Study Guide

The Hound of the Baskervilles Themes

  • Cunning and Cleverness

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    Obviously, Holmes is clever. Who wants read about a detective who isn't good at figuring stuff out? (Well, unless it's some kind of joke detective like the bumbling Thomson and Thompson in Tintin...)

    The terrific thing about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that Holmes is not allowed to be brilliant from start to finish. He makes mistakes, and he worries about his failures. We get to see a more vulnerable side of the Great Detective in this novel. But there are still plenty of dramatic deductions and surprising reveals to prove to us that Holmes hasn't lost his flair out in the remote wilds of Dartmoor. If you were an avid reader of the Holmes stories in Conan Doyle's day, Holmes' cleverness was what you came for.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. How do the characters around Holmes respond to his deductions? Do they all admire Holmes' smarts the way Watson does?
    2. What terms does Holmes use to describe his own process of reasoning? Does he seem to think of his intellectual process in the same way that the characters around him do? 
    3. What are the limits of Holmes' intelligence? What can't he predict?

    Chew on This

    Holmes emphasizes that his detective work is based on science. However, the fact that Watson always presents Holmes's surprising conclusions first, before explaining his practical reasoning processes, makes Holmes's cleverness seem dramatic rather than scientific.

    In The Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes seems like a more approachable, human character despite his superhuman gifts. He gets irritated with Dr. Mortimer. He's uncertain about the identity of the corpse at the bottom of the cliff. He worries about Sir Henry's safety on that foggy night and torments himself for failing Sir Henry when it appears he's been killed.

  • Justice and Judgment

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    Did you notice that, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, neither Holmes nor Watson is a member of any official police force? Obviously, they're committed to solving crimes and making Dartmoor a safer place for future Baskervilles. But they don't actually have a legal obligation to deal with every crime that they see.

    So when the Barrymores finally confess that they have been sheltering an escaped convict out on the moors, Watson doesn't have to arrest them. Holmes and Watson are free to use their own judgment about the right thing to do on a case-by-case basis—whether Scotland Yard agrees with them or not.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What's the difference between justice and law in the The Hound of the Baskervilles? Which characters seem most closely associated with which concept? 
    2. Are there any characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles who escape justice, in your view? How or why? 
    3. When does Watson criticize Holmes' judgment? What flaws does the book show us in Holmes' decision-making?

    Chew on This

    Mr. Frankland's nuisance lawsuits and the relative unimportance of policeman Lestrade as a character all indicate that The Hound of the Baskervilles values individual moral judgment over the authority of official institutions of the law.

    Holmes might be less motivated by a wish for justice than by the challenge of problem-solving.

  • Friendship

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    Holmes and Watson's friendship is the stuff of legends: it's been at the center of about a thousand spin-offs and TV shows, including the BBC's contemporary version Sherlock, CBS's gender-switched version (with Lucy Liu as Watson), and tons more. Everyone knows that there would be no Holmes stories without his faithful biographer and comrade.

    Still, we particularly like Conan Doyle's representation of their friendship in The Hound of the Baskervilles. At this point, Conan Doyle had already published two other Holmes novels and two short story collections about the famous duo. So Watson doesn't have to spend much time introducing Holmes to his audience.

    Instead, Holmes and Watson tease each other like any pair of comfortable old friends do. Holmes relies on Watson to do some investigating for him on his own, and Watson refers to his long history with Holmes to illustrate that they've been fighting crime side-by-side for ages now. There's a cozy familiarity to their friendship in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Are there any other friendships in the lives of Holmes or Watson? How does Conan Doyle present the relationship of his two main characters to the other characters in the novel? 
    2. Which other characters in the novel are friends with each other? How do these other friendships in The Hound of the Baskervilles advance the plot? 
    3. When Holmes and Watson are separated in the novel, how does Conan Doyle sustain their connection? Why do you think that Conan Doyle decides to split up the dynamic duo for part of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

    Chew on This

    While Holmes interacts with other characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles, including his assistant Cartwright and his employer Sir Henry, all his relationships with characters other than Watson exist primarily to support his murder investigations.

