Study Guide

The Hound of the Baskervilles Justice and Judgment

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Justice and Judgment

The only other kinsman whom we have been able to trace was Rodger Baskerville, the youngest of three brothers of whom poor Sir Charles was the elder. The second brother, who died young, is the father of this lad Henry. The third, Rodger, was the black sheep of the family. He came of the old masterful Baskerville strain and was the very image, they tell me, of the family picture of old Hugo. He made England too hot to hold him, fled to Central America, and died there in 1876 of yellow fever. Henry is the last of the Baskervilles. (3.72)

In spite of all of these glamorous details about ghost dogs from hell and old family curses, The Hound of the Baskervilles is about boring old property law. There's a lot of money involved in this inheritance, and it's bringing out some bad characters from the family tree. The gloomy setting and Gothic details dress up what's, in fact, a pretty straightforward murder motive.

Our clients were punctual to their appointment, for the clock had just struck ten when Dr. Mortimer was shown up, followed by the young baronet. The latter was a small, alert, dark-eyed man about thirty years of age, very sturdily built, with thick black eyebrows and a strong, pugnacious face. He wore a ruddy-tinted tweed suit and had the weather-beaten appearance of one who has spent most of his time in the open air, and yet there was something in his steady eye and the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman. (4.1)

There are also lots of social class judgments in this book. There are almost no working- or middle-class characters in Sir Henry's social circle. Sir Henry himself, in spite of his "weather-beaten appearance" (don't get us started on those Canadian winters) still has "the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman." Being a "gentleman" is in his blood, the same way that Stapleton's bad character is a matter of inheritance from his wicked ancestor Hugo Baskerville.

Sherlock Holmes had, in a very remarkable degree, the power of detaching his mind at will. For two hours the strange business in which we had been involved appeared to be forgotten, and he was entirely absorbed in the pictures of the modern Belgian masters. He would talk of nothing but art, of which he had the crudest ideas, from our leaving the gallery until we found ourselves at the Northumberland Hotel. (5.1)

All of Holmes' judgment seems to be dedicated to solving crime. Watson claims that he has "the crudest ideas" about art, which implies that Holmes isn't all that great in more aesthetic, less scientific areas of study. Why do you think there's this long-standing assumption that being good at art and being good at science are mutually exclusive—the left brain/right brain thing? Do you know people who are equally talented in both areas? What different kinds of skills do these two areas demand?

"It was imprudent, all the same," said Holmes, shaking his head and looking very grave. "I beg, Sir Henry, that you will not go about alone. Some great misfortune will befall you if you do." (6.16)

Interesting that Holmes uses the verb "will" and not "may" here, as in, Sir Henry, you will get into trouble on your own vs. you might get into trouble on your own. Holmes' certainty that something bad is coming for Sir Henry makes us all the more eager to know what's going to happen next. Anything that makes Holmes look "very grave" must be very serious and dangerous indeed.

"Yes, sir, my name was Selden, and he is my younger brother. We humoured him too much when he was a lad and gave him his own way in everything until he came to think that the world was made for his pleasure, and that he could do what he liked in it. Then as he grew older he met wicked companions, and the devil entered into him until he broke my mother's heart and dragged our name in the dirt. From crime to crime he sank lower and lower until it is only the mercy of God which has snatched him from the scaffold; but to me, sir, he was always the little curly-headed boy that I had nursed and played with as an elder sister would." (9.74)

Mrs. Barrymore's story is heart-breaking. She can't help loving her brother, even when he has gone "from crime to crime." Still, she has the moral judgment to recognize his evil ways.

There's also the implication that a person's experiences can influence his moral character. Mrs. Barrymore attributes her brother's problems to his being spoiled as a child. She also believes they were the result of having the wrong kind of friends. So here's another view of the nature/nurture puzzle. You can be born good and become evil.

Mrs. Barrymore's plotline reminds us that we can have compassion for wrongdoers. Also that your mother was right not to buy you a new MacBook Air when you already had a perfectly good laptop that you hardly ever used anyway, young lady.

I shrugged my shoulders. "If [Selden] were safely out of the country it would relieve the tax-payer of a burden."

"But how about the chance of his holding someone up before he goes?"

