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The Hound of the Baskervilles
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Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 8 links]

Sherlock Holmes as Icon

The Hound of the Baskervilles was Arthur Conan Doyle's 26th Sherlock Holmes story. A struggling young doctor who invented Holmes to wile away unfilled office hours, Conan Doyle published the first Holmes story in 1887. His innovation in creating a character who would appear over and over in a series of self-contained stories meant that Holmes's popularity grew with each installment. Soon the character was so beloved that people refused to believe he wasn't a real person; letters addressed to "Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective" arrived daily at Baker Street and Scotland Yard, each begging him to take on a real case.

Conan Doyle, meanwhile, was growing weary of Holmes and his popularity, and often threatened to kill the character off so that he could write "serious" fiction instead. In 1893, Conan Doyle published The Final Problem, in which Holmes's nemesis, Professor Moriarty, sends him to his death over the Reichenbach Falls. In the days that followed, there was such an outcry that newspapers actually ran headlines about Holmes's death, and his fans wore mourning garb in the streets. Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first new Holmes story to appear after this, although Conan Doyle set the novel retrospectively so that he could avoid the problem of bringing Holmes back to life.

Based in part on the work of Dr. Joseph Bell, a teacher of Conan Doyle's at the University of Edinburgh who could draw medical conclusions about his patients simply from observing the mud on their shoes, Holmes's "method" is perhaps the best-known thing about him. In The Red headed League he famously sums up what he has gleaned from merely looking at a visitor: "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing."

Questions and Activities
  1. Letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street still arrive every day, over 100 years after the character was created. Ask students, Why do you think this is? Holmes has been described as "real in a way that only the greatest fictional characters achieve." What other characters, from books, film, television, legend, or elsewhere, can students name who are real in this way? What do they think these characters and Sherlock Holmes have in common that has given them such longevity?

  2. Although Holmes is often thought of as the first of the Great Detectives, Conan Doyle actually modeled Holmes on Monsieur Dupin, an inspector created by Edgar Allan Poe for his stories "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter." Have students read the Poe stories, and compare Dupin to Holmes. Ask, Why do you think Holmes is a beloved and classic figure and Dupin has been largely forgotten?

  3. Have students research the life of Arthur Conan Doyle to see how he himself -- with his love of sport, adventure, and science -- embodied the ideals of Victorian manhood. (See Resources as well as the Conan Doyle biography.) Ask, How do you think Arthur Conan Doyle would have reacted to this new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, produced a hundred years after his own? Have students write the letter you think he might send to the team who made this film.

  4. Sherlock Holmes's great popularity can be attested to by the number of parodies and pastiches (pieces that borrow from another source) that have been written about him by everyone from Mark Twain and O. Henry to contemporary writers. Have students create their own Holmes story, or parody of a Holmes story, by following their basic formula as outlined by critic T.J. Binyon:

    Holmes and Watson are at Baker Street —› A client arrives —› Holmes deduces things about the client from an object or the person him or herself —› The problem is outlined —› Holmes and Watson discuss the case when the client is gone —› The investigation begins —› Holmes identifies what happened —› Holmes explains it all to Watson back at Baker Street.

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
Novel into Film | The Mystery Genre | Detective's Log | Resources
Teacher's Guide Credits | eNewsletter Sign-up

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Russell Baker | Teacher's Guide | Links + Bibliography | The Forum

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