Significance of Setting in The Hound of the Baskervilles

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOB), Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are immersed in a setting that appears to transcend the known limits of the physical world. A demoniacal hound roaming the moors of Devonshire is rumored to have been responsible for the death of the affluent Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. Mortimer, a family friend, is left no choice but to recruit the renowned detective and his partner to investigate the case. The narrative, recounted through Dr. Watson’s perspective, soon abandons the familiarity of Baker Street in exchange for the ghastliness of Baskerville Hall and its vicinity. Upon Watson’s arrival, Dartmoor proves to be every bit as ominous as it was hyped up to be. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses the valuable tool of location throughout to leave open the possibility that there are crimes beyond the scope of rational analysis. The setting first asserts itself when, in the midst of presenting the details of the case to Holmes, Dr. Mortimer reads aloud the myth of the Baskerville curse. One could have easily mistaken the piece for an excerpt from a Gothic novel, for it is ridden with the genre’s elements. The reader learns Hugo Baskerville of Baskerville Manor ruthlessly abducted the daughter of a yeoman. After she attempted to escape from the chamber upstairs one night, Baskerville and others chased her onto the moor. Eventually, she and Hugo were both found dead. Beside the body of the latter was, to the astonishment of the other men, “a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon” (Doyle 9). The linkage between the plot and setting of the myth is important. As mentioned, they are both rooted in Gothic tradition and thus play off each other. The somber estate and the damsel in distress are both common elements of Gothic fiction. The degree to which Baskerville is alleged to have been infatuated with her is also indicative of the genre. Furthermore, the hound that lurks at night and the dark moor it inhabits are intentionally portrayed as demonic and supernatural, inviting the possibility that the “Father of Evil” may very well be Sir Charles’ assailant. Holmes—the embodiment of the Enlightenment—is, notably, more skeptical than the others, but even he does not completely rule out the chance that “forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature” may be at work (19). Additionally, the gloomy, Gothic setting established in the exposition matches the description Watson later gives of Dartmoor when he and Sir Charles actually arrive there. Suddenly, it seems less likely that the mystery is capable of being solved in the physical world through deductive reasoning. The great Grimpen Mire, capable of sinking one in its depths, evolves into a grisly metaphor for the mystery itself. Not coincidentally, it is navigable only by the naturalist Mr. Stapleton—the perpetrator of the crime—and eventually found to be the location of the hound’s fortress. Watson, after observing the mire’s capabilities, says, “Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track” (54). This comparison expresses the imminent danger and apparent hopelessness of their predicament, which contributes to the suspense of the Gothic atmosphere. It also portrays Watson as an ill-equipped assistant in the absence of Holmes’ analytical mind. One could imagine that Doyle added in this additional component specifically to evoke despair. How will Watson alone—a mere mortal—be able to solve a murder as complex as this one? The presumption that the case is ultimately out of Holmes’ and Watson’s control again seems feasible toward the end of the story, when a blinding fog threatens the plan the former had concocted to lure the hound out onto the moor. Using Sir Henry—the heir to Baskerville Hall—as bait, Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade wait anxiously behind a series of rocks for the hound to appear. When the fog begins to engulf the moor, Holmes observes, “If he isn’t out in a quarter of an hour the path will be covered. In half an hour we won’t be able to see our hands in front of us” (111). Fog has traditionally been interpreted as a metaphor for confusion. If it had prevented the hound from being caught, the beast’s nature and other pertinent information would also remain clouded. But perhaps just as importantly, Sir Henry would almost certainly meet his doom if no one could get a clear shot on the hound. This adds yet another Gothic twist to the climax, and the case—for one last time—seems as if it may be out of Holmes’ grasp.HOB deviates from the typical Sherlock Holmes mystery. Setting is imperative in creating the illusion of a world that would render even the elite detective powerless. As later affirmed, however, a supernatural world is merely a world not yet understood. Though complex, the physical world—at its core—is an orderly, comprehensible place if analyzed rationally. The eventual unmasking of Stapleton and demystification of the hound are testaments to this. But before that happens, the reader is, albeit temporarily, fooled into thinking HOB is a full-fledged Gothic novel. For the sake of creating a believable work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle abandons this, just as Holmes and Watson return to a natural explanation for phenomena after shortly contemplating a supernatural one.

