Superstition versus rationalism depicted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

Essay, 2018

12 Pages


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary works have been studied extensively for centuries. Among the many literary works he wrote,The Hound of the Baskervillesstands out from nearly all the others. At the time of its publication, the Industrial Revolution was at its peak and also England was retaining many colonies. These were very turbulent times for the English people. Sherlock Holmes, the genius detective, was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and has become world famous.

This essay will be observing how rationalism, logic, and scientific fact prevail against old-fashioned superstitions. Also, it will discuss how the background of the author himself helped shape the character of Sherlock Holmes, and how the political situation in England was reflecting in the creation of such mastermind. Holmes is someone who does not believe in old fairy tales such as the existence of a hellish dog and a curse over the Baskervilles family. When Holmes is on the scene, logic is always present. Additionally, the birth of the Gothic literature will be examined, including its elements used by the author in this novel. The impact that Conan Doyle had on society by creating the genius mind, the logic-based thinker, Sherlock Holmes, was to create the foundation not only for the modern crime scene investigations, but also a model for the modern detective novel. Influential facts such as educational background of the author, influential figures in his life, the publishing of the Darwinian theory,The Origins of Species, and phrenology studies done by the author strongly influenced the creation of Sherlock Holmes and his scientifically based genius mind, fighting against old- fashioned superstitious beliefs.

While examining the works of Conan Doyle, it is very important to note the sociopolitical situation in 19th century England. According to Kestner and Trudeau,The Hound of the Baskervillescan be viewed as a depiction of very turbulent and confusing times for the English people. England, with its many colonies at this time, had a flood of different people who kept arriving from these colonies. They came to be known as “other” people to many English authors at this time. It is very important to note that the perfect example would be the presence of moors, fog, and ghostly environments as a backdrop on many occasions throughout the book. “Strange roaring sounds are coming from the moor, which were witnessed by more than one person, and strange shades appear”(Doyle 146). The authors also exposed that the use of the moor, a frequent element of gothic literature, identifies with scary, dingy, smelly places, and with ancient, possibly haunted castles and halls, such as Baskerville hall. They served as a great choice for setting the scene to support the plot. These elements are typically used Gothic literature, which was emerging at this time. The moor and the presence of the fog is an allegory used by Conan Doyle to depict the anxiety sensed throughout the novel. It represents the fear and worries people have about the near future of England. What will happen and how is everything going to be with a new ruler, and the new formation of class divergence among people? In these very uncertain times in Victorian England, Doyle creates Sherlock Holmes, the world famous detective, who does not accept ghosts or old fairy tales as explanations for the murder of old, Sir Charles Baskerville.

When Holmes is present on the crime scene there is only logic presented; superstition is in face-up open battle with realism and science. When Holmes is not around, everyone, including educated man such as Dr. Mortimer, is ready to accept the idea that a ghost of the hellish hound was the cause of the death of old Sir Charles.

What also contributed to the birth of scientific Holmes was the actual background of the author himself. In her bookThe Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic,Catherine Wynne investigates the family background and heritage of Conan Doyle, which she believes reflects greatly on his writings. Wynne observes that Conan Doyle actually comes from a colony, Ireland. He was an Irishman. His mother and father met in Edinburgh. It is also important to note that Conan Doyle became more English than the native English people, and he concentrated his writings on England. His backgrounds were an allegorical depiction of the sociopolitical situation in England at the time. But Wynne makes an important observation: “...colonial identity intrudes on the creation of an imperial selfhood” (Wynne). In other words she sensed presents of dualism in Conan Doyle’s writings.

The curse hanging over the Baskerville’s family is at the head of the conversation occurring between Holmes and Dr. Mortimer, old friend of the deceased sir Charles.

The legend of Baskerville is about a hound that hunts the family, because old Hugo Baskerville abducted a woman and kept her captive, but she escaped. Hugo was cursed while running like crazy through the moor chasing her, and he made a pact with the devil in the process just to get her. Eyewitnesses claimed to see how giant hound came from the moorland and killed Hugo, in a gruesome and hellish manner. Holmes reaction to this legend was to not really take it very seriously. He wanted to hear the scientific facts surrounding the case of the death of Sir. Charles. These facts reveal that in England, new and progressive analytical thinking and judgment of facts and events is taking place. The old fashioned beliefs in legends and beasts are no longer a sufficient explanation. “My motive for withholding it from the coroner’s inquiry is that a man of science shrinks from placing himself in public position of seeming to endorse a popular superstition” (Doyle 22). Dr. Mortimer actually does not tell all he knows about the mysterious death of Sir Charles. He is also a scientist, and a doctor that who is part of the new progressive thinking. He confides to Holmes that, in fact, his friend had been very anxious lately, and that his heart was failing because of constant state of fear that he lived in. This led to his sudden belief in the old curse. But Holmes thought, “If I had only been there!” (Doyle 29). This is important to note, because Holmes was not present at the crime scene. He is listening to second hand reports about investigations and observations made by others. What is more important to note is, the new and progressive investigative techniques present inThe Hound of the Baskervilles.Holmes is performing real forensic investigation, including fingerprint analysis that even Scotland Yard at this time did not conduct. Conan Doyle creates the scientific thinker Holmes, and in the process, he becomes the father of forensic science for the future and scientific analysis of a crime scene. In his text,The Scientific Sherlock Holmes,James O’Brien observes that the birth of Sherlock Holmes actually started when Conan Doyle went to medical school. Conan Doyle had the chance to study medicine and become a doctor. He studied a variety of subjects including psychiatry, chemistry, and astrology among others. The world famous literary character that he created, Sherlock Holmes, could not accept possibility that strange and unexplained phenomenon could be the explanation for a murder. This was right in line with the views of the author himself. In his book, Michael Sims follows medical student Conan Doyle through some difficult times in his student life until he was finished with University studies. While studying in the university, Conan Doyle had a favorite professor named Joe Bell who had a great influence on him. “Arthur had admired Bell’s theatrical diagnostic routine since before beginning work in the outpatient ward” (Sims). Professor Bell also focused only on scientific facts while performing his diagnoses, and so does Conan Doyle when creating the character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was also familiar with theories such as phrenology, developed by Dr. Lambroso, which focused on studies stating that cranial size, heredity, and pathological differences can be observed between the brains of “normal” people and criminals” (Ferguson 75). In the novel the character of Seldon is such a person. He escaped from prison and hid on the moorland. “In the late nineteenth century, however, the belief that heredity was a major cause of criminality was dominant” (Wagner 198). The theory also holds that criminals are some type of throwbacks in human development. It is also important to note that Conan Doyle was familiar with Darwin’s publication,TheOrigin of Species,which was published at this time. This, of course, turned many old- fashioned beliefs upside down in England and throughout the world. Again, science came head-to-head with old-fashioned fairy tales and ghosts stories. (Oak Taylor - Ide 4/10).


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Superstition versus rationalism depicted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles"
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arthur, baskervilles, conan, doyle’s, hound, superstition
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Marina Riggins (Author), 2018, Superstition versus rationalism depicted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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