The House of the Baskervilles - Gothic Elements

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2nd Jun 2017 English Literature Reference this

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The setting in a novel is important because it helps to create a sense of atmosphere. The atmosphere in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” conforms to the conventions of a detective story which has to have a mysterious and scary feel in order to build up tension or suspense which intrigues and excites the reader. Creating an effective atmosphere within the three main settings in the novel, which include Baker Street, London, Baskerville Hall and the Moor, is necessary to make the story convincing, particularly as Conan Doyle introduces the supernatural element of the “curse” and the hound. In terms of timing, the novel is initially set in busy Victorian London, with its cars and crowds; however, this is juxtaposed with the moor, which as Watson observes seems wild, melancholy and far from modern life with horses and carts. Indeed he comments on, “The melancholy of the moor” and “the death of an unfortunate pony”; the genres within this particular novel are detective and gothic genres, which interact to create an effective, haunting atmosphere, especially towards the climax of the novel.

Time and place are therefore both relevant in the creation of setting and atmosphere. The setting of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” takes place in the nineteenth century when public hangings were often carried out, especially as Victorian people feared crime; this is one reason why Sherlock Holmes stories became so popular. As a logical, intelligent and intuitive character, Sherlock Holmes would have had great appeal to the audience because he solved many challenging and very cunning crimes. The character Holmes operates fully within the conventions of a detective setting, with the presence of a victim, a crime, a problem, suspect, plot and an alibi. However, at the same time the gothic element of the story is powerful.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” follows most of the conventions of the gothic genre which include mystery, depression, the supernatural, ancient prophesies, criminals, a damsel in distress and death. The gothic background, with which the Victorian audience would have familiar, is very important in creating a sense of a gloomy, daunting atmosphere. The hound as a supernatural element is used as a device to terrify the reader repeatedly throughout the novel, except of course at the end when the mystery is found to have a logical basis. For this reason I would suggest that the novel is more of a detective story because at the end the Baskerville myth can be easily explained in a scientific way. For example, the vicious hound can be explained by its diet of phosphorus as the detectives comment:

“Phosphorous, “I said”, There is no smell which might have interfered with his power of scent.”

The initial setting takes place in London where Sherlock Holmes and Watson’s home is upper class and their lifestyle is sophisticated and glamorous; in the company of Sir Henry and Dr Mortimer, they enjoy a

“pleasant luncheon” after which they retire to a “private sitting room” in a high quality hotel. This shows the reader that the two men are educated and they have a privileged lifestyle. As they mention the “…millions of this great city,” this sets the scene for the reader that London is a very dense and highly populated area but also rather grand and a centre of civilisation. However, despite this sense of power and control in London, there is also a sense of chaos and an unsettling, unwelcome contrast when there is suddenly a threat, for example the second time Sir Henry’s boot is stolen. This sense of threat increases when mysteriously they find one of the missing boots when the hotel room had been carefully inspected beforehand; Sir Henry exclaims;

“My missing boot! … There was certainly no boots in it then.”

There is the impression that they are being followed, of which Holmes warn Sir Henry Baskerville, the setting in London is effective because it is the place where Holmes and Watson are most comfortable and where they are accustomed to conducting their business affairs; for example:

“Holmes sat in silence as we drove back to Baker Street, and I knew from his dawn brows and keen face that his mind, like my own, was busy endeavouring to frame some scheme into which all these strange and apparently disconnected episodes could be fitted”.

The setting in Baker Street is important to create a sense of normality in spite of the mysterious happenings. However, once in the wilderness of the moors, Watson finds that it is more difficult to rationalise and the setting intensifies one’s missings.

Here we can see that while solving crimes, Sherlock Holmes stays up all night to solve a mystery. We also learn that the relationship between Holmes and Watson is close because they know each other’s habits. In addition, we also learn that Sherlock Holmes is more independent than Watson.

Likewise, in the novel we can interpret that the character, Sherlock Holmes, is intelligent and witty person because he successfully makes predictions:

“I think”, said I, following so far as I could the methods of my companion, that Dr. Mortimer is a successful elderly medical man.”

This shows the reader that Sherlock Holmes, as an intelligent person and a successful detective in his careerism, is a person whom Watson endeavours to model himself on.

We see a comparison between Sherlock Holmes and Watson intelligence because Watson himself makes a good assumption about the “thick iron ferulle” they indentify:

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself”, said Holmes pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all accounts in which you have been so good as to give my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It must be that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it”.

This shows the reader that Holmes is praising Watson because he has made a good hypothesis but later it proves incorrect. This feeling is encapsulated by Holmes quotation, ” I shall be very glad to have you back safe and sound in Baker Street once more.” Thus the Baker Street setting provides the character and the reader a sense of safety which is lost in the moors.

On the contrary, Watson then understands that Sherlock Holmes’s assumption is correct and that his assumption was erroneous:

“I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions was erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth”. This implies that Watsons’s conclusions were wrong and if he had listened to his companion, then he would be guided to the truth.

