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“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

The cat stands supreme amongst domesticated animals because its suavity and air of cool superiority denotes that it has never been entirely tamed by man. The dog, on the other hand, represents the very antithesis of feline independence and integrity. Slobbering, fawning, dripping, defecating unashamedly, unable to feed itself without human assistance, the dog is fundamentally dependent upon its human master. One can own a dog, but in no meaningful sense can one own a cat, and there is equally a distinction between the sorts of people who strive to master these creatures. Whilst one may despair at achieving the respect of a cat – who typically treat their masters as if they were servants – the act of owning a dog articulates a demand for power. The dog owner needs to parade evidence of his power in front of the whole neighbourhood, and he is therefore, in a strange sort of a way, as dependent upon their dog as the stupid animal is upon them. One can issue orders to a dog, in a way which a cat would find simply unacceptable, and the dog will grovel and even perform rudimentary tricks in response. The dog is a manifestation of the master’s own power, utterly at its master’s command.

Dog owners and their dogs abound in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). Dr James Mortimer, a bit-player in the drama, commands the powers of a dog whose size reflects that of the doctor’s own role in the novel: “a little spaniel.” Dr Mortimer rides around the moors on a “dogcart”, searching for his lost “little dog.” Stapleton, the villain of the piece, has a far greater beast at his command: the Hound of the Baskervilles itself, which is, rather anti-climactically, a combination of bloodhound and mastiff daubed with phosphorous. Significantly, Stapleton’s great luminous hound gobbles up Mortimer’s pet, leaving only a “skeleton with a tangle of brown hair adhering to it.” And finally we reach the great dog-wizard himself, Sherlock Holmes, who masterfully exposes and destroys Stapleton’s dog.

Inevitably perhaps, psychoanalysis lends much to interpreting The Hound of the Baskervilles. The fear and awe of the phallus and all that it symbolises reverberates through the story’s founding myth. Over Hugo Baskerville’s body “there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound and yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon.” A large foul thing, eh? The symbolic force of this legend inspires Stapleton to action, but his own hound is all paint and trickery. Stapleton is a butterfly enthusiast and Watson first witnesses him dashing off across the moors in pursuit of a “cyclopides.” Stapleton is even defeated by this tiny creature, which escapes his net and lives to see another day. Stapleton is simply not comparable to Holmes in terms of his power and control over Nature. Yet the detective not only defeats Stapleton’s own dog, but he also controls the greatest dog in the novel.

Like a dog, Watson is stupid. At one stage in the novel, he points at group of prehistoric stone-circles and asks, “What are they? Sheep-pens?”

On contemplating the Grimpen Mire, Stapleton warns “A false step yonder means death to man or beast.” As if to illustrate this very point, a pony appears on the mire and Stapleton and Watson watch it die. “It’s a bad place, the great Grimpen Mire,” Stapleton cautions grimly.

“I shall try my luck some day,” Watson replies brightly. Stapleton screams at him.

Significantly, the novel begins with Watson contemplating a stick. Holmes is training him. The stick belongs to the yet unknown Dr Mortimer, and Holmes asks Watson to deduce the character of the doctor from his stick, which was left at his apartment whilst the men were away. Holmes offers words of encouragement, but he has to concede that “most of your conclusions were erroneous”. Perhaps if he threw the stick, Watson would fetch it for him. Later in the novel, however, Holmes’ training will reap benefits. Watson solves the potted mystery of Barrymore’s candlelit vigils, discovers the association between Charles Baskerville and Laura Lyons, and eventually sniffs out his master on the moor. Yet if The Hound of the Baskervilles is not that compelling a mystery – the spectral dog turns out to be a dog – Watson’s narrative invests the novel with a greater sense of suspense than it otherwise deserves. Although he will later say, in passing, that “I was aware that he would never permit cases to overlap,” Watson falls completely for the line that his master is in London, working on another case. We, of course, do not believe this, and suspense derives from the presumption that Holmes will soon appear on the scene, in a suitably surprising and dramatic fashion.

Like a dog, Watson is fawning. After Holmes lavishes praise on him for his initial deductions from the stick, Watson pants, “He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me a keen sense of pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration.” One can almost imagine his tail wagging. Tellingly, he adds, “I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way that earned his approval. He now took the stick from my hands…” When Holmes surprises Watson by offering to lend him to Sir Henry Baskerville, Watson gasps that, “I was complimented by the words of Holmes and by the eagerness with which the baronet hailed me as a companion.” Watson feels hurt and betrayed when he finds his master on the moor. “Then you use me and yet do not trust me!” he cries. “Then my reports have all been wasted” he despairs at the thought that there has been nobody in London to collect his precious dispatches, adding that “My voice trembled as I recalled the pains and the pride with which I had composed them.” But Holmes soon has Watson’s tail wagging again, manipulating a reconciliation with his warm encouragement: “My dear fellow, you have been invaluable to me… Here are your reports, my dear fellow, and very well thumbed, I assure you.”

One thing a dog cannot do, however, is narrate a novel. Yet Watson writes with such a dedication to representing the actions of his master, that any of his own thoughts and emotions which have no bearing on the case in hand, are edited out. If there is any human being to Watson – the Watson who loves his wife, or practices medicine, or plays rugby – these are removed, leaving only the dog in his nature and his devotion to his master. Holmes mastery of Watson thus extends beyond the theatre of the novel’s events, shaping its very narrative. To paraphrase the novel’s most famous quotation, Watson’s words are the footprints of a gigantic hound.