma Ramotswe did, then not to employ a maid - or indeed not to support several domestic servant – would have been seen as selfishness.” (McCall Smith 2003: 72). Mma Ramotswe’s example shows us that she cannot understand selfishness; throughout the novel courtesy is named as one of the most important value of the Botswanian people.
One form of selfishness is greed. In Morality for Beautiful Girls greed is considered as a motive for murder: the “Government Man” explains that his sister-in-law wants to murder his brother to get his possessions. Mma Ramotswe reasons before meeting the father: “[…] he [the father], who now had no cattle, would have cattle a-plenty. […] And all that stood between him and all this was one small, beating heart.” (McCallSmith 2003: 115).
In The Sign of the Four Watson shows similar character traits as Mma Ramotswe: The so-called “Golden Barrier” holds him back from confessing his love to Mary Morstan, because he fears that she will think he is only after her money. This behavior is very honorable, because for other people it would be very tempting to marry a woman who owns a fortune. But for him, it is selfish to be happy that the treasure is lost: “It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.” (Doyle 2001: 94).
Jonathan Small is one of the “bad guys” in the novel. He started a vicious circle by giving in to greed. When he tells the story of his life, we get to know that he killed the merchant Achmet to get the Agra treasure. He tries to justify this murder by narrating that one of the Sikhs told him: “You must either be with us now, or you must be silenced for ever.” (Doyle 2001: 101). He had the choice: Either the two Sikhs would have killed him or he would get a quarter of a large fortune – but not without killing an innocent man. The reader will certainly ask him- or herself: What would I have done if I had been in Small’s shoes? But Small confesses that he did not only kill Achmet to stay alive after all: “It gave me the chills to think of killing him, but I thought of the treasure, and my heart set as hard as a flint within me.” (Doyle 2001: 105). He thought of the treasure, not of his or the merchant’s death. So in Small’s eyes possession weighs more than the life of a man. This greed – in sharp contrast to Watson’s or Mma Ramotswe’s attitude – makes him evil.
Jonathan Small could never lead a luxurious life. After killing the merchant he was imprisoned, and in those years of suffering he got used to the idea that he had earned the treasure:
Look how I have earned it! Twenty long years in that fever-ridden swamp, all day at work under the mangrove-tree, all night chained up in the filthy convict-huts, bitten by mosquitoes, racked with ague, bullied by every cursed black-faced policeman who loved to take it out of a white man. That was how I earned the Agra treasure, and you talk to me of justice because I cannot bear to feel that I have paid this price only that another may enjoy it! (Doyle 2001: 96)
Actually he just had to suffer, because he killed a man – and by no means did he earn the treasure - he stole it! But his strong conviction that the treasure is his determines his fate. When Major Sholto goes off to London with the treasure, his desire for revenge takes him over:
From that day I lived only for vengeance. I thought of it by day and I nursed it by night. It became an overpowering, absorbing passion with me. I cared nothing for the law---nothing for the gallows. To escape, to track down Sholto, to have my hand upon his throat---that was my one thought. Even the Agra treasure had come to be a smaller thing in my mind than the slaying of Sholto.( Doyle 2001: 113).
As the greed merges with the hatred he cannot go back to a normal, happy life and after Holmes catches him, he has to stay in prison for the rest of his life. Interestingly, this will be easier for him now that nobody else will possess the treasure. In my opinion, this proofs that it was hatred and the seeking for revenge that controlled him, not only the greed. He seems to be calm when he says: “It went to my heart to do it, though. I was half mad when you came up with us. However, there's no good grieving over it. I've had ups in my life, and I've had downs, but I've learned not to cry over spilled milk.” (Doyle 2001: 96)
Additionally, he may not have killed Bartholomew Sholto or his father but he did, although it is not vital for his story, confess to killing a convict-guard, “who had never missed a chance of insulting and injuring [him].” (Doyle 2001: 114). The language he uses to describe the action of killing him is very aggressive: He looked for a stone “beat out his brains” and eventually he used his wooden leg and “knocked the whole front of his skull in”. He shows no feelings of guilt, on the contrary, he seems to be proud: “You can see the split in the wood now where I hit him.” (Doyle 2001: 114).
In Morality for Beautiful Girls we also come across a case in which revenge is not addressed at the evil doer but at others.
Mma Makutsi reads in a book called Theories of Crime that “those to who evil was done did evil in return.” (McCallSmith 2003: 174). She then remembers a boy who was beaten by his drunken father. This motivated him to bully smaller children. (cf. McCall Smith 2003: 174). This is an appeal to the reader to think about his or her actions – doing evil does not necessarily mean to kill or to steal, it can also mean to damage the souls of others. The example of the boy also displays the humanity of evil persons: Behind their cruelty are often offended sensibilities.
Another example for this is the story of the cook. He puts something into the food of the family he serves because he hates to be in a kitchen - but his family does not want to move. If his employer had been more sensitive about the cook’s feelings he would not have committed the crime – simply because there would have been no reason.
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