Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Was it worth the tea?

“’It is a swamp adder!’ cried Holmes; ‘the deadliest snake in India.’” (Doyle 57)

In this moment Holmes has just opened the door of Dr. Roylott’s bedroom to find him killed by the same snake he used to murder Julia Stoner. While Dr. Roylott is undoubtedly cruel and cunning, a great deal of terror for the Victorian reader would have come from the image of a snake in the bedroom, crawling about the body of a sleeping girl every night until it eventually bit her, ending her life.

The use of an Indian snake as the vehicle of such frightening imagery betrays the fear that Victorians felt for the lands they colonized: India was an English colony for nearly 300 years, but most of the population in England would never have physically gone there. This gives it a tangible connection to England while leaving it foreign enough to be a stage for English fears (particularly scientifically-minded Victorians’ fears of the unknown and the untamable in nature) to play out on. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has the snake wrapped around the head of the villain of the story—completely unnecessary positioning for the bite that killed him– noticeably playing off the image of the pagri (turban) which many Indian men wear. In this way the English doctor is, in the moment when his greatest crime is revealed, depicted as an Indian man. It is also worth noting that, supposedly, Roylott was an upstanding gentleman bent on improving his familial situation through “professional skill and his force of character” (Conan Doyle 41) until he went to India and became violent and angry. The demonization of India through Roylott is ironic; nobody and nothing from India would have harmed anyone were it not through the actions of a white man. Much like many politicians do today, Conan Doyle plays off the racism and xenophobic fears of his intended audience to sell his work.

 

Swamp Adder:

snake wrapped around a tree

4 Comments

  1. This idea of racism in Victorian literature is definitely something we should look for in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Most of the mysterious, frightening things happen when it is dark outside and many of the creatures are depicted using this dark imagery, such as the black shadow of a man on the tor and even the picture of the hound on the front cover of the story. These descriptions could simply be because it is dark and naturally there is a shadow on things, but it could also be revealing the racism of the author, and Victorians too.

  2. This blog post points out the true feelings of the Victorians during this time period towards other races and other cultures outside of England. In this short story, India is portrayed as being dangerous and uncivilized compared to England, and so the animals and people within the story are used to strike fear into the hearts of the readers, as many citizens within England during this time of imperialization feared the unknown. In the other Sherlock Holmes story that we read for this class, Hound of the Baskervilles, other locations, cultures, and ethnicities are thought to be dangerous or uncivilized. For example, the reader is meant to draw a connection between the supernatural and racist imagery, as the figure seen by Watson at the end of the ninth chapter. As well, during this time period, many believed that they could understand a person based on their appearance or the shape of their skulls, which is seen in the chapter introducing Mortimer. Instances such as these throughout both stories use racial and cultural imagery to portray other cultures as negative to the Victorians and are commonly used to create a sense of danger.

  3. Within the novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, the idea that the most terrifying things could happen within the home is changed, as in the end of chapter nine, Dr. Watson encounters what he believes to be the supernatural outside of the home. This contrasts with most of the stories that we have read, as in the other stories, such as “A Terribly Strange Bed” and “Lady Audley’s Secret” which you’ve mentioned, as well as in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” in which the murder weapon was kept inside of the home and meant to be used on an unsuspecting victim as they slept for the night. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, much of the plot takes place outside, such as the striking scene where Dr. Watson believes that he has encountered a strange figure perceived as being associated with the supernatural. This scene is unlike the others, and has the effect of a loss of control and provokes a sense of awe in the readers as the event does not take place within the home, but rather in nature which contains an element of the sublime, as the imagery describing nature also has an eerie tone associated with it.

  4. Please ignore second comment

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