    Conan Doyle uses Watson's letters to illustrate the friendship between Holmes and Watson even when the two characters are separated. Given his close relationship with Watson, Holmes would definitely need an unlimited texting plan.

  • Contrasting Regions: The Moors and London

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    In The Hound of the Baskervilles, London is a glittering place of art galleries, opera performances, swanky hotels, taxis, and lots of people who enjoy them. (It had its dodgy areas, like all big cities, but that wasn't where Holmes and Watson hung out.) Dartmoor, on the other hand, is a place of gloomy estates, dangerous bogs, ancient ruins, and fire-breathing ghost dogs—the Dark Side.

    It's almost like there are two separate worlds in this novel, one modern and understandable; the other primitive, unpredictable, and filled with superstition. Leave it to Holmes to be at home in either space. The master detective isn't going to let little things like the Grimpen Mire or a monster pup keep him from applying his impressive intellect to the job at hand.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: The Moors and London

    1. What terms does Watson use to describe Baskerville Hall and its larger environment? What tone do you identify in Watson's descriptions of these places? How do his portrayals of Dartmoor influence the overall tone of the novel? 
    2. What are some of the things you notice about Victorian London from Conan Doyle's portrayal? What impressions do you get of the city? How does Holmes relate to the city landscape?  
    3. What differences are there between Watson's portrayal of Dartmoor before and after Holmes' arrival? How does Holmes change the atmosphere?

    Chew on This

    While Holmes makes himself comfortable camping deep in the moors, his character remains essentially associated with urban environments.

    In this novel, London represents progress, technology, and modernity (good) and the moors represent the past, superstition, and danger (bad). But in a lot of recent literature and film, the tech future ain't looking all that fun (Gattaca, Minority Report, Blade Runner, Wall-E, to name just a few). At the time this novel was written, new technology was all the rage. What happened to the idea that technology would save us all?

  • Respect

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    Obviously, most of the respect in The Hound of the Baskervilles is shown to Holmes the Genius. Watson's a willing, eager audience, always quick to admire Holmes' skills when he's narrating their adventures together. 

     But Holmes isn't the only person in this novel to win respect: not only does Watson have great things to say about Sir Henry Baskerville, but he and Holmes also have a lot of esteem for Stapleton. Wha-? Respect for a man who uses a giant dog in a murder scheme? Absolutely. Holmes recognizes a pro when he sees one.

    Questions About Respect

    1. What does Watson not admire about Holmes? How does he express these criticisms, and why do you think they appear in The Hound of the Baskervilles
    2. How does Watson's admiration influence the characters you like or dislike in The Hound of the Baskervilles? How strongly do Watson's opinions guide you as a reader? 
    3. When do characters besides Watson express admiration for other people in the book? Who do the other characters respect most?

    Chew on This

    As our primary narrator and as a central character in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson strongly influences our feelings about specific people in the novel.

    Watson's rare criticisms of Holmes's personality only draw greater attention to the huge respect he has for Holmes.

  • Isolation

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    There are two kinds of isolation in The Hound of the Baskervilles: geographical and mental. We talk about geographical isolation in our theme "Contrasting Regions: The Moors and London." So what we've got left here is psychological isolation. We all need our space sometimes, but a lot of isolation isn't particularly healthy.

    What makes a person feel psychologically isolated or alienated? Well, he or she could be in new and unfamiliar territory (Watson, Sir Henry); having to keep secrets (Holmes, the Barrymores, Stapleton); or feeling threatened (Sir Charles, Beryl, and Laura); And when you're feeling isolated from your friends and your community for whatever reason, it's easier for people to scare you.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Who would you say is the most isolated character in this novel? Is that isolation self-imposed, or does it come from some outside source? What effect does it have on this character to be so isolated? 
    2. How does Watson respond to Holmes' demands to be left alone to think? What explanations does Watson give for Holmes' need to be alone to think through his cases? 
    3. Being in a class by yourself (like Holmes) can be an isolating experience. (They say it's lonely at the top.) Which comes first—does being so unique make a person feel isolated? Or does being isolated give a person the chance to develop exceptional skills? 
    4. How does the theme of isolation in The Hound of the Baskervilles relate to the fact that this is a detective story? Is there something about the genre of the detective story that makes isolation a useful narrative tool?

