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The Hound Of The Baskervilles Essays

The Lure of the Moor

We often think of the English countryside as a pleasant land of forest and pasture, curbed by neat hedgerows and orderly gardens. But at higher elevations a wilder landscape rears its head: the moor. Little thrives in any moor's windy, rainy climate, leaving a rolling expanse of infertile wetlands dominated by tenacious gorse and grasses. Its harsh, chaotic weather, so inhospitable to human life, has nonetheless proved fertile ground for the many writers who've set their stories on its gloomy plain. A native of nearby Dorchester, Thomas Hardy set The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and countless other novels on the wild, haunted moor that D.H. Lawrence called "the real stuff of tragedy." In Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the violent, passionate Catherine and Heathcliff seem to echo the brutal moors that surround them. Dame Agatha Christie booked herself into the "large, dreary" Moorland Hotel to finish work on The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while Dartmoor is the setting for The Sittaford Mystery (1931). The moor's atmospheric weather and desolate landscape lend an air of tragedy and mystery to all of these tales, as they do to The Hound of the Baskervilles. On Dartmoor's windswept plain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found the legendary roots and the creepy backdrop of his most famous story. He took many liberties, changing the names of geographic localities and altering distances to suit his story, but even today, Sherlock Holmes fans are known to set out across the moor in search of the real counterparts of the fictional locale where the story took place.

The Mythic Moor
Conan Doyle first heard of Dartmoor's "hounds of hell" in March 1901 while on a golfing holiday in Norfolk with his friend, the young journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson; at the time in the employ of the Daily Express, Fletcher Robinson would later become the editor of Vanity Fair. Their game cut short by a storm, the two men retired to the sitting room of the Royal Links Hotel and began to talk, the conversation eventually turning to local myths. Fletcher Robinson first told Conan Doyle of the Black Shuck, a phantom dog as big as a calf, with eyes that bled fire, that was said to haunt the Norfolk countryside.

The myths of Dartmoor captured Conan Doyle's imagination. Fletcher Robinson went on to recount the tale of Richard Cabell, a 17th-century squire who'd suspected his wife of infidelity and attacked her in a jealous rage. When she fled across the moor with her faithful hound, Cabell gave chase and eventually killed her. Still by its mistress' side, the hound then turned on him and ripped out his throat before dying itself of the squire's knife wounds. The dog was said to haunt each new generation of the family.

But this spectral hound was not alone on the moor. Other legends told of howling black hounds unleashed on the moor upon Cabell's death in 1677; the Whist Hounds, a howling pack of gigantic, red-eyed dogs said to stalk the moors with the devil; and the Black Dog of Dartmoor, an enormous hound with flaming eyes that chased unsuspecting late-night travelers.

Within days of hearing these stories, Conan Doyle joined Fletcher Robinson at Park Hill House, his family home in the village of Ipplepen in remotest Dartmoor. In fact, some scholars believe that Fletcher Robinson acted not only as Conan Doyle's tour guide but also helped him write the tale; his contributions have never been substantiated. What is certain is that the two men hiked for miles over the empty moors with Robinson's coachman, one Harry Baskerville, as their guide. This young man is believed to be one of two inspirations for the novel's eponymous character, the other being a Baskerville family living on the Welsh border whom Conan Doyle had visited in 1897. The family had intermarried with a neighboring clan, the Vaughans, who owned a legendary huge, black dog.

Decamped from Park Hill to Princetown's Rowe Duchy Hotel, Conan Doyle began work on his novel, which did not at first feature Sherlock Holmes. As the story developed, though, Conan Doyle found himself in need of a larger-than-life character to solve the mystery. "Why should I invent such a character," he asked, "when I already had one in the form of Sherlock Holmes?"

The Real Moor
For England, the turn of the 20th century was a time of great change. While London entered an age of electric light and the internal combustion engine, Dartmoor was more like the American Wild West -- bleak, inhospitable, and lawless. Dartmoor is a 20-by-30-mile tract of untamed wildness amid the Devonshire countryside. Watson's description of his inaugural drive into Dartmoor is rendered in such detail that it can easily serve as a road map for visitors today on the trail of Sherlock Holmes.

"Rolling pasture lands curved upward on either side of us, and old gabled houses peeped out from amid the thick green foliage," notes Watson in chapter six of The Hound of the Baskervilles, "but behind the peaceful and sunlit countryside there rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills."

