Hound of the Baskervilles
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Natural and supernatural; truth and fantasy
As soon as Dr. Mortimer arrives to unveil the mysterious curse of the Baskervilles, Hound wrestles with questions of natural and supernatural occurrences. The doctor himself decides that the marauding hound in question is a supernatural beast, and all he wants to ask Sherlock Holmes is what to do with the next of kin.
From Holmes' point of view, every set of clues points toward a logical, real- world solution. Considering the supernatural explanation, Holmes decides to consider all other options before falling back on that one. Sherlock Holmes personifies the intellectual's faith in logic, and on examining facts to find the answers.
In this sense, the story takes on the Gothic tradition, a brand of storytelling that highlights the bizarre and unexplained. Doyles' mysterious hound, an ancient family curse, even the ominous Baskerville Hall all set up a Gothic- style mystery that, in the end, will fall victim to Holmes' powerful logic.
Doyle's own faith in spiritualism, a doctrine of life after death and psychic powers, might at first seem to contradict a Sherlockian belief in logical solutions and real world answers. Holmes is probably based more on Doyle's scientific training than his belief system. But the struggle for understanding, the search for a coherent conception of the world we live in, links the spiritualist Doyle with his fictional counterpart. Throughout the novel, Holmes is able to come up with far-flung if ultimately true accounts of the world around him, much as his author strove for understanding in fiction and in fact.
Classism and hierarchy
Hound's focus on the natural and supernatural spills over into other thematic territory—the rigid classism of Doyle's milieu. Well-to-do intellectual that he was, Doyle translated many of the assumptions of turn-of- the-century English society into his fiction. The natural and supernatural is one example.
Throughout the story, the superstitions of the shapeless mass of common folk- everyone attributes an unbending faith in the curse to the commoners-are denigrated and, often, dismissed. If Mortimer and Sir Henry have their doubts, it is the gullible common folk who take the curse seriously. In the end, when Watson's reportage and Holmes' insight have shed light on the situation, the curse and the commoners who believed it end up looking silly.
At the same time, Sir Henry's servants evince a kind of docility, and their brother the convict is reduced from dangerous murderer to pathetic rodent under Watson's gaze. Hound's classism is also enmeshed in questions of entitlement: who has the right to Baskerville Hall, to Holmes' attention, to our attention.
Superstition and folk tales
The story opens with the folk tale of the Baskerville curse, presented on eighteenth century parchment. The reproduction of the curse, both in the novel and in Mortimer's reading, serves to start the story off with a bang-a shadowy folk tale, nothing if not mysterious. At the same time, it offers a nice contrast to Watson's straight-forward reporting, a style insisted upon by the master and one which will ultimately dispel any foolish belief in curses and hounds of hell.
A classic of the mystery/detective genre, the red herring throws us off the right trail. Much like the folk tale, it offers a too-easy answer to the question at hand, tempting us to take the bait and making fools of us if we do. In Hound, the largest red herring is the convict. After all, who better to pin a murder on than a convicted murderer. Barrymore's late-night mischief turns out to be innocent, and the convicted murderer turns out to not be involved in the mysterious deaths.
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