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In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOB), Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are immersed in a setting that appears to transcend the known limits of the physical world. A demoniacal hound roaming the moors of Devonshire is rumored to have been responsible for the death of the affluent Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. Mortimer, a family friend, is left no choice but to recruit the renowned detective and his partner to investigate the case. The narrative, recounted through Dr. Watson’s perspective, soon abandons the familiarity of Baker Street in exchange for the ghastliness of Baskerville Hall and its vicinity. Upon Watson’s arrival, Dartmoor proves to be every bit as ominous as it was hyped up to be. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses the valuable tool of location throughout to leave open the possibility that there are crimes beyond the scope of rational analysis.
The setting first asserts itself when, in the midst of presenting the details of the case to Holmes, Dr. Mortimer reads aloud the myth of the Baskerville curse. One could have easily mistaken the piece for an excerpt from a Gothic novel, for it is ridden with the genre’s elements. The reader learns Hugo Baskerville of Baskerville Manor ruthlessly abducted the daughter of a yeoman. After she attempted to escape from the chamber upstairs one night, Baskerville and others chased her onto the moor. Eventually, she and Hugo were both found dead. Beside the body of the latter was, to the astonishment of the other men, “a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon” (Doyle 9). The linkage between the plot and setting of the myth is important. As mentioned, they are both rooted in Gothic tradition and thus play off each other. The somber estate and the damsel in distress are both common elements of Gothic fiction. The degree to which Baskerville is alleged to have been infatuated with her is also indicative of the genre. Furthermore, the hound that lurks at night and the dark moor it inhabits are intentionally portrayed as demonic and supernatural, inviting the possibility that the “Father of Evil” may very well be Sir Charles’ assailant. Holmes—the embodiment of the Enlightenment—is, notably, more skeptical than the others, but even he does not completely rule out the chance that “forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature” may be at work (19). Additionally, the gloomy, Gothic setting established in the exposition matches the description Watson later gives of Dartmoor when he and Sir Charles actually arrive there. Suddenly, it seems less likely that the mystery is capable of being solved in the physical world through deductive reasoning.
The great Grimpen Mire, capable of sinking one in its depths, evolves into a grisly metaphor for the mystery itself. Not coincidentally, it is navigable only by the naturalist Mr. Stapleton—the perpetrator of the crime—and eventually found to be the location of the hound’s fortress. Watson, after observing the mire’s capabilities, says, “Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track” (54). This comparison expresses the imminent danger and apparent hopelessness of their predicament, which contributes to the suspense of the Gothic atmosphere. It also portrays Watson as an ill-equipped assistant in the absence of Holmes’ analytical mind. One could imagine that Doyle added in this additional component specifically to evoke despair. How will Watson alone—a mere mortal—be able to solve a murder as complex as this one?
The presumption that the case is ultimately out of Holmes’ and Watson’s control again seems feasible toward the end of the story, when a blinding fog threatens the plan the former had concocted to lure the hound out onto the moor. Using Sir Henry—the heir to Baskerville Hall—as bait, Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade wait anxiously behind a series of rocks for the hound to appear. When the fog begins to engulf the moor, Holmes observes, “If he isn’t out in a quarter of an hour the path will be covered. In half an hour we won’t be able to see our hands in front of us” (111). Fog has traditionally been interpreted as a metaphor for confusion. If it had prevented the hound from being caught, the beast’s nature and other pertinent information would also remain clouded. But perhaps just as importantly, Sir Henry would almost certainly meet his doom if no one could get a clear shot on the hound. This adds yet another Gothic twist to the climax, and the case—for one last time—seems as if it may be out of Holmes’ grasp.
HOB deviates from the typical Sherlock Holmes mystery. Setting is imperative in creating the illusion of a world that would render even the elite detective powerless. As later affirmed, however, a supernatural world is merely a world not yet understood. Though complex, the physical world—at its core—is an orderly, comprehensible place if analyzed rationally. The eventual unmasking of Stapleton and demystification of the hound are testaments to this. But before that happens, the reader is, albeit temporarily, fooled into thinking HOB is a full-fledged Gothic novel. For the sake of creating a believable work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle abandons this, just as Holmes and Watson return to a natural explanation for phenomena after shortly contemplating a supernatural one.
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