Watson's train arrives at the railhead Ashburton, from which point he embarks on the last leg of his journey by carriage, following the ancient tin miners' road along the River Dart. This route brings him past an isolated tract that a group of 18th-century gentry known as the Improvers tried, without success, to turn into farmland. Amid these "improved" fields lies Postbridge, the model for the fictitious village of Grimpen. Dartmoor has few such villages, however, as most natives live on scattered farms. To the north of Postbridge, you'll find Fox Tor Mire, the treacherous bog of sphagnum moss floating atop trapped groundwater that inspired Conan Doyle's the Great Grimpen Mire. While Conan Doyle describes Baskerville Hall as a 14th-century castle, in fact it was likely modeled on one of the Improvers' large manor houses. Other Holmes historians point to Brook Manor, home to doomed squire Richard Cabell, as the true Baskerville Hall.

When Watson walks out across the moor, acting as Holmes's eyes and ears, he encounters the moor's many distinct features. Granite spires known as tors break the moor's grassy landscape. Exposed to the acidic water of bogs, the granite weakens and crumbles in spots while remaining strong in others. Over time, this process has carved Dartmoor's famous granite towers, spires, and cliffs. Watson's impressive view of the moor was likely based on that from the North Hessary Tor, just outside Princetown and close by the brooding Dartmoor Prison, from which the murderer Selden escapes. Originally built to hold prisoners from the Napoleonic wars, Dartmoor prison was closed for a long period but reopened when Australia and New Zealand refused to take more European convicts.

Upon closer examination of the tor, Watson discovers a well-preserved prehistoric hut, like the one in which he later finds Sherlock Holmes. Such relics are quite common in the real Dartmoor, which contains the largest collection of Stone Age sites in Europe. Holmes's circular hut is likely modeled on the ones found at the Bronze Age settlement of Grimspound, where a nine-foot-thick stone wall encloses four-acre site containing the stone remains of 24 circular huts. Watson also describes standing stones, known as goyals, that are found all over Dartmoor, with the largest being the Grey Wethers, overlooking the East Dart above Postbridge. These haunting ruins reinforce the moor's eerie weather and create the perfect, ghostly atmosphere for story bound up in myth and legend. Whether or not the hound of the Baskervilles or its like ever existed, you can still feel it breathing down your neck.

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  • 1

    How does Holmes interpret clues? How is this different from how others approach clues?

    Holmes is unique because he is capable of seeing unusual meanings for everyday objects. He looks to see what they might mean to someone else, rather than simply assuming that they only signify one thing. For example, whereas everyone else assumes that Sir Henry's boots go missing because an employee was incompetent, Holmes uses this seemingly insignificant detail to deduce that there is actually a hound involved. He imagines other possibilities. In other cases, Holmes looks for the markers humans have left on objects. An example of this would be the warning letter sent to Sir Henry; Holmes uses marks on it to deduce what newspaper it came from and that it was written by a woman. Overall, Holmes refuses to make assumptions, but rather considers what else any object can show to the discerning observer.

  • 2

    How does Holmes use his imagination to solve crime? Use a specific example, and also contrast this use of the imagination to that of Watson.

    Holmes uses his imagination insofar as he conceives of more than one interpretation for any apparent fact. For example, he is the only one who pieces together that Stapleton and Miss Stapleton are actually married; though there was no explicit evidence of this connection, Holmes is willing to consider different explanations than simply the one they provide. Because he can imagine these possibilities, he is better able to deduce how various clues work together. Watson, on the other hand, is what Holmes call "a man of action." Though he is hardly a fool, he is less able to make imaginative leaps. For instance, when he observes Stapleton's intense opposition to a match between Sir Henry and Miss Stapleton, Watson acknowledges an oddity but does not consider seemingly bizarre possibilities, and hence does not discover what Holmes does.

  • 3

    What is the effect and purpose of Watson's narration?

    Watson is important as a narrator for several reasons. First, as an intelligent man who can nevertheless come nowhere close to replicating Holmes's method, he provides even the clever reader a lens through which to appreciate Holmes's singular genius. Furthermore, Holmes remains distant and mysterious largely because he does not narrate his own tales. Holmes only shares his final process with Watson, which keeps many particulars of his imaginative method attractively ambiguous. Finally, in this novel in particular, Doyle is able to explore the case in two literal ways at once, by having Watson travel to Devonshire alone even while Holmes is secretly working in the background.

  • 4

    How would you characterize the relationship between Watson and Holmes.

    Though ostensibly partners, Watson and Holmes have a much more multi-faceted relationship. Watson admires Holmes, and clearly yearns for the detective's approval. He is more than willing to do what Holmes asks of him, whether it be deducing facts about Dr. Mortimer from the walking stick, or traveling ahead to Devonshire. However, Holmes continues to treat Watson like a subordinate, most obviously when he does not reveal his true plan to Watson until the latter finds him out on the moor. Though Watson acknowledges this ill-treatment, his concerns are quickly quashed, suggesting overall not only that Holmes sees Watson as something of a student, but that Watson sees Holmes as more of a mentor than as a partner.

