Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232
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,...
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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 suggest that both nature and the human mind are stranger and darker than science and our common sense can fathom. Such a comment is common in tales of horror and the supernatural. It reasons us out of our reason and encourages us to suspend our disbelief. As such, it may be no more than a narrative convention, but it is also true that in Doyle's time investigations of the mind, and of natural and cultural history, discovered irrationality and monstrous anomalies; in short, realities which the science of the day could not explain. And while Oxford may be a place where the scientific and the rational dominate, there is a strong suggestion in the description of Old College that a dark history is there too: "Yet here were the silent stair and the old grey wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from days that had passed." Could these strange, ancient powers still influence both Egypt and Oxford? Modern science erected a barrier against supernatural explanations which, if crossed, allowed for a belief in deities and demons in the universe and the human mind.
We know that Doyle, who trained as a doctor (and created the master detective Sherlock Holmes), deeply respected the methods and findings of science. We also know that he was a proponent of spiritualism, believing in the possibilities of communicating with the spirits of the dead. It is clear from many of his writing that he both desired and feared the possibility of a reality beyond the reach of science.
So we might say that "Lot No. 249" has two intertwined, perhaps contradictory themes. The first accepts Smith's narrative at face value. It is a melodrama, a conflict between a good English gentleman, Abercrombie Smith, and the wicked Edward Bellingham who, having been corrupted by his experiences in, and magical knowledge of, the cultures of the East, returns to England to use his power to threaten and attempt to kill innocent English folk. Smith takes the law into his own hands, destroys the mummy and ancient manuscripts and, by threatening Bellingham with a pistol, drives this foreign evil from the community.
However Doyle's second theme—that Smith's story itself maybe the result of a mind warped by fear and irrational impulses— turns the melodrama into a rather more complicated story. If we suppose that Smith only imagined that the mummy, at Bellingham's command, attempted violent acts and tried to hunt down Smith, then Smith has committed the evil deeds he attributed to Bellingham. In that case the story, like Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" and many others, is about the deep but denied bond between the two men and what they symbolize. Perhaps deliberately, Doyle leaves both possibilities open. In the first sentence the narrator tells us, "Of the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee, and of the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith, it may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered."
Is the alien the source of all evil present in this idyllic community? Or are even the "outwardly sane" and most honorable of Englishmen shaped by a dark past and capable of the very acts they consciously despise in other?