Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Start Free Trial

What are some themes of the short story "How It Happened," by Arthur Conan Doyle?

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “How It Happened,” a wealthy Englishman who has died instantly in a car crash encounters his old friend, who has also died. The friend asks the man if he feels any pain. The man answers that he does not. When the dead man says that this is true for everyone who dies, his friend replies, “Yes; death is always painless when it comes in the natural course.” But when it comes swiftly and unexpectedly – as it had to the two friends – then “it comes as a blow from which one never recovers.”

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “How It Happened,” a spiritual medium, able to communicate with the dead, narrates a first-hand report from a wealthy dead man.  The man had owned a brand new luxury car, which was usually driven by his chauffeur. One night, however, the owner decided that he would like to drive the car home from the train station in the dark. Coming down a steep and dangerous hill, the car lost its breaks. Despite the best efforts of the owner and chauffeur to regain control of the vehicle, it crashed. The chauffeur was injured, but the owner was instantly killed, although he didn’t recognize immediately that he was dead. At the very end of the story, he remembers having been greeted by a good old friend of his, whom he knew to be long dead. The owner was shocked to discover that he, too, had died.

Doyle’s story can be interpreted as implying a number of themes, including the following:

  • how instantly and unexpectedly anyone – even a wealthy person – can make the transition from life to death.
  • how impossible it often is to reverse the consequences of our choices once those choices have been made.
  • the idea that wealth and status cannot prevent or assuage death.
  • the idea that wealthy and socially prominent people often take risks that negatively affect people poorer than themselves – risks that poorer people, who live harder lives, are often too sensible to take.
  • the idea that however horrible death may seem from the perspective of those still living, it may not be as bad as we imagine.  Thus, the dead man’s friend gently asked him, as he lay near the crashed vehicle, “No pain?”  To which the dead man replied,

“None,” I said.

“There never is,” said he.

  • the idea that English gentlemen remain English gentlemen even after they die.  :-)
  • the idea that our personalities do not change even after death.



Approved by eNotes Editorial Team