  • 5

    What does this novel say about untrustworthy eyewitnesses?

    Most of the untrustworthy eyewitnesses in The Hound of the Baskervilles fail not because of ill intent, but because they let their emotions cloud their judgment. For instance, two of the novel's most trustworthy figures - Dr. Mortimer and Dr. Watson - are expected to be impartial observers of the events on the moor. As men of science, they should conceivably not fall prey to the anxieties produced by the old legend. However, both men eventually consider the legend as an explanation for events they cannot otherwise explain, largely because the atmosphere of the moor is so spooky. Therefore, the novel suggests that being a reasonable or honest man does not make one's observations trustworthy. Instead, an eyewitness can only be trusted if he is able to observe facts in themselves, not letting his emotional perspective interfere.

  • 6

    How does the novel explore the conflict between rationalism and the occult?

    Arguably, this novel's case interests Holmes because it seems to so strongly suggest an occult explanation. Thus, it poses him a challenge: find a rational explanation for what would otherwise be attributed to the supernatural. Throughout the story, characters battle these two opposing forces. The hound is representative of a superstitious belief in evil. Even men of science - Dr. Mortimer and Dr. Watson - somewhat accept the occult explanations, both because they can find no scientific clues to the contrary and because the atmosphere of the moor evokes such conjectures. It is telling that Holmes, by remaining firmly convinced that there must be a rational explanation, eventually discovers that explanation, and even reveals what Stapleton did to make the hound seem so other-worldly. Thus, the novel overall reveals how humans have a tendency towards supernatural explanations, but suggests that we can remain firmly embedded in the rational if we have the strength of will to do so.

  • 7

    How is criminality portrayed in this novel?

    In general, criminals are portrayed as inherently vicious in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is not much suggestion that they can be reformed, which might seem a strange attitude for the modern reader. For instance, Selden is presented as a uniformly bad person. When Watson sees him, he describes the convict's face as resembling an animal. Even Mrs. Barrymore believes her brother is beyond reform. Further, Stapleton's evil is considered "hereditary," passed down from Hugo Baskerville. Though Doyle does give small indications that perhaps there are other approaches to criminality, his general assumption seems to align with that of his day: criminals are simply bad.

  • 8

    What is the significance of Dr. Mortimer's walking stick?

    This object, the discussion of which comprises much of the first chapter, establishes many of the novel's themes. First, it allows Holmes to introduce the reader to his method of deduction, which is based on the assumption that humans leaves marks behind wherever they go. Secondly, it creates an important contrast between Watson and Holmes. Though Watson does well in examining the stick, Holmes easily outwits him with his own deduction. Though Watson has known Holmes for a long time, he remains unable to intuit like the detective can. Finally, it creates the novel's first suspenseful question: who is this Dr. Mortimer from the country, and what does he want from Holmes?

  • 9

    How does the law play into the story?

    Though the issue of criminality is central to the entire story, it is only at the end of the novel that Holmes relies on actual legal action. This reticence to involve the law indicates several things. First, law requires firm evidence, not simply Holmes's brilliant deductions. Thus, Holmes has to wait until he can find firm proof of theories he has already proven to himself. Secondly, the delay suggests a certain ineptness on the law's part. The law cannot really catch a criminal until he has already committed his crime. The law's seeming inability or unwillingness to use methods like Holmes's means that it is always behind the ball. In this case, Holmes has to put Sir Henry in danger in order to prove his theory, suggesting that the official law faces a stumbling block towards protecting citizens.

  • 10

    How does city life contrast with country life in this novel, especially in terms of solving crimes?

    Overall, the novel makes a clear distinction between city and country life: whereas the former allows for a rational mindset in the midst of a bustling populace, the latter evokes more supernatural beliefs because of the solitude. This distinction is also reflected in the way each locale affects crime-solving. The city's advantages involve the networks and directories which Holmes systematically uses to catch criminals. For example, he is easily able to track down the cab driver who was driving the bearded man, and can easily check the nearby hotels for evidence of Miss Stapleton's letter.

    However, Holmes moves the investigation to the moor precisely because there are fewer people, and less suspicions of wrongdoing. Because most people there accept the hound legend as somewhat true, he can more easily observe their behaviors and narrow down his suspects. However, country networks are informal, and hence more difficult to explore. For instance, Watson only finds Laura Lyons because Barrymore helps him.

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