Indeed the moor is described as having a:

“Grey melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream.”

This quotation demonstrates that the setting is very dismal and the use of words “melancholy” emphasizes the mood of menace, providing a suitable backdrop for a murder novel.

The time of year increases the sense of hope passing as:

“Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered.”

In this description the “fluttered” leaves pave the way for unpleasantness in Baskerville Hall and could foreshadow the end of the year, and perhaps metaphorically speaking, the end of Sir Henry Baskerville’s life given the ‘curse’ on his family.

Watson refers to “the grim suggestiveness of the barren waste, the chilling wind’ and the darkling sky.”

This sets the scene for something dangerous about to happen and the use of pathetic fallacy prepares the reader for death or a strike of supernatural. Although, the area around the Baskerville Hall is described negatively and the reader will have a grim impression of the area itself:

“Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream”

The use of words, “grey” and “melancholy”, creates an effect of the bitter, depressing and sad atmosphere around the Baskerville Hall, leading to a conflict between the human and natural forces.

In addition, the use of juxtaposition is effective because, “the green squares of the fields” sounds pleasant but the view detenorates with the jagged summit, is described as, “melancholy”, “grey” and “vague”. There is therefore a sharp contrast between the settings the moor and London which portrays as being very “civilised” and “pleasant”. Conan Doyle portrays Dartmoor as cold and uninviting by contrasting it with the green fields:

“The beautiful green fields with thick hedges were behind us, and were now on the cold, open moor.”

This quotation shows the reader that the Dartmoor is a dangerous and mysterious area and the atmosphere in the area is progressively tense and quite dramatic. In addition the moor is described again in a sinister way; this adds to the negative effect:

“Everything was grey, hard and wild. Huge rough stones stood on the hard ground. The tops of the hill stood sharply like cruel teeth against the sky.”

This demonstrates that the moor has a very tense atmosphere and the use of similes, the hilltops appearing “sharply like cruel teeth”, empathises the vicious and evil side of the moor; it also suggests that perhaps, Sir Henry may die due to the hound’s vicious teeth.

Similarly, the author describes the noises associated with the moor in great detail to create a sense of tension:

“A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again.”

This shows the reader that the atmosphere around Baskerville Hall is grim and tense; the effect of this is to provide a build up in which murder will take place and make the reader feel scared and intrigued. Sir Henry, the heir to Baskerville Hall, tries to be positive about his inherited property and lights it up:

“I’ll have a row of electric lamps up here inside of six months, and you won’t know it again, with a thousand candlepower Swan and Edison right here in front of the hall door,”

Nonetheless, the sinister setting tends to prevail. However, for once, the hall is portrayed positively rather than being sad and dark. Baskerville Hall is usually described in an oppressive light:

“A dull light shone through the heavy windows. Black smoke was coming from one of the high chimneys of the main buildings.”

Arthur Conan Doyle uses the words “heavy” and “black” to give the reader an impression that the hall is a place where light or goodness is trapped. When the heir to the Baskerville arrives in Baskerville Hall, he is described as being very eager:

“…Baskerville gave an exclamation of delight, looking eagerly about him and asking countless questions.”

This use of words “delight” and “eagerly” shows the reader that the Sir Henry Baskerville is very enthusiastic to enter Baskerville Hall but it proves to be miserable dwelling.

The description of the hall itself is described as mute and sinister since Conan Doyle displays a vicious use of imagery:

“a dull light shone through heavy mullioned windows”

The use of the word, “mullioned” evokes that the light is being imposed by the dullness of the windows. The author Conan Doyle uses a red herring to enhance the gothic tension, an example of this is the butler Barrymore who is described as having a, ” square black beard and pale distinguished”, this refers to the mysterious follower which follows Sir Henry Baskerville. This alerts the reader and the effect of this is that the two detectives Holmes and Watson might in a danger and also the amount of safetyness in the moor is limited and requires courage and braveness to fight against them.

When the hound strikes at the Baskerville Hall for the first time, the description of the hound is striking: “The huge, black, burning hound ran quickly and silently after Sir Henry.”

The representation of the hound is very effective in the quotation as the moor itself is surrounded by wilderness; there is conflict between nature and humans, even the trees that are planted by humans are stunted. The idea demonstrates to the reader that nature and humans never work together. The dwellings of the moor are similarly described pessimistic and negative by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as it says:

“A bleak Morse land house”.

The use of the words, “bleak” emphasizes the desolate and isolation within the moor however, it shows that the moor has few habitants.

In conclusion, I believe that the main intention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote the story was to involve the readers of the modern world in a potentially supernatural mystery. It appears to me that he was quite successful in creating a believable story; I almost believed that the hounds were supernatural. I think the idea of serialization in the Victorian times would have been a good idea because it would have helped to add tension. I think the author was successful in creating his story because his character, Sherlock Holmes, was a famous and popular character and still popular in modern times. Even though Sherlock was a fictional character, many Victorians and readers today would find a famous, intuitive character like Sherlock Holmes engrossing.

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