The Pressure of the Past: “The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner; “it’s not even past.” His sentiment certainly captures one of the thematic preoccupations of The Hound of the Baskervilles: the pervasive presence of what has gone before. Various characters in the book are coping (or, in some cases, failing to cope) with the burdens of their past. Sir Charles and Sir Henry, for instance, are both confronted with the legacy of their family name: the purported ribaldry of Hugo Baskerville, who looms large in family lore as a “wild, profane and godless man,” has cast a blight upon the Baskerville reputation and, of course, is the ostensible basis for the “curse” of the hell-hound. Baskerville Hall lies in disrepair, a visual reminder of the family’s disrepute, which Sir Henry is motivated to attempt to rebuild. That decision brings his course into collision with that of Jack Stapleton—of course, we learn at the novel’s end, is in fact another member of the Baskerville line—who is also attempting to escape his past as a criminal (his embezzlement of public funds) but who can only plot to do so through further criminal activity (his plots to kill both the masters of Baskerville Hall in order to inherit their legacy). The setting of the novel’s events itself reminds us of how the past is always with us, since Baskerville Hall is built on a moor that is populated by huts dating back to Britain’s Stone Age. Thus, in its plot and its setting, Conan Doyle’s novel asserts that none can escape the task of dealing with the unfinished business of one’s personal past as well as that of past generations—one can only choose how one will do so.
The Uncertain Future: A further temporal theme in The Hound of the Baskervilles is the anxiety with which Britain faced the dawning of the 20th century. The age of the British Empire, upon which once “the sun had never set,” was ending; society was shifting; the old certainties no longer proved true. As Watson tells Beryl Stapleton, “Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track” (p. 86). With its vivid depiction of an ancient family line facing a crisis from which, were it not for the interventions of Sherlock Holmes, it might not have recovered, Conan Doyle’s novel perfectly captures the sense of social dis-ease and disorder permeating Victorian England as the 19th century drew to its close. As a PBS Masterpiece essay on The Hound of the Baskervilles argues, “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” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/hound/tg_era.html).
The Triumph of Reason: Closely related to the fin de siecle concerns of the novel, then, is its celebration of Sherlock Holmes as a rational hero. Not for nothing does Beryl Stapleton’s warning to Sir Henry tell him to stay away from the moors “as he value[s] [his] life or reason” (emphasis added), for the moors around Baskerville Hall, “haunted” as they supposedly are by a demonic, spectral Hound, challenge Victorian society’s faith in the power of the intellect. Both Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the Industrial Revolution created a sense of inevitable human progress in Victorian Britain, carried forward by the power of the human mind. Such “fairy tales” (as Holmes dismisses the story of the family curse) as haunt the moors only threaten that sense of stability and that faith in rational progress. Holmes exists, however, to reinforce it, encouraging readers not to shy away from the irrational but to confront it for the purpose of refuting it. As he famously tells Watson, “The more outré and grotesque an incident is the more carefully it deserves to be examined, and the very point which appears to complicate a case is, when duly considered and scientifically handled, the one which is most likely to elucidate it.”