Study Guide

The Hound of the Baskervilles Guilt and Blame

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Guilt and Blame

This, in truth, his neighbours might have pardoned, seeing that saints have never flourished in those parts, but there was in him a certain wanton and cruel humour which made his name a by-word through the West. It chanced that this Hugo came to love (if, indeed, so dark a passion may be known under so bright a name) the daughter of a yeoman who held lands near the Baskerville estate. But the young maiden, being discreet and of good repute, would ever avoid him, for she feared his evil name. (2.17)

In our analysis of the "Genre" of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we talk about the Hugo Baskerville episode as an example of Gothic fiction. Gothic fiction seldom features moral "gray area" or subtlety in its portrayal of evil. Bad guys in Gothic fiction may not always seem wicked at first glance, but they generally are evil through and through, without no redeeming quality. Hugo Baskerville is this kind of Gothic villain: his "evil name" in the area turns out to be absolutely justified. How about Stapleton—is he a Gothic villain like his ancestor, Hugo Baskerville? How do these two villains compare?

"On observing the cab I should have instantly turned and walked in the other direction. I should then at my leisure have hired a second cab and followed the first at a respectful distance, or, better still, have driven to the Northumberland Hotel and waited there. When our unknown had followed Baskerville home we should have had the opportunity of playing his own game upon himself and seeing where he made for. As it is, by an indiscreet eagerness, which was taken advantage of with extraordinary quickness and energy by our opponent, we have betrayed ourselves and lost our man." (4.105)

It is pretty unusual that Holmes makes mistakes. But here, early on in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he is filled with regret because, as he is trying to follow Sir Henry's pursuer, he allows himself to be seen. This mistake on Holmes' part not only convinces us he's imperfect like the rest of us, but it also ups the suspense early in the story. It hints that, even in these more familiar surroundings, there are still risks to his investigation—risks that will only get more dire in strange, gloomy Dartmoor.

This is another example of Holmes regretting a professional error. If only he'd feel some regret about treating Watson so abominably. Now that would be real guilt.

The only conceivable motive was that which had been suggested by Sir Henry, that if the family could be scared away a comfortable and permanent home would be secured for the Barrymores. But surely such an explanation as that would be quite inadequate to account for the deep and subtle scheming which seemed to be weaving an invisible net round the young baronet. Holmes himself had said that no more complex case had come to him in all the long series of his sensational investigations. (7.21)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first suspect in a detective story is never the actual murderer. It would be completely boring if Watson suspected Barrymore the butler from the start and he turned out to be right. No twists and turns, no dramatic reveals! So these early speculations from Watson lead us in the completely wrong direction. Still, the more questions Watson poses—and the more that he reassures us that "Holmes himself had said that no more complex case had come to him in all the long series of his sensational investigations"—the more curious and emotionally involved we get.

[Stapleton's] sister is everything in his life, he says. That is natural enough, and I am glad that he should understand her value. They have always been together, and according to his account he has been a very lonely man with only her as a companion, so that the thought of losing her was really terrible to him. He had not understood, he said, that I was becoming attached to her, but when he saw with his own eyes that it was really so, and that she might be taken away from him, it gave him such a shock that for a time he was not responsible for what he said or did. He was very sorry for all that had passed […] He would withdraw all opposition upon his part if I would promise for three months to let the matter rest and to be content with cultivating the lady's friendship during that time without claiming her love. This I promised, and so the matter rests. (9.40)

In a detective novel, we spend a lot of time as readers trying to figure out who's behaving suspiciously and why. Here, Stapleton is acting strangely: he blows up at Sir Henry for proposing to his sister, and then he apologizes for his behavior with the most involved explanation possible before doing a 180. Sir Henry and Watson both appear to accept his explanation. But as readers, this episode increases our suspicions about Stapleton. When Holmes tells Watson the truth about Stapleton's marriage to Beryl, that seals the deal for us. Guilty!

"No, no, sir; no, not against you!" It was a woman's voice, and Mrs. Barrymore, paler and more horror-struck than her husband, was standing at the door. Her bulky figure in a shawl and skirt might have been comic were it not for the intensity of feeling upon her face.

"We have to go, Eliza. This is the end of it. You can pack our things," said the butler.

"Oh, John, John, have I brought you to this? It is my doing, Sir Henry—all mine. He has done nothing except for my sake and because I asked him."

"Speak out, then! What does it mean?"

"My unhappy brother is starving on the moor. We cannot let him perish at our very gates. The light is a signal to him that food is ready for him, and his light out yonder is to show the spot to which to bring it."

"Then your brother is—"

"The escaped convict, sir—Selden, the criminal." (9.65-71)

So, the Barrymores are feeling guilty about something, but not about what Sir Henry and Watson expect. In fact, they've secretly been sheltering the escaped convict Selden, since he's Mrs. Barrymore's little brother. Up until now, all of the clues seem to indicate that the butler's the threat facing Sir Henry. But we're only in the ninth chapter of the novel out of fifteen. If Barrymore were really the killer, what would the remaining six chapters be about?

I saw Holmes put his hand to his forehead like a man distracted. He stamped his feet upon the ground.

"He has beaten us, Watson. We are too late."

"No, no, surely not!"

"Fool that I was to hold my hand. And you, Watson, see what comes of abandoning your charge! But, by Heaven, if the worst has happened we'll avenge him!" (12.71-4)

When Holmes initially believes that it is Sir Henry who has died from falling off a cliff rather than Selden, he feels he's failed his client. How guilty do you think he feels? In this passage, he seems more angry at himself than guilty. It's easier to imagine Watson feeling guilt based out of his respect and affection toward Sir Henry.

"The brute! The brute!" I cried with clenched hands. "Oh Holmes, I shall never forgive myself for having left him to his fate."

"I am more to blame than you, Watson. In order to have my case well rounded and complete, I have thrown away the life of my client. It is the greatest blow which has befallen me in my career. But how could I know—how could I know—that he would risk his life alone upon the moor in the face of all my warnings?"

"That we should have heard his screams—my God, those screams!—and yet have been unable to save him! Where is this brute of a hound which drove him to his death? It may be lurking among these rocks at this instant. And Stapleton, where is he? He shall answer for this deed." (12.81-3)

Point made. Check out the difference between Holmes' and Watson's reactions to Sir Henry's supposed death. Holmes worries about the blow to his career. Watson's undone by the sound of those horrible screams. Both men's reactions intensify the action—someone is gonna pay for this.

But no slightest sign of [footsteps] ever met our eyes. If the earth told a true story, then Stapleton never reached that island of refuge towards which he struggled through the fog upon that last night. Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried. (14.80)

Conan Doyle chooses to punish Stapleton by sinking him into the same bog where he has been hiding the Hound. This does seem like a fitting end: on the day that Watson and Stapleton first meet, they watch a pony sink into the Grimpen Mire. Watson is struck by the fact that the pony's struggles "turned [him] cold with horror, but [his] companion [Stapleton's] nerves seemed to be stronger" (7.59). Stapleton's lack of empathy for the pony foreshadows early on that there's something morally wrong with him. And what goes around, comes around.