How It Happened


Arthur Conan Doyle

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on How It Happened can help.

How It Happened Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Arthur Conan Doyle's How It Happened. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle

Born on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer and physician best known for his detective stories featuring the character Sherlock Holmes. He was educated at Stonyhurst College and the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine. After he graduated, he worked as a ship's doctor and later set up an unsuccessful practice in Plymouth, England. He wrote fiction in his free time, and in 1886, he published his first Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet," in The Strand Magazine. The story was an immediate success, and Doyle went on to write many more stories featuring Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories are considered some of the greatest works of crime fiction of all time and have been widely adapted for stage, film, and television. Beyond the popular Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle was also a prolific writer of science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, as well as plays, poems, and romances. In addition to his writing career, he was an avid supporter of social and political causes, including the rights of prisoners and the promotion of the British Empire. In his later years, Doyle became an increasingly devout follower of spiritualism, likely influenced by the death of many of his loved ones in the first two decades of the 20th century. He died on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71.
Get the entire How It Happened LitChart as a printable PDF.
How It Happened PDF

Historical Context of How It Happened

"How It Happened" was published on the eve of World War I, and its themes reflect the anxieties of the time regarding the possibility of conflict. Not only does the story revolve around the themes of death and resurrection, but it directly references the Boer War, an early-20th century conflict that Doyle himself participated in. Considering the growing Germanophobia of the time (which Doyle heartily participated in), it also seems little coincidence that the “killer vehicle” in the story, a Robur, is of German make. Of course, the recent emergence and popularization of automobiles like Ford’s Model T was itself an influential historical event and offers another explanation for the story’s fascination with automobiles. Doyle himself famously drove a 16-horsepower Dietrich-Lorraine in the 1911 Prince Henry Tour, and the story reflects Doyle’s enthusiasm, as well as anxiety, about the impact of this new technology. “How It Happened” was also heavily influenced by spiritualism, a movement that was a trademark of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras and blurred the lines between science and the supernatural. As early as the 1880s, Doyle personally attended several seances and sittings with mediums out of curiosity, and his interest only grew with time. Perhaps influenced by the deaths of many loved ones, by the mid 1910s Doyle had officially declared himself a spiritualist.

Other Books Related to How It Happened

By the time “How It Happened” was published, Doyle had already established himself as a major writer with his stories about Sherlock Holmes. Though “How It Happened” features many of the same genre tropes as this older series, it seems to backtrack on Sherlock’s Holmes staunch commitment empiricism. In particular, while supernatural events are always explained by science or logic in Sherlock Holmes, “How It Happened” treats the supernatural as real. This pro-spiritualist stance is also a hallmark of many of Doyle's later works, particularly his non-fiction work, A History of Spiritualism, and his 1926 novel, The Land of Mist, both published in 1926. Though the latter of these features another one of Doyle’s recurring pro-science protagonists, Professor Challenger, it breaks from its more Holmes-like predecessors in The Lost World and The Poison Belt by entertaining the possibility that supernatural events like seances might exist. While a few of Doyle’s earlier works like the mummy horror story “Lot No. 249” entertain similar possibilities, it wasn’t until Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism in the mid 1910s that science finally took the backseat to the supernatural in his work.
Key Facts about How It Happened
  • Full Title: How It Happened
  • When Published: 1913
  • Literary Period: Late Edwardian Era
  • Genre: Supernatural, Spiritualism
  • Setting: Outside London, England in the early 20th century
  • Climax: After crashing his car, the narrator realizes he is dead.
  • Antagonist: Arrogance
  • Point of View: First Person and Third Person

Extra Credit for How It Happened

Historical Novels. Though most famous for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle considered his best work to be his historical novels. He published seven of these novels between 1888 and 1906. 

Inspiration. Two of Doyle’s most famous characters—Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger—were directly based on real people. Sherlock Holmes was based on Dr. Joseph Bell, one of Doyle’s former professors at medical school. Professor Challenger was based on both Percy Fawcett (a famous British geographer) and William Rutherford (a Scottish physiologist and physician).