Study Guide

The Hound of the Baskervilles Isolation

By Arthur Conan Doyle


"… I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognized that I am myself an unpractical man and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognizing, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—"

"Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?" asked Holmes with some asperity.

"To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly."

"Then had you not better consult him?"

"I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone. I trust, sir, that I have not inadvertently—" (1.62-6)

A hilarious clash between someone who's sensitive and a bit arrogant (Holmes) and someone who has the social-emotional skills of a brick (Mortimer). Dr. Mortimer tells Holmes to his face that Holmes is his second choice— he'd rather have consulted French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. Dr. Mortimer foreshadows the other eccentric characters we'll meet in Dartmoor. The isolated region where he lives is filled with people who are, honestly, a tad strange. The Dartmoor of The Hound of the Baskervilles seems to be full of awkward loners.

I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial. I therefore spent the day at my club and did not return to Baker Street until evening. It was nearly nine o'clock when I found myself in the sitting-room once more. (3.95)

Holmes lives in one of the largest cities of the world (London) and he shares a house with his best friend (Dr. Watson), but he is still definitely a loner. Holmes needs his space to think through his new cases, and in those moments, Watson has to leave him on his own. Holmes spends a lot of time inside his own head; it's his favorite place.

While this kind of isolation might help Holmes excel at problem-solving, it comes at the expense of his interpersonal and emotional skills.

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He turned into one of the district messenger offices, where he was warmly greeted by the manager.

"Ah, Wilson, I see you have not forgotten the little case in which I had the good fortune to help you?"

"No, sir, indeed I have not. You saved my good name, and perhaps my life." (4.110-12)

Part of Holmes' strength as an investigator is that he is never truly alone. He's surrounded by a network of people whom he has helped, which means that he has more backup than the criminals he hunts down. (The one exception is Professor Moriarty, the head of a criminal organization who faces Holmes in the short story "The Final Problem," in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.) Still, these are mostly professional, not personal, relationships. The warmth all seems to be on the part of Holmes' clients.

"I was a boy in my teens at the time of my father's death and had never seen the Hall, for he lived in a little cottage on the South Coast. Thence I went straight to a friend in America. I tell you it is all as new to me as it is to Dr. Watson, and I'm as keen as possible to see the moor." (6.23-4)

Sir Henry's closely connected to the family there as Sir Charles' heir. But he's also a complete stranger to the place, never having laid eyes on it. So he's in a peculiar isolation: his blood lines and fortune make him an important person in the neighborhood, but he isn't at all familiar with it. You can see why he wants to reach out to neighbors; this makes him more vulnerable to Stapleton, who's a longtime resident who knows his way around.

"But your family have been with us for several generations, have they not? I should be sorry to begin my life here by breaking an old family connection."

I seemed to discern some signs of emotion upon the butler's white face.

"I feel that also, sir, and so does my wife. But to tell the truth, sir, we were both very much attached to Sir Charles, and his death gave us a shock and made these surroundings very painful to us. I fear that we shall never again be easy in our minds at Baskerville Hall." (6.61-3)

Living in a huge, old house like Baskerville Hall requires a ton of servants: Sir Henry can't run the house by himself. And no sooner does he arrive in his new home than the staff up and quits. He probably thought he could rely on his uncle's butler, whose family has been working with his for generations. The possibility of losing them increases both his sense of isolation and his general anxiety about his safety at Baskerville Hall.

A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor... Stapleton looked at me with a curious expression in his face.

"Queer place, the moor!" said he.

"But what is it?"

"The peasants say it is the Hound of the Baskervilles calling for its prey. I've heard it once or twice before, but never quite so loud."

I looked round, with a chill of fear in my heart, at the huge swelling plain, mottled with the green patches of rushes. Nothing stirred over the vast expanse save a pair of ravens, which croaked loudly from a tor behind us. (7.69-73)

The moor is a dramatic background for this novel because it's filled with strange noises, prehistoric ruins, and dangerous mires. Part of what makes it so romantic and threatening is its isolation. Watson's description that, "Nothing stirred over the vast expanse save a pair of ravens" makes the unexplainable, echoing sound of the hound that much more frightening. You're alone in the dark.

"Halloa, Watson! Where have you dropped from?" said he. "You don't mean to say that you came after me in spite of all?"

I explained everything to him: how I had found it impossible to remain behind, how I had followed him, and how I had witnessed all that had occurred. For an instant his eyes blazed at me, but my frankness disarmed his anger, and he broke at last into a rather rueful laugh.

"You would have thought the middle of that prairie a fairly safe place for a man to be private," said he, "but, by thunder, the whole countryside seems to have been out to see me do my wooing—and a mighty poor wooing at that!" (9.24-6)

We just suggested that one of the things that makes the moors so threatening is their vast emptiness. In fact, the moors turn out to be full of people: Holmes has been concealing himself there, as has Selden the convict and Sir Henry and his secret love interest . But everyone seems to be there on his or her own private business. They're definitely not planning a block party.

A spectral hound which leaves material footmarks and fills the air with its howling is surely not to be thought of. Stapleton may fall in with such a superstition, and Mortimer also, but if I have one quality upon earth it is common sense, and nothing will persuade me to believe in such a thing. To do so would be to descend to the level of these poor peasants, who are not content with a mere fiend dog but must needs describe him with hell-fire shooting from his mouth and eyes. Holmes would not listen to such fancies, and I am his agent. But facts are facts, and I have twice heard this crying upon the moor. Suppose that there were really some huge hound loose upon it; that would go far to explain everything. But where could such a hound lie concealed, where did it get its food, where did it come from, how was it that no one saw it by day? (10.3)

We sometimes forget that Watson himself spends much of this novel isolated and out on his own. Without Holmes by his side to keep him grounded, Watson is obsessed with questions he can't answer. His reflections also guide our attention to what we should be thinking about as Watson's investigations continue. As Watson says here, clearly there is not going to be a ghost dog involved in this case. But if it's a real dog, where is it and how has it been hiding …?

It's easy to get obsessive when you're alone with a lot of time on your hands.

One of Sherlock Holmes's defects—if, indeed, one may call it a defect—was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfilment. Partly it came no doubt from his own masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him. Partly also from his professional caution, which urged him never to take any chances. The result, however, was very trying for those who were acting as his agents and assistants. I had often suffered under it, but never more so than during that long drive in the darkness. The great ordeal was in front of us; at last we were about to make our final effort, and yet Holmes had said nothing, and I could only surmise what his course of action would be. (14.1)

Holmes has people whom he trusts (Lestrade and the kid Cartwright) and people whom he cares about (Watson) in this novel, but he still tends to withdraw into himself at the most critical moments. Watson understands why, but it still drives him nuts.

It seems unfair to drag Watson along on this "great ordeal" and not tell him the plan. It could put Watson in greater danger. But do you think Holmes would keep the plan a secret if he thought it might harm his friend? Would this even occur to him?