After reading the first eight chapters of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I argue that – with his famous character Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle contrasted his own beliefs and convictions about the supernatural. While he was a spiritualist and believer in the supernatural himself, Sherlock Holmes is a strictly logical and scientific person who usually dismisses supernatural explanations for problems.
In Conan Doyle’s novel, the protagonist and detective Sherlock Holmes is represented as a highly rational and logical individual who “balance[s] probabilities and choose[s] the most likely” (Conan Doyle 48). His usual method of investigation includes the close examination of objects or circumstances which then allows him to “reconstruct” (Conan Doyle 8) a person or their behavior.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles specifically, Holmes and his companion Watson are introduced to a case that challenges this mindset of Holmes. As Dr. Mortimer pays a visit to Baker Street and recounts the legend of the ‘Curse of the Baskervilles’ that has allegedly only recently killed Sir Charles Baskerville, Holmes’ first reaction to this story of a murderous “hell-hound” (Conan Doyle 34) is to consider it a “fairy tale[…]” (Conan Doyle 23). Holmes does, however, take on the case and is continuously confronted with ideas about ‘the otherworldly’. Dr. Mortimer, for instance, strongly believes in the myth of the “dreadful apparition” (Conan Doyle 34) that killed Sir Charles Baskerville. To him, the incidents surrounding his friend’s death “are hard to reconcile with the settled order of Nature” (Conan Doyle 34).
This represented binary between the natural and the supernatural seems to be highly relevant when considered in the biographical context that is known about the novel’s author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle himself was known to have been rather interested in spiritualism during his lifetime. Accordingly, Conan Doyle is said to have been a strong believer in supernatural beings such as fairies and practices such as séances (cf. Davies 20), which led to many critics considering him to have been “gullible” (Davies 20). These beliefs and convictions of Conan Doyle allegedly even resulted in his own “feelings towards the character he had created in Sherlock Holmes [being] famously mixed” (Davies 12).
Knowing this makes it even more interesting to consider why Conan Doyle chose to create a character such as Sherlock Holmes who “confine[s] [his] investigations to this world” (Conan Doyle 34) and who wishes to “exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon” (Conan Doyle 40) the supernatural explanations of Dr. Mortimer.
Finally, what seems most revealing about this observation is that a number of characters that the reader is introduced to in the first eight chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles is represented as being scientific, educated characters of high intellect: Sherlock Holmes, of course, being the legendary detective; Dr. Watson and Dr. Mortimer, two medical doctors; and Stapleton, a naturalist and former schoolmaster. Still, the novel suggests that at least one of them – Dr. Mortimer – believes in supernatural causes for Sir Charles’ death. Holmes himself challenges this contradiction by asking him how “[Mortimer], a trained man of science, [can] believe it to be supernatural?” (Conan Doyle 34). In the character of Mortimer – a believer in the supernatural – Conan Doyle therefore successfully creates a foil to his famous detective – the man of science. A final question that arises from this observation is why Conan Doyle chose to contrast his own beliefs and convictions about the supernatural and to thereby highlight the tension between myth and reality.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2013. Print.
Davies, Stuart David, et al. « Introduction ». The Sherlock Holmes Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2015. 10-31. Print.