The Hound of the Baskervilles | Study Guide

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Hound of the Baskervilles | Chapter 1 : Mr. Sherlock Holmes | Summary

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Summary

On Baker Street in London, Dr. John Watson, the first-person narrator, silently examines a cane to surmise information about the identity of the visitor who left it behind. Although he sits with his back to Watson, Sherlock Holmes asks for Watson's conclusions about the cane. Watson is amazed that Holmes knew what he was doing although he couldn't possibly see, but Holmes admits that he was simply using the polished tea pot in front of him like a mirror. In competitive yet friendly banter, Holmes compliments Watson's conclusions about the cane but then goes on to draw rather different ones. When the visitor, Dr. James Mortimer, returns, it turns out that, indeed, Sherlock Holmes's analysis was correct: Mortimer is a young man who retired to the country when he got married and owns a cocker spaniel. Introductions are made, and Dr. Mortimer asks if he can touch the skull of the famous detective to examine the shape of a brilliant man's head.

Analysis

This first chapter introduces the two main characters of the story: Sherlock Homes, the famous detective, and his sidekick Dr. John Watson. They are friends of unequal standing. Watson clearly admires his brilliant friend, while Sherlock Holmes looks upon Watson with benevolent amusement although he clearly appreciates his assistance and friendship. While Watson has the academic degree, the superiority of Holmes's mind is obvious. Although they observe the same details on the cane they draw vastly different conclusions, and Sherlock Holmes is right every time. Their friendly banter shows a tinge of competitiveness, as Holmes takes mischievous pleasure in proving Watson wrong and Watson shows signs of frustration with Holmes's superior attitude.

As the first-person narrator of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson reports the events of the novel. The reader sees the world of the novel through his eyes, sharing his point of view and attitude. Everything Watson knows the reader knows—no more and no less—and therefore Watson becomes the reader's surrogate. The reader is invited to try to solve the puzzle, stumbling along like Watson himself at the mercy of Holmes's superior insights. And so even though it is Watson who tells the story, Sherlock Holmes, the image of reason and mental prowess, is the story's hero.

Arthur Conan Doyle's ever-present homage to the human mind and science as personified in his hero receives a scientific boost when Dr. Mortimer, the owner of the cane, wishes to examine Holmes's skull. In doing so Dr. Mortimer seems to apply the principles of phrenology, a science popular in the 19th century, that argued that the size and shape of the skull could indicate a person's mental abilities and psychological disposition. Although the validity of this approach has since been disproven, Dr. Mortimer's interest the shape of Holmes's cranium suggests that Dr. Mortimer recognized Holmes's superior intellect and wanted to test that scientific theory.

Holmes could be an insufferable character if Arthur Conan Doyle didn't use a healthy dose of lighthearted irony in his stories. Although Holmes thinks highly of himself and believes in the scientific methods of observation, analysis, and deduction, he does not take himself too seriously and admits that sometimes the truth presents itself by happenstance. While Holmes concludes that Dr. Mortimer owns a small dog by examining the marks on the cane, pinpointing the dog's breed is nothing but a clever guess made upon seeing a man with a spaniel approach his front door. Instances of such tongue-in-cheek irony are woven throughout the story, often adding much needed comic relief.

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