The Portrayal of Women in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Women in the nineteenth century were often considered less than men. Consequently, they depended on the men in their lives, usually their fathers or husbands. Nevertheless, there were women who did not have a husband or father to depend on, yet still had to trust the other men in their lives to take care of them. This dependency often ended in men betraying the women who trusted them. The Hound of the Baskervilles illustrates how women in the nineteenth century were taken advantage of, even when placed in very different situations.

Mrs. Barrymore, one of the workers in the Baskerville Mansion, portrays a woman in a good marriage. Her husband, Mr. Barrymore, refuses to reveal her secret to Sir Henry and Watson and in doing so, illustrated his loyalty to his wife (Doyle 151-152). Mrs. Barrymore, however, is still taken advantage of by the men in the book. Watson and Sir Henry ultimately take advantage of the information she gives them about Seldon (Doyle 151-152). Although they gave an excuse for using that information in order to chase Seldon through the moore (Doyle 168), the excuse is ultimately in vain after they agree to go along with the Barrymore’s plans (Doyle 169). Mr. Barrymore even admits after mentioning the subject to Sir Henry, “I didn’t think you would have taken advantage of it Sir Henry–Indeed I didn’t.”(Doyle 168) This is in reference to Sir Henry’s betrayal of Barrymore’s wife. Mrs. Barrymore represents women in good situations, with a loyal husband, and how they are still betrayed by the men in society.

Beryl Stapleton is in a very different situation than Mrs. Barrymore. Although she is married, she is in a very unhappy marriage. In this marriage she not only has to hide the fact that they are married (Doyle 208), but her husband also beats her in order to keep his murder plans secret (Doyle 255-256). When she finally comes to a realization, she cries out, “I could endure it all… as long as I could still cling to the hope that I had his love, but now I know that in this also I have been his dupe and his tool (Doyle 256).” She admits that she was his tool and was taken advantage of him, and when she leads the detectives through the Grimpen Mire to capture her husband, she is portrayed as happy and eager for her husband’s downfall (Doyle 258). This illustrates the extent of betrayal she experienced in the marriage and her happiness to finally be free. She represents the women in unhappy, untruthful marriages, and how these women are taken advantage of by the men they depend on.

Laura Lyons was in a rare situation in which she was already betrayed by her husband, who ran away, and her father, who refused to take her back into his household (Doyle 175). She, thus, depended on the other men who lived on the moore, such as Sir Charles and Stapleton, who helped her set up her own business (Doyle 176). Consequently, she is later taken advantage of by one of the men she is dependent on Stapleton. He portrayed himself to her as a love interest (Doyle 207-208) and lied to her, telling her he would marry her all while hiding the fact that he was already married (Doyle 239). After hearing this, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to use this information in order to draw more evidence out of Laura Lyons (Doyle 255). This scheme is successful and another betrayal is discovered. Using the lies he had told her earlier, Stapleton urged Laura Lyons to meet Sir Charles on the moore, but later he convinces her to miss the appointment, ultimately resulting in the murder of Sir Charles (Doyle 239-240). Laura Lyons is betrayed by men all throughout her lifetime and is an example of how even when it seems like there were no men left to take advantage of a woman, she can still be left betrayed.

The three women in these novels lead very different lives, however they are all left in similar situations. Rather it is being betrayed by someone for information, such as Mrs. Barrymore and Laura Lyons when involved with Dr. Watson, or being taken advantage of for someone else’s personal gain, such as Beryl Stapleton and Laura Lyons by Mr. Stapleton. This portrayal of women highlights this advantages men had in the nineteenth century and how they interacted with women, even when they unintentionally used them. It is evident throughout the novel and, although these are over exaggerations, can be found in examples of real life nineteenth century women.

Work Cited

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. 1902. PlanetPDF