Lot No. 249 Themes
Most of Doyle's stories, including "Lot No. 249," are intended for sheer entertainment, much like the mysteries and stories of adventure which we see on television and in the movies today. Doyle's goal was an exciting plot that confirms the values of his readers: patriotism and a belief in hard work, fair play, bravery, and physical prowess. That is to say the story is about the character of a Victorian "public school ideal" of a gentleman. As such it also affirms the chivalric code which was supposed to guide a man's relation to women. In the novel, William Monkhouse Lee's sister Eveline is engaged to Edward Bellingham, and Lee's actions—his early commitment to secrecy and his later turn against Bellingham—are shaped by his desire to protect his sister and his family's honor and good name.
But certainly the focus of the story is on Abercrombie Smith and his fellow students, as well as on Doctor Plumptree Peterson, a professor, and the servant Thomas Styles. It is the character of these men, the quality of their minds and hearts as well as their honesty and integrity, that Doyle affirms in this story.
Bellingham's character is a study in contrast. His thematic significance is as a representation of the knowledge and values of the alien "East." He lives in dark rooms filled with relics from the Semitic cultures he is studying and, we are quickly told, he is not only a master of Eastern languages, he actually talks and interacts with these people "as if he had been born and nursed and weaned among them."
While modern readers might think such learning to be admirable in a student of another culture, for an Englishman of that time it was considered a huge mistake to "go native," as they called it. Bellingham crossed the barrier between the cultures and, at some level, had broken ranks and become untrustworthy. This generally resulted in ostracism from the English community and, in this case, that is exactly what happens to him. Jephro Hastie, Smith's good friend, describes Bellingham as almost subhuman: "There is something damnable about him—something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him."
Notice that Hastie's judgment is almost purely intuitive. All he knows for sure is that Bellingham has been immerse in the languages and cultures of the East and that he is different in his way of life. This gives Smith a chance to demonstrate his fairmindedness and to reintroduce the importance of evidence to the process of fair judgment. As we shall see, judgment, even legal judgment, will play an important part in this story. Smith sees Hastie's judgment as, well, hasty because it is not based on evidence and in fact may be distorted because Hastie is interested in Eveline Lee himself. "What a prejudiced, green-eyed, evil-thinking old man it is," Smith says to his friend. "You have really nothing against the fellow except that."
The importance of evidence, of proof, is introduced by the nameless narrator at the story's beginning. The truth of the strange story of Edward Bellingham's experiments in the black arts, which brings a mummy back to life, rests on our belief in Smith's "full and clear narrative." And since Smith's narrative involves the return to life of a mummy "most will think that it is more likely that one brain, however outwardly sane, has some subtle warp in its texture, some strange flaw in its workings, than that the path of nature has been overstepped." That is, a reasonable person would probably conclude that it is more likely that Smith was disturbed or was seeing things, than that the mummy actually chased him. "Yet," the narrator concludes:
when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.
In short, the narrator's remarks...
(The entire section is 1,232 words.)