    Chew on This

    While many of the characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles struggle with isolation, Conan Doyle represents Stapleton as the furthest outside a real social network. Stapleton's weak and broken relationships with others suggest that being a criminal is, by its nature, an isolating experience. Maybe that's why people might join a gang or look for a "partner in crime."

    Holmes's self-imposed, intellectual isolation contrasts with the emotional loneliness of other characters like Watson and Sir Henry, emphasizing his intellectual approach to human relationships.

    Physical isolation can lead to psychological isolation.

  • Guilt and Blame

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    Wait—do you mean guilt as in guilty conscience, or guilt as in, "He's the one who ate your Swedish Fish!" Let's look at both. You can be guilty but not feel guilty. And vice versa.

    Most people have the ability to feel guilty. But even though Stapleton is a killer, we get no indication at all that he feels any kind of guilt for murdering Sir Charles or for working so hard to kill Sir Henry. He's surprisingly guilt-free even though he is clearly the one to blame for most of the awful things that happen in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Maybe it's not so surprising—lack of guilt or a conscience is a hallmark of what's called sociopathy (as in sociopathic killer). Stapleton fills the bill.

    Holmes, on the other hand, feels terrible guilt thinking he's allowed Sir Henry to die out on the moors (before he realizes that, in fact, it was Selden the convict who was the corpse). Holmes has a strong sense of personal responsibility because he operates by an individual moral code, which means that, like most of the rest of us, he has to suffer when he feels like he's done something wrong.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. When do the characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles express guilt? Who struggles the most with guilt in this novel, and why? 
    2. Holmes feels responsible for what he believes is Sir Henry's death. Is that the same as feeling guilty? 
    3. What is the difference between guilt and blame in The Hound of the Baskervilles? Beyond Stapleton, which characters do you blame, and for what? Do these characters feel bad about what they have done?

    Chew on This

    The Barrymores clearly feel guilt over sheltering Selden in secret, without telling Sir Henry, which is why Sir Henry decides not to fire Barrymore as his butler. The Hound of the Baskervilles thus implies that guilt itself is enough punishment for wrongdoing in some cases.

    The fact that Beryl and Laura Lyons escape legal punishment for their assistance in Stapleton's schemes suggests that The Hound of the Baskervilles regards wrongdoing that's a result of abuse or manipulation to be forgivable and justifiable.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    There has been murder committed at Baskerville Hall—murder most foul!—so obviously, someone in the novel is lying about it. Otherwise, who needs Sherlock Holmes? In a detective novel there are always signs that point to the truth if you read closely. The structure of the genre is built around the idea that clues will tip you off that someone's lying to you. When Watson observes the relationship between Stapleton and Beryl, he knows that there's something weird going on long before he learns the truth of their marriage. And of course, he turns out to be right.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Are there any excusable or understandable lies in this novel? If so, what are they? 
    2. Besides Stapleton, what other characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles tell lies? How common is lying among the characters in this novel? What does this suggest about the overall truthfulness of people in general in the Holmes universe? 
    3. Which memorable scenes of truth-telling does The Hound of the Baskervilles present? What makes former liars in this book suddenly tell the truth?

    Chew on This

    Even though The Hound of the Baskervilles is a crime novel that emphasizes the importance of the truth at all costs, lies by the Barrymores on behalf of Selden, by Watson to trick Mr. Frankland, and by Holmes to Watson introduce a moral gray area around the issue of deceit.

    The fact that nearly all the characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles, from villains to heroes, tell lies at one point or another implies that deceitfulness is an essential human trait in the novel.