Perhaps no character in the history of literature is so endowed with pure reason as is Sherlock Holmes. His fictional prowess is such that both his first and last name have been turned into adjectives (Sherlockian, Holmesian) used to describe people of unusual perceptiveness and reasoning. While Holmes is a character with a real-life inspiration—Arthur Conan Doyle’s college professor Joseph Bell—he is also a product of the optimism of Doyle’s time, which had an increasing sense that the rationality of science would one day be able to explain all of life’s mysteries. In Holmes, Doyle creates a character who embodies this belief, with Holmes’ success at detective work suggesting that reason has the ability to cut through not only natural mysteries, like alleged hauntings, but also the criminal mysteries that man creates through his subterfuge and cunning—if one can only overcome the emotions that tend to cloud that reason.
From his introduction, Holmes shows how much information is available to a thinking, logical man if he only chooses to look for it. For instance, when Watson and Holmes discover they’ve missed a caller at Baker Street, Holmes is able to deduce the name of the caller (Dr. Mortimer), his age, his occupation, where he lives, and even what pets he owns from the walking stick that Mortimer left behind. Holmes accomplishes this through careful consideration of all of the elements of the walking stick—its dedicatory plaque, how worn it is, where it’s been chewed on—coupled with a consideration of what might reasonably be deduced from those elements. When Watson attempts this, his deductions prove all wrong, because he has failed to take into consideration all of the facts. Instead, Watson crafts a fanciful, even emotional, story featuring what he imagines about the owner. Watson’s attempts only use some of the facts, and he makes emotional deductions that aren’t supported by evidence—such as when he imagines Mortimer to be a bumbling old country doctor. This reliance on emotion, rather than reason, leads Watson astray.
A similar conflict between reason and rationality occurs when Holmes and Watson are forced to confront the possibility of a supernatural explanation for the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. The (quite understandable) emotions that the inhabitants of Baskerville Hall and Dr. Watson feel about a hellhound stalking them blind them to the empirical realities of that hound. That is, the dog leaves very real footprints, and its demonstrably real howl—that of a regular, and not otherworldly, dog—is heard throughout the moor. An eminently rational man, Holmes knows that such physical traces must come from a physical animal. Indeed, when the animal finally makes its attempt on Sir Henry Baskerville, Holmes is the first to shoot it, because he knows that—rationally—an animal that has the physical body needed to leave footprints in the moor also has a physical body that can be brought down by bullets. The others simply stand in terror. Similarly, Holmes is the first to recognize that the beast does not really have glowing eyes, and does not breathe fire, but rather has been painted with phosphorous. He is able to do this because his extreme rationality has overridden the natural emotion of fear affecting the reasoning skills of Watson and Mortimer. This, in turn, enables Holmes to unravel the hound’s mystery.
Even Holmes’ decision to “stake out” Baskerville Hall from the nomadic hut on the moor—a choice that ultimately allows the case to be solved—is one enabled by a triumph of reason over emotion. When Watson imagines Neolithic man living in these huts, he shudders and pities anyone that would have to live under such conditions. The same is true when Watson ponders the case of Selden, the escaped convict living on the moor. He feels a kind of empathy for the man on the run, even going so far as to suggest that the hardships Selden undergoes on the moor should count as partial repayment for his crimes. Holmes, however, realizes that the moor managed to keep Neolithic man alive. This means that Holmes can be sure that he won’t freeze to death on the moor, or die of dehydration or starvation. As such, any qualms he might have about living on the moor are strictly emotional grievances about giving up creature comforts. In addition, since he knows that living on the moor will give him an unbiased viewpoint of the events at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is able to forgo any such concerns about comfort and attend to his rational desire for information. This, in turn, allows the case to be cracked.
Perhaps the most convincing proof of reason’s power is not found in Holmes’ actions and deductions but rather through his inaction. The detective possesses such strong abilities that Doyle has to write him out of most of the book just to have the time to develop a thrilling plot—indeed, it’s not entirely clear what Holmes is doing for most of the book, despite the awkward recounting of events Doyle throws in at the end. Were Holmes present at Baskerville Hall from the get-go, his successes suggest that he would have solved the crime almost the moment that he met Jack Stapleton—which would have truncated most of the story! Instead, Doyle holds off Holmes’ appearance until the story reaches the height of its drama, though even this late appearance tends to lessen the dramatic effect, as the reader is certain Holmes will save the day. Thus, while Doyle clearly advocates for the power of reason through Holmes, he might also suggest that a life lived only in the pursuit of reason could be a bit too straightforward and boring—indeed, perhaps even impossible outside of the fictional realm.
The Power of Reason ThemeTracker
The Power of Reason Quotes in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast-table. I stood upon the hearthrug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before.
Really, Watson, you excel yourself […] It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.
I find that before the terrible event occurred several people had seen a creature upon the moor which corresponds with this Baskerville demon, and which could not possibly be an animal known to science. They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral.
My first impression as I opened the door was that a fire had broken out, for the room was so filled with smoke that the light of the lamp upon the table was blurred by it.
Really, Mr. Holmes, this exceeds anything which I could have imagined […] I could understand anyone saying that the words were from a newspaper; but that you should name which, and add that it came from the leading article, is really one of the most remarkable things which I have ever known.
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 […].
There is the death of the last occupant of the Hall, fulfilling so exactly the conditions of the family legend, and there are the repeated reports of…a strange creature upon the moor. Twice I have heard […] the distant baying of a hound.
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.