Wild Spectres: Nature as Threat in The Hound of the Baskervilles
An Ecocritical Reading
Node yr homework; University of Victoria, English 310, March 2006.
Throughout The Hound of the Baskervilles, nature is portrayed positively if it is under the control of humans, and negatively if it is not. The only characters in the novella who feel even remotely comfortable in wild spaces are the villains, Seldon and Stapleton. The other characters are comforted by agricultural, tamed spaces, but troubled by the wilderness, which projects a deep anxiety about the dangers of those aspects of nature that have not yet been 'civilised.' Additionally, pathetic fallacy is almost constant. The moor is described as having the attributes of the villain(s) who use it; the mire is given agency; the hound's call is described as emotive. Nature is frequently described, but only in terms of its impact on the people moving through it, never simply as itself. Place has an enormous effect on the entire story; the mood the moor is given through pathetic fallacy and choice of adjectives makes it an enormously threatening presence, one which has a strong impact on the mental health of the characters and is probably intended to unsettle the reader. In spite of the importance of place to the story, however, the text is overwhelmingly anthropocentric. Nature is presented positively only when it is human-controlled, and is constantly given (negative) human attributes through pathetic fallacy.
The Strand illustrations, too, are overwhelmingly anthropocentric. There are no illustrations without a human presence, and said human presence is generally very central. Those illustrations that have less human presence focus on the monoliths, remnants of past human habitation. Even though a large portion of the text is devoted to descriptions of the moor, it is not important enough to merit even one illustration focused on it, rather than on human action. The most detailed illustrations are those of the city and of indoor spaces. Even more so than the text, the illustrations place enormous influence on the importance of human affairs, completely and literally backgrounding nature.
Descriptions of the moor are overwhelmingly negative. Of the twenty-six adjectives used to describe the moor, sixteen are negative, two positive, and eight neutral. The sixteen negatives are: melancholy, deceptive, uncanny, desolate, lifeless, forbidding, gloomy, sinister (hills), queer, lonely, inscrutable, dreary, bleak, cold, rough, ill-omened. These adjectives mostly do not describe qualities innate to the moor, but rather qualities imposed upon it by its human observers. There is nothing sinister about the moor, and it is not lifeless or deceptive. The fears of observers, and the qualities of the villains who inhabit the place, are transposed onto the moor itself. The positive adjectives, fantastic and wonderful, are used only by the villainous Stapleton. Strictly descriptive adjectives, like wide, shadowy, broad, sodden, silent, vast, barren, and mysterious, still have a somewhat disturbing tone. This use of language adds to the reader's negative impression of the place; if it is described largely in negative terms, it is difficult to think of a place in a positive light.
The moor is contrasted throughout the story with more domesticated, more fertile spaces. Domesticated nature is portrayed as safe space, comforting to a man of Watson's urban sensibilities. The moor, however, is unsettling, a site of fear dreadful enough to kill. This juxtaposition is made explicit in references to the place's past relationship with people. The 'stunted orchard' (538) marks a failed attempt to cultivate the space, and the moor's emptiness is frequently referenced—not a literal emptiness, as plant and animal life does exist on moors, but an emptiness in terms of things useful to humankind. Because the moor can serve no practical purpose, it has not been tamed, and because it is untamed, in the story it becomes a site of danger and evil. For example, death in Hound is always associated with the place_in fact, a chapter is titled 'Death on the moor.' Sir Charles dies in the manor's garden, a sort of liminal space between wilderness and civilisation, Seldon is chased to death by the hound on the moor, the hound itself is shot to death on the moor, and Stapleton's flight ends in presumed death in the mire. In spite of its close ties with death, occasionally the moor becomes an ally, hiding Holmes or preserving footprints near the scene of a crime. These services are never recognised by any character, though; within the story, the moor remains a completely inhospitable, possibly malevolent presence.
The sounds on the moor are constantly personified as sad and melancholy,and have a tremendous impact on the mental health of human listeners, from the peasants to the doomed Baskerville heirs. The hound, innocent source of these distressing sounds, becomes an embodiment of all that is terrible about the wilderness. Throughout the story, agency is attributed to the supposed hell-hound, so the howls on the moor are thought of as signs of evil intention towards characters. In fact, the hound is an animal, unaware of the affairs of humans except in that Stapleton has trained it to chase them. The actual being the characters expend so much energy being afraid of is simply a dog, which probably cares more about where its next meal is coming from than it does about human lines of inheritance or evil ancestors.
In the last chapter of the action in Hound, the fog is a more threatening presence than the villain. As Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade wait for Sir Henry to leave the Merripit house, they are not worried about the actions of Stapleton, but rather about the approach of a cloud of condensation. It is not humans, or even the hound, that are the major source of anxiety for the detectives, but the fog: 'fog-wreaths came crawling round both corners of the house and rolled slowly into one dense bank... Holmes struck his hand passionately upon the rock in front of us and stamped his feet in his impatience.' The fog's movement is described as intentional; the fog is personified as some kind of evil force, crawling out of the moor to invade domestic space. The fog's presence looms throughout the climax of the story, almost acting as a substitute villain; there is more of a confrontation with the fog than there is with Stapleton. The drifting vapour, an embodiment of the moor, dominates the conclusion of the mystery.
Situated near and allied with the moor, Grimpen Mire is another example of wilderness space that is deeply disturbing to the civilised characters of Hound. The mire is constantly referred to as 'treacherous' (488) and dangerous. Like the fog, the mire is also constantly given agency, whether in terms of its growth, or in terms of the death of a moor pony that wanders into it. The moor is strikingly described as having crawled somewhere: for example, in the description of '...islands cut off on all sides by the impassable mire, which has crawled round them in the course of years' (487). It is almost as if the mire is strategically expanding and seeking victims. This near-sentience and destructive impulse is entirely produced by the characters who see it reflected in the mire; in fact, it is presumably a healthy, growing, wetland habitat, home to many species of animal and plant. The way the characters associate evil and nature makes the mire into a dreadful, ominous and intentionally cruel place.
