Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Natural and the Supernatural; Truth and Fantasy
As soon as Dr. Mortimer arrives to unveil the mysterious curse of the Baskervilles, The Hound of the Baskervilles wrestles with questions of natural and supernatural occurrences. Dr. Mortimer 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's 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. Conan Doyle’s 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.
Conan 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 Conan 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 Conan 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
The focus of The Hound of the Baskervilles on the natural and supernatural spills over into other thematic territory—the rigid classism of Conan Doyle’s milieu. Well-to-do intellectual that he was, Conan 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 of the Baskervilles 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’s 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 demonstrate a kind of docility—while their brother the convict is reduced from dangerous murderer to pathetic rodent under Watson’s gaze. The Hound of the Baskervilles classism is also enmeshed in questions of entitlement: who has the right to Baskerville Hall, to Holmes’s attention, to our attention.
Isolation in The Hound of the Baskervilles serves to leave characters vulnerable to the effects of their environments. Holmes’s admonition to Watson to never leave Sir Henry alone is ostensibly to protect him from the physical danger he’s in. However, the danger of isolation appears to have less to do with being alone in and of itself and more to do with where someone is left alone. For example, when left alone, Sir Henry, previously hardy and robust, becomes fearful and anxious. The eerie and irrational atmosphere of the moors plays on his senses, almost as if they weaken his mind. Conversely, isolation in London here has a fortifying effect. Holmes prefers solitude when he’s thinking over a case. Miss Stapleton, when left to her own devices in London, attempts to warn Sir Henry of the danger he’s in. Unlike the moors, a site of superstition, London is portrayed in the novel as the center of rational thought. Isolation in an environment of order and rationality thus has a positive effect on the characters’ thoughts and actions.