The story is set in 1886, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Crime was rife and prostitution, drug abuse and murder were commonplace. Public hangings were just part of everyday life. There was much poverty and ill health; poor people lived in cramped, dirty and squalid conditions. Smog caused by the factories weighed heavily on the city, creating a dark, dreary place. Jack the Ripper, an infamous murderer, was loose on the streets of London, attacking women. The Victorian people feared crime greatly. The Police could not catch Jack the Ripper and were seen as their methods were seen as inefficient. Many Victorians had a deep resentment against the Police in London, as they did not appear to protect the public. This resentment reached it’s peak when many officers were exposed as corrupt.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” is part of a collection of short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The story follows the investigations of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they investigate the story of an age-old curse and mysterious deaths within the Baskerville family. The setting for the story came from Doyle’s visit to the English moors. While there, he visited prehistoric ruins and heard tales about escaped prisoners and a local legend about a dog. From there, he developed the tale of the Baskerville hellhound, a terror that haunts the family, and could mean the end of the Baskerville line. Arthur Conan Doyle uses a variety of devices to great effect but mainly create suspense within the story. I will be looking at not only how suspense is created in the first two chapters, but also how cultural context is used within the story.
In Chapter 1, Baker Street is mention several times. Baker street was a well-known street and the mention of the name would allow the audience to easily get a picture in their head of the location. One of the first scenes in chapter 1 is of Sherlock Holmes examining a walking stick which their visitor, who they do not know, has left in the breakfast room. Dr. Watson is in the room with Holmes, but Holmes does not acknowledge his presence. Watson is sitting behind Holmes, thinking that he does not know he is there. Suddenly, Holmes says “Well, Watson what do you make of it?” This startles Watson as Holmes had shown no signs of knowing Watson was there. It also catches Watson by surprise as his opinion is not usually asked for. This shows tension between the two characters, which is important throughout the story, but is built up mainly in the first two chapters.
Holmes and Watson discuss the stick for most of the first chapter. This builds suspense further and the audience want to know more about the stick and also because they know that the plot is being kept from then. “Because this stick thought originally a very handsome one” this make the reader want some answers and so builds suspense.
There is very obvious tension between Watson and Holmes. For example, when Watson conveys his thoughts about the stick, Holmes responds with, ‘Really, Watson you do excel yourself, said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette’. Holmes is mocking Watson and making him seem inferior. ‘Chairing Cross Hospital’ is mentioned several times in chapter 1. This was a real hospital and so shows cultural context and puts a vivid setting in the mind of the reader. It also makes the story seem more realistic.
Later on in chapter 1, the owner of the walking stick returns to the house of Holmes and Watson. The owner sits down and starts rolling tobacco, he is described as having “long, quivering fingers as agile and restless as the antennae of an insect.’ This shows that the visitor is nervous about something and this builds suspense as it makes the audience wonder why he is nervous. The owner of the stick is revealed to be Dr Mortimer, who received the stick for services to Charing Cross Hospital. Whilst Holmes and Dr Mortimer are talking, Dr Mortimer calls Holmes “the second highest expert in Europe.” Holmes is deeply insulted by the insinuation that he is not the best at what he does. “Indeed sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?” Holmes says this sarcastically and this shows that he believes he is Europe’s top expert. This builds suspense as it leads the audience to believe that this is the first of many disagreements between the two characters.
The opening line in chapter 2 is Dr James Mortimer saying “I have in my pocket a manuscript”. This engages the reader as they want to know what the manuscript contains, but they are made to wait for several pages before the content of the manuscript is revealed. This waiting builds suspense as the audience desperately wants to know what the manuscript contains. It then goes on to mention some dates, ‘I put that at 1730’ and ‘the exact date is 1742’. These are key dates and they also make the manuscript and the novel more factual and therefore more realistic.
Charles Baskerville is a ‘Sir’, a member of the English aristocracy and this would immediately suggest a certain type of person to the reader and place the character in a context, such as a fairly high class and respected person with no doubt a lot of money. In 1902 the English class system was much more rigid than today. While describing the manuscript Mortimer says “yes it is a statement of a certain legend which runs in the Baskerville family”. The word ‘legend’ makes it seem more believable, the word gives it more credibility, legendary things are often quite old and mysterious, and so this is also building up suspense and makes the reader want to read on to find out what the legend is about.
Doyle also gives cultural context through how the men treated women at the time of the story. The manuscript says, ‘when they had brought her to the hall the maiden was placed in an upper chamber’. This implies that the women were owned by the men and that men could do anything they wanted to women and it would be socially accepted. It shows that the men had a lot more social and political power. Back in 1902, when people were reading this, it would be seen as normal. However, to modern day readers it would be seen as disgraceful and would not be socially accepted.