Dr. Mortimer, the young man who first introduces Watson and Holmes to the Baskerville case, is a proponent of a school of quasi-medical thought known as phrenology. Phrenology is the belief that characteristics about a person can be determined through exacting measurement and observation of their skull. The central tenet of such a belief is that there exists a biological basis for all behavior that predetermines the way that one acts (as opposed to behavior being formed through one’s upbringing and history, the “nurture” one received in life). That is, according to phrenology, criminals have a distinctly criminal type of skull that can be known, classified, and identified. While the phrenological school of thought had its moment in time, that moment had already passed by the time of Doyle’s writing. The debate of whether or not behavior was formed by nature or nurture, however, was alive and heated; indeed, it was in the late Victorian era that the term “nature vs. nurture” was first popularized. Through Mortimer, Holmes, and the criminals of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle illustrates his stance on the subject: he places criminality as being firmly the result of nurture and not inherent through nature.
This is seen most clearly in the case of Selden. Selden is the only person who the reader knows, all along, is a criminal. He is both a murderer and an escaped convict. Watson blatantly refers to him as “one of the most notorious criminals in the country.” Yet, despite this fact, Selden’s sister—Mrs. Barrymore—is a kindhearted woman who has served the Baskerville family notably for years and been a good wife to her husband, Mr. Barrymore. Were Selden’s criminality biological, one would expect Mrs. Barrymore to show it as well, since the two share the same blood. Instead, Mrs. Barrymore confirms that it was Selden’s upbringing that spoiled him. The child was “humored” too much, and he was raised in such a way that the world belonged to him, and he could do whatever he wanted. This poor upbringing led him to associate with others like him, which in turn made his behavior increasingly worse, until he was a fully-fledged criminal.
The Baskervilles, too, show that criminality is strictly a result of societal factors. Hugo Baskerville, one of the earliest Baskerville progenitors, was a rogue who killed a woman when she tried to escape him. He had planned to rape and imprison her—the crime that provided the essential source of the Baskerville curse. Sir Charles Baskerville and Sir Henry Baskerville, however, are both charitable, mild-mannered men. Furthermore, the only other remaining Baskerville, James Desmond, is described as living a “saintly life” as a perish clergymen. Desmond is so saintly, in fact, that he refuses any money from the Baskerville estate whatsoever.
But if Mortimer’s phrenology were correct, then none of the above relationships could be true. Most importantly, Stapleton could not be the mastermind behind the Baskerville plot. As Stapleton is himself a Baskerville, and we know the Baskervilles to generally be good, solid people.
It’s important to note that, while the story clearly points to a societal reason for behavior, it nevertheless fails to prescribe any sort of solution for how such criminality might be avoided in future generations. This is in stark contrast to many other writers (such as Charles Dickens) who came to the same conclusions on the same debate, and used their writing as a kind of political platform to suggest change. This may indicate that Doyle did indeed see criminal behavior as a result of failed nurture, but he also saw that failure to nurture as being inevitable. That is, regardless of how well-intentioned society might be in overseeing its children, some would probably always slip through the cracks.
Criminal Nature vs. Criminal Nurture ThemeTracker
Criminal Nature vs. Criminal Nurture Quotes in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed.
Sir Charles had a reputation for being rich, but we did not know how very rich he was until we came to examine his securities. The total value of the estate was close to a million.
I remembered the case well, for it was one in which Holmes had taken an interest on account of the peculiar ferocity of the crime and the wanton brutality which had marked all the actions of the assassin.
He is much attached to her, no doubt, and would lead a lonely life without her, but it would seem the height of selfishness, if he were to stand in the way of her making so brilliant a marriage.
Some deep sorrow gnaws ever at her heart. Sometimes I wonder if she has a guilty memory which haunts her, and sometimes I suspect Barrymore of being a domestic tyrant. I have always felt there was something singular and questionable in this man's character […].
She kept coming back to it that this was a place of danger, and that she would never be happy until I had left it.
Oh, John, John, have I brought you to this? It is my doing, Sir Henry—all mine. He has done nothing except for my sake, and because I asked him.
Her father refused to have anything to do with her, because she had married without his consent, and perhaps for one or two other reasons as well.
The gleam of the match which he struck shone upon his clotted fingers and upon the ghastly pool which widened slowly from the crushed skull of the victim. And it shone upon something else which turned our hearts sick and faint within us—the body of Sir Henry Baskerville!
One cannot always have the success for which one hopes. An investigator needs facts, and not legends or rumors. It has not been a satisfactory case.
That’s lucky for him—in fact, it’s lucky for all of you, since you are all on the wrong side of the law in this matter. I am not sure that as a conscientious detective my first duty is not to arrest the whole household.
Yes, it is an interesting instance of a throwback, which appears to be both physical and spiritual. A study of family portraits is enough to convert a man to the doctrine of reincarnation. The fellow is a Baskerville—that is evident.
The great ordeal was in front of us; at last we were about to make our final effort, and yet Holmes had said nothing, and I could only surmise what his course of action would be.