The Nature and Psychology of Guilt in Doyle’s Book
With the growing popularity of the evolutionary theory, the fin-de-siècle literature strived to accommodate the spiritual and paranormal within the domain of science and reason. At the same time, the Victorian era was marked by the rising awareness of the foreign influence and its consequences. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle explores both subjects to depict guilt as a force that stems from within and is spurred from without.
As far as the family history goes, the Baskervilles are an old and cursed line haunted by the sins of their ancestor in the form of a hellish beast. However, Holmes rejects the metaphysical explanation and searches for a human being to blame. He solves the crime by tracing the physical similarities between the portrait and the culprit, with his scientific method “blurring the line between the voluntarily or culturally influenced and the biologically programmed” (Jann, 1990). In this way, the story follows the 19th-century fashion for the theory of genetic determinism claiming that Stapleton’s guilt is a hereditary phenomenon, his inescapable legacy of sin engraved in the cells of his body.
Another strong element pertaining to the origins of guilt in the story comes from abroad. While the Baskervilles represent traditional English nobility on the outside, their standing is shaken, and they are forced to search for wealth in other countries. Although Sir Charles’s death is attributed to pure terror, Simmons labels it as a “guilt death” and “the result of horror that one’s past imperial deeds are about to be revealed” (2002). In its turn, Stapleton’s substantial exposure to foreign contamination corrupts his conscience past the point of fear all the way to ultimate delinquency. Thus, the temptations of the foreign force the respectable English soul to betray its values and plunge into the darkness of degradation and guilt.
On the one hand, The Hound of the Baskervilles advocates the hereditary nature of human vices naming biology as the main source of the criminal’s guilt. On the other hand, Conan Doyle shows that genetic predisposition requires an impetus from the outside to fully develop, and this impetus can be provided by the influence of foreign cultures. All in all, there are several forces, both inner and outer, that bring out the evil in a person, and the most abominable terrors occur when such forces act in unison.
Jann, R. (1990). Sherlock Holmes Codes the Social Body. ELH, 57(3), 685-708. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2873238
Simmons, D. (2002). The Curse of Empire: Grandiosity and Guilt in the Stories of Arthur Conan
Doyle. The Psychoanalytic Review, 89(4), 533-556. http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/prev.89.4.533.17723.