Watson is the character to whom nature is most unsettling. He is comfortable in artificial, human-created and -controlled surroundings, and feels safe in agricultural spaces like the 'peaceful and sunlit country-side ' (480), but is constantly disturbed by even the mildest evidence of natural cycles. Even the falling leaves distress him as he travels with Sir Henry through the countryside; he finds them 'sad gifts...for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles' (480). Watson's understanding of nature is entirely anthropocentric; he thinks even of the most basic cycle, the seasons, as if it is (or should be) influenced by human affairs. Later, when he sees a moor pony die in the Mire, Watson is again unable to accept natural cycles—he constantly prefers artificial safety. Perhaps this is not surprising; as a doctor, Watson's main professional goal is to halt natural cycles of sickness and death. As a result, when he encounters natural cycles in the wild, where he can not even hope to interfere, he is constantly troubled. He is entirely a creature of the indoors and the city.
While very few humans can outwit or triumph over Holmes, nature is a serious threat to his success. He cannot read nature, or anticipate its actions, as he does with people. While Holmes sometimes seems superhuman, he is never supernatural. As he, Watson, and Lestrade wait for Sir Henry to emerge from the Stapletons' house, Holmes is extremely anxious about the effect the weather might have: '"Very serious, indeed--the one thing upon earth which could have disarranged my plans' (539). Holmes continues to be absolutely unruffled by the actions of people, but is at a loss in the face of some condensation. Throughout the story, Holmes is hyper-aware of nature, and attempts to make use of it or control its effect on him; he sometimes derives information from various footprints, and when Watson spots him on the moor, it is because he was 'so imprudent as to allow the moon to rise behind' (522) him. Holmes is sometimes able to use nature, but more often struggles to evade it or to control its effects on him. Like Watson, he is much more comfortable in 'civilised settings like cities and buildings. Even when he is living on the moor, a 'clean collar' (523) is still a primary concern, and Watson observes that he looks like a 'tourist upon the moor' (522). When Holmes deduces Watson's presence in the hut, he is compelled to use the human-created evidence of a cigarette butt, because the more natural evidence—footprints—is too difficult for him to interpret. Nature is primarily threatening to Holmes, the one power is as unpredictable to him as he is to his audience, the one power with the capability to upset his plans.
As a natural science, Stapleton is often associated with nature. His position as the villain of the story makes this problematic: not only is pathetic fallacy used to attach evil and human qualities to nature, human villains appear to have nature as an ally. Stapleton is more at home in nature than any of the other characters. He expresses enthusiasm for and appreciation of nature. Yet his impact on it appears largely negative. Stapleton's appreciation of nature is entirely on human terms. The insects he admires are killed and added to his collection, trapped in the attic room—the same attic room in which he later beats and ties up his wife. Stapleton never appears to consider what impact on the moor ecosystem his addition of an enormous hound has. He constantly uses nature as a tool, mastering the Mire to hide himself and training the hound to cause death. These attempts to master nature all eventually fall flat, though; he dies in the mire, and the hound is defeated by Holmes and Watson. Stapleton may be a naturalist, but he is not one who understands or loves nature, or even one who is able to control it.
In one illustration, we see Watson and Sir Henry looking over some rocks at Seldon (496). Seldon's face, unshaven and wild, blends into the rocks and the moor; he is depicted as almost a part of the landscape. The criminal almost seems atavistic, a throwback to the time of the prehistoric men who once inhabited the moor. In contrast, Watson and Sir Henry are the epitome of 'civilisation.' Throughout the text, Holmes and Watson are both pitted against more natural, more ominous, characters and landscapes. The detective and his protégé are protectors of the ideals of civilised, urban Britain, against the natural, and the unevolved.
evolution also surfaces in James Mortimer's discussions of skull features and phrenology. Mortimer's thoughts about Holmes' dolichocephalic skull are based on Retzius' 1842 theory that dolichocephalic—long, narrow-skulled—Northern Europeans were intellectually superior to brachycephalic, broad-skulled Southern Europeans. This theory, and Mortimer's comments about the different skulls of different races, are examples of Victorian application of theories of evolution to modern human populations. The then-popular idea that some groups are more evolved, and therefore superior, was used to support racism and social Darwinism. Theories of evolution were not yet fully understood, and were sometimes misapplied. Mortimer's comments about skull formation raise fraught questions about what causes intelligence and personality—nature, or nurture? In a time when society in general placed positive emphasis on cultivated and civilised spaces, and in a text that raises strong anxiety about wildness and natural spaces, the idea that human character and intelligence are determined by nature must be unsettling. The issue of evolution is yet another point at which it is possible to question the relationships between humans and nature in Hound.
Much of the action of The Hound of the Baskervilles occurs on country estates, so nature is strongly present in the story. It is not, however, a comfortable presence; wild spaces are sites of anxiety for the very urban main characters. Any natural places that have not been domesticated are regarded as threatening. Such spaces tend to be given agency, to be inhabited by villainous characters, and to have the negative characteristics of those villainous characters attributed to them. As a result, Watson and Holmes sometimes seem to be struggling not against human foes, but against nature itself. The nature presented in Hound is safe only when dominated by humans; wild spaces are threatening and evil. The text conveys a deep anxiety about all interactions between humans and nature, whether in terms of evolution, in terms of life with the wilderness, or in terms of getting along with the weather.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.