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The Hound of the Baskervilles | Context

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Victorian Era

Like his literary creation Sherlock Homes, Arthur Conan Doyle lived in the Victorian era. Named for Queen Victoria, the British monarch who reigned from 1837 to 1901, the age coincided with a consolidation of British power and unprecedented advances in science, medicine, and the arts.

At the same time the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution took hold. Entrepreneurial and educational opportunities in the cities had brought financial independence to a new middle class. Social barriers were shifting, sometimes even breaking down. Sherlock Homes as well as Dr. Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles are examples of commoners with high levels of education and social mobility—so much so that representatives of nobility like Sir Henry turn to them for help as the unquestioned power and supremacy of the aristocracy began to weaken.

The rise of the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution offered new opportunities for uneducated and unskilled workers. People flocked to the cities in droves, creating a new lower class with increasing poverty and crime rates. In the country an ever-greater shortage of skilled farming and domestic help caused the slow decline of the traditional lifestyle of the nobility. Even the Barrymores, a family of butlers and maids for generations in The Hound of the Baskervilles, want to take advantage of their inheritance and start their own business. Not surprisingly Baskerville Hall shows signs of decay.

Science in the Victorian Era

In 1859, the year Doyle was born, Charles Darwin published his landmark work on evolution, On the Origin of Species. The book laid the foundation for evolutionary biology and helped usher in a new era of scientific advances. It rejected supernatural or divine explanations, relying instead on observable evidence. This trend had a profound effect on philosophy and medicine. For one, evolution challenged religious literalism, and it caused a crisis of faith among many Victorian writers, thinkers, and ordinary people. Darwin's deductive methodology paved the way for the advances in science, medicine, and public health in the coming years as well. Holmes is the embodiment of the new Darwinian man. He is neither religious nor superstitious, relies on "data" obsessively, and shows an exceptionally well-honed talent for observation.

Sigmund Freud's description of the workings of the subconscious, a part of the human psyche he described in The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899, spawned a new science: psychoanalysis. Analyzing the dreams of a patient to help her overcome symptoms of hysteria, he isolated three distinct forces operating within the human psyche: the id, the ego, and the superego, which roughly correspond to a subconscious realm of emotion, a conscious realm of reason, and a social realm of cultural norms, which influence individual behavior subconsciously.

While Freud's theory of the subconscious may not have directly influenced Arthur Conan Doyle's writings, it is significant in that Freud believed that it is possible to classify and hence wrangle the emotional forces that influence human behavior—forces that can't be seen or touched—in scientific ways. Freud's theory of dream analysis is but a road map for hunting and analyzing clues, enabling the analyst to draw conclusions regarding a patient's behavior. Sherlock Holmes sifts through the mysterious events at Baskerville Hall like Freud reads his patients' dreams, dismantling the clues as signposts for very real motives of events and actions.

Gothic Literature

The Hound of the Baskervilles merges two popular literary genres: the Gothic tale and detective fiction. The Gothic movement is the darker twin of Romanticism, which in turn was a reaction to the period of 18th-century Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. Postulating "I think, therefore I am," the French philosopher René Descartes summed up the approach Romantic writers rebelled against, exploring the other, not-so-reasonable side of human nature: emotions and feelings. While many Romantic writers wrote tales of everlasting love that conquers all, Gothic tales explored the unpredictable, uncontrollable undercurrent of human emotions as well as the aspects of mystical or ghostlike phenomena.

From the start in the mid-18th century, the Gothic movement was wildly popular and influenced writers for decades to come. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, explores science, the crowning achievement of reason, as an experiment gone horribly wrong. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," published in 1839, explores the descent of emotions into the ultimate chaos of madness. And Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, both first published in 1886, take a psychological approach to the two sides of human nature: reason and irrationality, beauty and decay, order and chaos, illustrating that, like mirror images of each other, they make up the two sides of human nature.

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles fits perfectly within this tradition. The novel makes use of the typical Gothic themes and symbols—a family curse and the legend of a paranormal and diabolical dog, a hero stranded in a strange place, the transgression of moral taboos, gloomy manors and ruins harboring sinister secrets, flickering lights, dark shadows, and eerie, fog-covered landscapes. Sherlock Holmes attacks the legend of the Baskerville curse with reason and the scientific methods of observation, analysis, and conclusion. Yet when Sherlock Holmes takes leave from the story and Watson drives the plot, Gothic elements take over.

Detective Novels and Pulp Fiction

The rise and budding financial independence of the middle class empowered an ever-greater number of people to gain access to education and to engage in leisure activities. More ordinary people were literate, had time to read, and wanted to read—about ordinary people in the real world. This in turn gave rise to the demand for realism and its purest expression in the novel.

The growing concern over the lack of law and order in the ever more crowded cities of the Victorian era created the need for a metropolitan police force, which in turn eventually spawned the genre of detective fiction. The genre's most basic elements are the seemingly perfect crime, the red herring (often in the form of a false suspect or a misleading clue), the superior skills of the detective, and the surprising denouement in which the detective reveals the culprit and ties up all loose ends.

While Sherlock Holmes is likely the most famous detective ever to roam literary pages, he was not the first. Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin, who solved "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, is generally seen as the father of all detectives. Incidentally, Edgar Allan Poe's entire body of work also shows a penchant for the Gothic tale, as is evidenced in his poem "The Raven" or his short story "The Fall of the House of Usher."

When Sir Henry remarks that he stepped into a dime novel, he refers to the earliest paperback editions of novels popular in the late 19th century. The demand for reading material was so great that publishers needed to supply the market with faster and cheaper printing and binding techniques. The dime novel was born, as were penny dreadfuls, cheap magazines that published serialized low-brow fiction.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was first published in serialized format in Strand Magazine, a monthly periodical that was in print from 1891 to 1950. The serialization accounts for the many skillful cliffhangers in popular detective fiction. Writers and publishers had to make sure that readers would come back, and what better way to do so than to create mounting suspense at the end of a chapter.

The Author's Use of Irony

Arthur Conan Doyle uses the literary device of irony throughout his novel for various intents and purposes.

The author creates situational irony, where expectation and reality contradict each other, when Holmes jokingly claims to deduce the breed and color of Dr. Mortimer's dog from the evidence on his cane. In fact, sheer coincidence provides the clue as Dr. Mortimer shows up with his spaniel on a leash. This reminds the reader not to take Holmes's supposed superiority too seriously and accept that he benefits as much from sheer luck as everyone else.

Doyle also uses dramatic irony, in which the audience knows something that the characters do not. Sir Henry's remark that he walked into a dime novel expresses his disdain for Dr. Mortimer's suggestion that a dangerous mystery lurks behind the events that pile up in London. In fact, readers know Sir Henry really is a character in a dime novel about to embark on a mystery that endangers his life. This offers an opportunity for the reader to step back and look at this as a story, providing much needed comic relief.

Dr. Watson attempts to outwit Sherlock Holmes by unmasking the mysterious man on the moor before Holmes does, yet he fails to decode the clues that point to the fact that the man is none other than Sherlock Holmes. This situational irony restores the status quo between Watson and Holmes, establishing them yet again as superior detective and his sidekick.

And finally, Stapleton claims to have learned a safe way through the Grimpen Mire, yet ultimately meets justice by drowning in the mire. This exemplifies situational irony again, suggesting that nobody, no matter how cunning, can ultimately escape justice.

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