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The Hound of the Baskervilles
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The Era of Sherlock Holmes

Although Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes over a 40-year period that spanned three distinct eras in British life (Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian), in the Holmes stories it is always the late Victorian era. Holmes himself so completely embodies the values of this era, in fact, that he is regarded by many as "the perfect hero for his age."

A man who believed in reason above all, Holmes was ideal for his time -- a time in which science challenged long-held beliefs and the status quo was threatened by social and economic changes. Charles Darwin's 1859 The Origin of Species changed the Western world by calling into question the Biblical belief in creationism, and in its place suggesting that the mysteries of the physical world could be explained by science. It was also an era of dizzying technological advance: in the 20 years between 1867 and 1887 alone, the typewriter, the telephone, the gramophone, the telegraph, the electric light bulb, the internal combustion engine, and the transatlantic cable were all invented. As critic Rosemary Jann writes, "Through the character of Holmes, Doyle brilliantly popularized the century's confidence in the uniform operation of scientific laws that allowed the trained observer to deduce causes from effects." Just as paleontologists could identify an organism from fossil fragments, so could Holmes reconstruct a crime by tracing physical clues and piecing together their meaning. Indeed, when Holmes and Watson first meet in A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes is busy in a laboratory where he has just discovered "an infallible test for blood stains." It is no coincidence that Scotland Yard first adopted the new science of fingerprinting the same year that The Hound of the Baskervilles first appeared in The Strand. Scientific rationalism was the order of the day, and Sherlock Holmes acted as its standard-bearer.

But Holmes's role as the consummate Victorian gentleman was equally important in making him a hero. Among the enormous changes wrought by the industrial revolution was an expanding middle class with a growing concern about its place in society. That cliché of the detective novel, "the butler did it," arose from a real upper- and middle-class fear that those under them would rise up in revolt. Holmes offered readers reassurance about traditional English values, especially useful at a time when England was beginning to feel uncertainty about its place in the world. With each crime he solves, the social order is restored, and proper class values are reaffirmed. The quintessential illustration of this may be the moment in the novel when he reveals himself to Watson after he has lived for days in a primitive hut on the moors -- yet "his chin [was] as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street." In the film, this same sentiment is expressed when Watson pulls Holmes out of the Grimpen Mire using his well-tailored suit jacket. "Three cheers for Saville Row," Holmes says wryly afterward. There are no problems, he seems to indicate, that can't be solved by the combination of keen reasoning, bravery, and civilized behavior. As he does for Sir Henry Baskerville when he rids him of the family curse and returns him rightfully to his manor, Holmes reassured his audience that all was right with their world.

Although Sherlock Holmes gradually evolves from a cold "reasoning machine" to someone more human, he always remains intellectually far superior to the ordinary man. Eccentric but elegant, brilliant but frequently bored, Holmes injects himself with drugs -- then legal -- because, as he says in The Sign of Four, "I abhor the dull routine of existence." Holmes's reliance on a "seven percent solution" of cocaine, or, occasionally morphine, for the stimulation and escape it brought was typical of the fin-de-siècle French and English writers known as the Decadents. Hoping to shock the staid middle classes, these writers made fashionable the image of the brooding "sensitive artist" who, as Holmes himself puts it, loves "all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life." Indeed, the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles particularly invigorates him when it is going poorly since, as he says, "There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you." In the stories, as in this film, Watson -- the solid, middle-class British citizen -- disapproves of Holmes's drug use. As Holmes became a more developed character with each story, Conan Doyle gradually dropped Holmes's use of drugs.

Questions and Activities
You may want to return to these questions and activities after viewing the film.
  1. If Holmes is "the perfect hero for his age," who, in real life or fiction, would you say is the perfect hero for our age? Why?

  2. What can you learn about the late Victorian era from this film and/or novel? Choose a topic that is depicted in the The Hound of the Baskervilles film (for example, the use of drugs, spiritualism, advances in forensics, class relationships, marriage) and research it. Then imagine you are a consultant to the filmmakers and write your recommendations about how this aspect of the film might be made more authentic to the era.

  3. To combine your understanding of the story with your knowledge of the late Victorian period, pretend you work for a newspaper in London or Dartmoor at the time The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place. First, familiarize yourself with Victorian newspaper accounts of a murder, such as one presented on the Web site Casebook: Jack the Ripper which recounts the finding of one of Jack the Ripper's victims. Then, modeling yours on one of these period accounts, write up the solution to the The Hound of the Baskervilles story as a newspaper account, making sure to include the "who, what, where, when, why, and how" details that form the basis of any news report.

Teacher's Guide:
In the Classroom | Viewing Strategies | Plot Summary
The Era of Sherlock Holmes | Before Viewing Questions
After Viewing Questions | Sherlock Holmes as Icon
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