"He would not do anything so mad, sir. We have provided him with all that he can want. To commit a crime would be to show where he was hiding."

"That is true," said Sir Henry. "Well, Barrymore—"

"God bless you, sir, and thank you from my heart! It would have killed my poor wife had he been taken again."

"I guess we are aiding and abetting a felony, Watson? But, after what we have heard I don't feel as if I could give the man up, so there is an end of it. All right, Barrymore, you can go." (10.15-20)

Sir Henry and Watson decide to leave Selden alone until the Barrymores can get him on a ship out of the country. Do you agree with the choice that they make to "relieve the tax-payer of a burden" by letting Selden escape Britain? Would you make the same choice, if you were in their place? Why doesn't Sir Henry feel that he "could give the man up," in any case? We shudder to think what Judge Judy would have to say about this.

"This paste in the tin is no doubt the luminous mixture with which the creature was daubed. It was suggested, of course, by the story of the family hell-hound, and by the desire to frighten old Sir Charles to death. […] It was a cunning device, for, apart from the chance of driving your victim to his death, what peasant would venture to inquire too closely into such a creature should he get sight of it, as many have done, upon the moor? I said it in London, Watson, and I say it again now, that never yet have we helped to hunt down a more dangerous man than he who is lying yonder"—he swept his long arm towards the huge mottled expanse of green-splotched bog…

Here is Holmes' final assessment of Stapleton, that, "never yet have we helped to hunt down a more dangerous man." What do you think makes Stapleton appear so particularly dangerous to Holmes? What do you think of Stapleton's methods—do they strike you as being more daring or dangerous than other criminals in detective stories you've read? Did you ever truly believe that Holmes might fail in his fight against Stapleton?

It was the end of November, and Holmes and I sat, upon a raw and foggy night, on either side of a blazing fire in our sitting-room in Baker Street. Since the tragic upshot of our visit to Devonshire he had been engaged in two affairs of the utmost importance, in the first of which he had exposed the atrocious conduct of Colonel Upwood in connection with the famous card scandal of the Nonpareil Club, while in the second he had defended the unfortunate Mme. Montpensier from the charge of murder which hung over her in connection with the death of her step-daughter, Mlle. Carere, the young lady who, as it will be remembered, was found six months later alive and married in New York. (15.1)

Of course, these cases of Colonel Upwood and Mme. Montpensier do not actually exist anywhere in the Holmes canon. Watson is just giving us the impression that Holmes is always off tirelessly working on the side of justice, even when Watson isn't recording his adventures. What's more, these references to other cases make us feel as though Holmes is everywhere, part of the fabric of life in Victorian London.

Here he kept his wife imprisoned in her room while he, disguised in a beard, followed Dr. Mortimer to Baker Street and afterwards to the station and to the Northumberland Hotel. His wife had some inkling of his plans; but she had such a fear of her husband—a fear founded upon brutal ill-treatment—that she dare not write to warn the man whom she knew to be in danger. If the letter should fall into Stapleton's hands her own life would not be safe. Eventually, as we know, she adopted the expedient of cutting out the words which would form the message, and addressing the letter in a disguised hand. It reached the baronet, and gave him the first warning of his danger. (15.13)

This passage shows why we might have more sympathy for Beryl than we do for Laura: she's physically abused. She actually fears for her life if her efforts to save Sir Henry reached her husband's ears. On the other hand, Laura's abandonment by her husband and father make her seem pretty desperate, too.

"From his knowledge of our rooms and of my appearance, as well as from his general conduct, I am inclined to think that Stapleton's career of crime has been by no means limited to this single Baskerville affair. It is suggestive that during the last three years there have been four considerable burglaries in the west country, for none of which was any criminal ever arrested. The last of these, at Folkestone Court, in May, was remarkable for the cold-blooded pistolling of the page, who surprised the masked and solitary burglar. I cannot doubt that Stapleton recruited his waning resources in this fashion, and that for years he has been a desperate and dangerous man." (15.15)

In retrospect, we find out that Stapleton was an even bigger deal in the criminal world than we realized. Once again, Conan Doyle adds to Stapleton's criminal history to make Holmes and Watson look even more daring and impressive in bringing him down.