The Hound of the Baskervilles | Study Guide

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Hound of the Baskervilles | Themes

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Combining elements of detective fiction with aspects of Gothic tales, Doyle marries the concept of empiricism with its opposite, the concept of the supernatural. The tension between the two ideas runs through the novel, and its main themes illustrate this tension.

Empiricism

Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of empiricism, the theory that all knowledge comes from the sensory experience of the physical world. Holmes believes that every mystery can be explained by carefully looking at the clues and that observation, analysis, and deduction will always lead to the correct conclusion. What can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted will provide the data needed to understand the world and to solve every last riddle. All that is needed is clear reasoning and logic to apply the data correctly.

The novel illustrates this theme throughout and on many levels. Clues, no matter how small, have significance. The ashes at the scene of Sir Charles's death are evidence that he was waiting for someone, just like the cigarette butt carelessly tossed at the stone huts is evidence of Watson's presence within. Sir Charles's footprints are evidence that he ran away, which explains his heart attack from physical exertion, while the footprints that so abruptly stop in the Grimpen Mire are proof that Stapleton drowned.

Physical traits have meaning. Sherlock Holmes's skull is evidence for his incredible mind as much as the distorted facial features of the escaped convict, the vilest murderer ever to be convicted, speak of his depraved mind. The fact that the supposed Stapleton siblings look so different is a clue to their real identity as husband and wife, while the fact that Stapleton and Sir Hugo look so much alike suggests that they are blood relations. That in turn not only provides the motive for Stapleton's crime but also intimates that Stapleton shares personality traits with his ancestor that make it plausible that he would be willing to commit such a heinous crime.

Sherlock Holmes, a master at observing and analyzing these physical clues, stays in control and decodes a world as impenetrable, dangerous, and scary as the moor. Ancient legends, deadly threats, and ghostlike hellhounds are revealed as the means to a real, albeit criminal end. By identifying the culprit and revealing his toolkit—the dog and its phosphorous-painted muzzle—Holmes restores order and reassures the other characters as well as the readers that all supernatural apparitions have a perfectly natural explanation.

Superstition

While Holmes's reasoning and logic provides an anchor of security in a complex world, the opposite approach, emotionalism and superstition, leads to peril and harm. Sir Charles believed in the legend of the hound of the Baskervilles and ultimately fell prey to this superstition. His weak heart could not handle the physical exertion when he ran in terror from a dog he believed to be the spectral hound from hell.

The legend of the Baskerville hound itself illustrates that a lack of emotional restraint leads to disaster. Outraged when the maiden rejects him, Sir Hugo abducts her, and when she escapes he declares he would "render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake" her. His unfounded sense of entitlement unleashes the anger that seals his own fate. Out there on the moor, a hellhound mauls him to death, as if to say that his debauchery ate away at his soul.

Stapleton, Sir Hugo's spitting image, exhibits a similarly entitled temper. Although his anger over Sir Henry's interest in his sister may make sense given she is actually his wife, his wife's fear of him speaks of his fierce possessiveness. And indeed his willingness to kill those in the way to an inheritance he believes should be his proves his penchant for aggression and violence. His greed leads to his own death in the moor. Sir Hugo and Stapleton are punished for their debauchery, greed, possessiveness, and anger, suggesting that unbridled violent emotions have no place in a rational, orderly world.

Disguises and Deceit

Disguises and deceit are part of the criminal's toolkit. Stapleton conceals his identity by wearing a beard and using Sherlock Holmes's name while he is in London. In addition he uses phosphorous on a dog to make it look like the spectral hound from hell haunting the Baskervilles. Stapleton also is the victim of an inadvertent disguise when the dog goes for the escaped convict because he wears Sir Henry's hand-me-down clothes.

Disguises and deceit are also part of the detective's toolkit. Holmes sends a cable to Baskerville Hall with the request that it be given to Barrymore directly, his sole purpose being to find out if Barrymore is at Baskerville Hall. Later Holmes sends a cable to Sir Henry, requesting that a pocketbook be sent to him in London to cement the false claim that he has left Baskerville Hall for London. And there is Holmes's claim that he is too busy to follow the Baskerville case himself so he sends Watson while really is hiding right under everyone's noses, conducting his own investigation.

And finally disguises and deceit are part of the writer's toolkit. The red herring, clues intended to mislead the reader and thus increase the suspense, is a staple of detective fiction. The butler Barrymore is meant to attract the reader's attention as a suspect, as is the escaped convict Selden. Barrymore has a beard like the man Holmes saw in London; he lies when asked about the sobbing woman at Baskerville Hall; and he was not the one who accepted the cable that was meant to ascertain his presence at the manor. The escaped convict, a vile criminal who has killed before, is a perfect potential threat lurking in the shadows of the moor. The fact that these two red herrings are interconnected in that the escaped convict is Mrs. Barrymore's younger brother adds to the sense of control Doyle exerts over the universe of his story.

Friendship and Loyalty

Despite Sherlock Holmes's air of superiority and his sometimes rather dismissive attitude toward Watson, the doctor nonetheless shows loyalty and admiration for the crime-solving detective. Yet at the same time the two engage in friendly competition. Watson seemingly gets a chance to take the lead in the Baskerville case and even imagines outwitting the master. When he doesn't, when instead Holmes deceives him, Watson is upset, yet he never doubts that Holmes had good reasons and quickly acquiesces, accepting the status quo.

Holmes, on the other hand, although constantly ready to prove his mental prowess, relies on Watson to provide information. Watson engages with the world, interviews the suspects, and reports back to Holmes, who hides in the stone hut far away from the turmoil of human interaction to build upon and analyze the clues. To Holmes, a loner at heart, Watson is a lifeline to the world.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson need each other; they are a team. Without Holmes, Watson might miss the analytical significance of many clues; without Watson, Holmes might miss their human impact. Holmes understands that Beryl Stapleton's exotic looks indicate she is not Stapleton's sister and therefore is a possible suspect, yet Watson understands that her beauty is attractive to Sir Henry and therefore a potential threat to his well-being given her supposed brother's possessiveness. Clearly both aspects matter and together help complete the puzzle.

While those around them are ruled by base emotions—entitled arrogance, greed, sexual desire, anger, and fear—Holmes and Watson's mutual loyalty speaks of their steadfast integrity. Their loyalty to each other is particularly meaningful in a novel that reveals much troubled family relations. While blood is supposed to be thicker than water, it runs rather thin in the Baskerville clan. Sir Charles and his two brothers are estranged, Sir Henry didn't visit his uncle before he was his heir, and Stapleton is willing to kill his uncle and his cousin to be next in line to the family fortune. Stapleton rules marriage through fear, and his wife doesn't hesitate to turn against him—not that she shouldn't; after all he is a murderer. The one example of family loyalty, Mrs. Barrymore's loyalty to her brother, protects the other murderer on the loose in the novel. Watson and Holmes's friendship, however flawed, seems like an anchor in a sea of mistrust and treachery.

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