The Hound of the Baskervilles: Essay Q&A
1. What does a close reading of Chapter 1, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” reveal to readers about the character?
In Chapter 1, Watson tells us that Holmes is characteristically a night owl and a late riser, though not on this particular day; but most of what we learn about Holmes in this chapter we learn (as Holmes himself would doubtless approve) through observation and logical inference. We hear, for example, that Holmes is capable of a subtle and wicked wit: when he tells Watson that the doctor “is not [him]self luminous, but [is] a conductor of light” (p. 14), Watson takes it for a compliment, while readers understand that Holmes is damning the doctor with faint praise—as Holmes himself admits a few moments later. We also see that Holmes is not above indulging a sense of superiority: when Watson reads Mortimer’s biography from the Medical Directory and fails to find mention of a hunting club to which Watson had incorrectly assumed their visitor belonged, Holmes does not pass up the chance to remind Watson of his error: “‘No mention of that local hunt, Watson,’ said Holmes with a mischievous smile” (p. 16). We see Holmes both delighting in his mastery of deductive reasoning—“You know my methods. Apply them!” he instructs Watson, knowing full well that Watson will not be able to do so in any degree rivaling Holmes’ own (p. 15)—and enjoying the “elementary” ways in which he can confirm his hypotheses: for instance, he announces that Mortimer’s dog must be “a curly-haired spaniel,” to Watson’s amazement, before revealing that he knows this fact because he sees “the dog himself on [their] very door-step” (p. 17). In this brief chapter, then, Conan Doyle deftly sketches again the intelligence and the arrogance, as well as the flashes of humor and the flair for the theatrical, that characterize this most memorable of characters.
2. How and why does Conan Doyle present Baskerville Hall as a liminal space?
In contrast to “green squares of the fields” that are nearby, the lands on which Baskerville Hall is situated feature “a gray, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague… like some fantastic landscape in a dream” (p. 66). Such liminal locations, or thresholds, are common in fantasy literature; readers may be somewhat more surprised to encounter the motif here in a work of detective fiction. Liminality, however, has its place in this genre, as well. Sir Charles’ murder has, after all, thrown the social order of the Baskerville family out of alignment; indeed, any crime is a dis-ordering of society. It is fully appropriate, then, that this disorientation would be reflected in Baskerville Hall’s status as a liminal location, between the worlds of justice and criminality, social order and social chaos. The legend of the ghostly Hound, in fact, only accentuates its liminality, since such spectral appearances are, in themselves, liminal beings.
3. Briefly discuss an example of how and why Conan Doyle uses the weather in his novel as a thematic device.
Weather features prominently at several points in the book. Watson, for instance, states that news of Selden’s escape completes “the grim suggestiveness of the barren waste, the chilling wind, and the darkling sky” (pp. 68-69). Conan Doyle comes close to indulging in what literary critics identify as the pathetic fallacy, the attribution of emotions or characteristics to the natural world. Watson does not quite do so, but without doubt the physical setting is here reflecting moral and psychological dimensions of the story. Selden is as “barren” of human sentiment as the moor is of vegetation; the murderer’s malignant heart is as “chilling” as any icy gale. Similarly, when Watson hears a crying woman late during his first night at the manor, he can only determine that the sound “could not have been far away and was certainly in the house” (p. 73). Although we will learn the identity of the weeping woman in the next chapter, at this moment, it is almost as though Baskerville Hall itself is crying, mourning and keening for the loss of life, the loss of future, that has occurred.
4. How does Conan Doyle’s use of an epistolary format in the middle of the novel contribute to our understanding of the relationship between Holmes and Watson?
The epistolary format allows us understanding of the differences between the two men. We see, for example, that Watson is far more concerned with and attuned to the non-rational, emotional aspects of life: he begins his letter with reflections upon the liminal nature of Baskerville Hall and the moor—it is a place, he says, where “you have left all traces of modern England behind you” and are “conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people… you leave your own age behind you” (p. 88)—before allowing that such matters are probably “very uninteresting to [Holmes’] severely practical mind” (p. 89). Watson also reminds long-time readers of Holmes of the revelation, in the very first Sherlock Holmes story, the novel A Study in Scarlet, that the world’s greatest consulting detective expressed “complete indifference as to whether the sun moved round the earth or the earth round the sun” (p. 89)! Holmes is no doubt brilliant, but these two examples from Watson’s letter show us that he lacks a certain amount of commonplace knowledge and also of emotional intelligence, lacunae which keep Holmes at some distance from his fellow human beings.
5. How does Jack Stapleton’s first appearance prepare the readers for the revelation of his real involvement in the case at the novel’s end?
Clearly, Jack thinks highly of himself: when he indulges in some subtle boasting about his knowledge of the moor and the mire, he remarks how only “a very active man” and one with “wit” can reach the islands (p. 80). Watson seems to have some uneasiness about Jack: the doctor wonders why “this highly educated man and this beautiful woman” have chosen “to live in such a place” as Grimpen (p. 84), although he does not express any explicit doubts about their connection to Sir Charles’ death. Beryl certainly knows more than she is willing to share with Watson. Not only does she have “no ring of conviction in her words” when she professes happiness in Grimpen (p. 84), but also she attempts, unsuccessfully, to retract her urgent warning to Watson, claiming only she “was distressed… when another member of the [Baskerville] family came down to live here… [and should therefore] be warned of the danger which he will run” (p. 86). Beryl is in some respects a stock figure of Gothic tales, a mysterious woman with a secret who combines elements of such familiar archetypes as the madwoman or the persecuted maiden. Interestingly, Watson remarks upon her first appearance that she seems “a strange apparition upon a lonely moorland path” (p. 82). The explicit comparison to a ghost not only resonates with descriptions of the spectral Baskerville hound, but further contributes to the strange, liminally-charaged atmosphere of Baskerville Hall and its environs. All of these details throw the reader slightly off balance, thus preparing us for the ultimate revelation that Stapleton is the criminal mastermind behind Sir Charles’ death.