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The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Is The Hound of the Baskervilles the best mystery novel ever written? A group interested in the mystery genre in particular could debate that question long into the night, with each member advancing reasons why his or her favorite novel deserves the honor. But the question is not a shallow one. For nearly one hundred years readers young and old have been held in the powerfully suspenseful grip of the tale of a demonic hound and the efforts of mortal human beings to uncover its murderous secret. The novel is one of Conan Doyle's most inspired works, balancing traditional romance against harsh reality. Part of the novel's greatness lies in its testing of the human spirit; its characters are put under terrible stress, with some of them snapping under the strain, and others such as Holmes feeling the blows of an evil that almost defies rationality. That Holmes ultimately makes the evil yield to his scientific analysis is a triumph for him.

Even so, note how balanced the novel is. Holmes is not perfectly successful. His client lives through the experience, but at the cost of nearly losing his mind. Indeed, even though he is the center of his community's hopes for prosperity and peace, Sir Henry must travel away in an effort to regain his wits. The single-minded malevolence of Stapleton is particularly potent in a world in which images are uncertain, mysteries have multiple solutions, and mere human beings are uncertain of the truth and themselves. AH this make The Hound of the Baskervilles an exciting read and an excellent subject for discussion.

1. One of the most interesting aspects of The Hound of the Baskervilles is the absence of Sherlock Holmes for much of the narrative. Is he really the main character? Could one make a case for Watson actually being the main character? Does he not have more to do with the action than Holmes?

2. A common reaction of readers to The Hound of the Baskervilles is amazement at its tension and its ability to hold a reader in taut suspense. What about this novel leaves many readers breathless at the end, as if they had themselves been running from the dreaded hound? What makes this short novel so gripping? Is it Watson's unadorned writing style? Is it a well-balanced mixture of supernatural and man-made danger? Is it the choice of setting, dark and mysterious, threatening death to unwary walkers?

3. Note how Conan Doyle builds his images in the novel. Each image adds to a frightful atmosphere in which horrors may lurk anywhere. In the city a mysterious cane leads to a doctor with a disturbing tale to tell to a threatening letter. In the country of the mire, a pony dies an anguished death, and at that point any kind of evil seems possible. What other images does Conan Doyle use to pull his audience into his world of romance and mystery? How does Holmes himself deal with these images?

4. It can be fun to compare the novel to its motion picture versions. Someone who is a devoted fan of Holmes has probably seen most of them and would be happy to see them again. Most are available on videotape. How have the filmmakers tried to incorporate the novel's themes into their dramatizations? Note especially what they have chosen to emphasize; this indicates what they think is the primary appeal of the novel to audiences. Are their choices correct? What have they missed? Which translations of the novel to film succeed? Which fail? What does this suggest about the strengths and weaknesses of the novel itself? What does this suggest about the variety of ways audiences interpret the events of the novel?

5. Note how the butterfly is used symbolically in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is more than an object for a collection. It shows us that the chief villain has a scientific mind, just as Holmes has, making him a worthy opponent. It is also the key to Holmes's unlocking the mystery; through it, he unlocks Stapleton's secrets. Does Conan Doyle use other images this way? What about the novel's central image, that of the huge, ravening hound? What do you make of its supernatural reputation, its frightening looks, and its mundane reality?

6. Imagine the situation Conan Doyle was in when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. He had tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes once and for all. He was making a reputation for himself as an author of historical novels, and he was involved in important public affairs, such as the war in South Africa. An American publisher finally offers him more money than he in good conscience — as a provider for his family — can refuse. What choices does he face in providing a tale that will satisfy his expectations, those of his publisher, and those of his audience? Notice how he satisfies one of his own desires by setting the novel in a period before Holmes's supposed death, thus technically maintaining the idea that Holmes is dead and will adventure no more. What would his publisher and audience want? How does Conan Doyle try to satisfy them?

7. In the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories, good and evil have many forms and are often ambiguous. Holmes's task is often one of sorting not only good from evil but of sorting various degrees of evil from one another. What are the various forms of evil in The Hound of the Baskervilles? Can you give them identifying labels? Why would Conan Doyle incorporate several kinds and degrees of evil into the novel?

8. Holmes has his weaknesses, and some are put on display in the novel. He even makes an outrageous error that allows Watson to track him down. What do these weaknesses tell about his character? Is he ever a happy man?

9. Watson is a frequently misunderstood character. What do we learn about him in The Hound of the Baskervilles? Is he stupid?

10. Is The Hound of the Baskervilles a moralistic story? What social or ethical values does it represent?

Kirk H. Beetz

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