Before we returned to everyone’s favorite detective, we made a couple of small adjustments to the course calendar: the Silberman chapters (3-5) and blog posts that were originally due on October 17 are now due 10/10, leaving more time for writing your midterm take-home exam, which I’ll distribute next time (10/10) and expect by 10/17. On 10/17, we’ll watch the film Refrigerator Mothers as a gateway into our next period of study–the 1950s and 1960s.
Next, I asked everyone to generate a discussion question (Written Response 4) on the Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle’s 1901-1902 masterpiece, and his penultimate full-length Sherlock Holmes novel. The questions were very good–they are included below:
We pursued several of these questions, beginning with our narrator John Watson, who seems to be a more stable, neurotypical voice in this work. His control of the narrative (as opposed to Scarlet, when he cedes to Doyle himself for a time), and the lack of backstory on his military career seem to lend reliability that was previously missing. We also talked great deal about setting of the story, in the moor, which came to represent the loss of reason/sanity, especially in contrast to London, the seat of scientific rationality and home of Holmes and Watson. When Watson travels to the moor, he is making a journey that Victorians would recognize–like Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Jonathan Harker (Dracula), two contemporary protagonists, he is taking a journey into the unknown, away from civilization and into madness. How do we know? Characters in or on the moor abandon reason throughout the story–Charles Baskerville runs away from his home in terror of the hound; Selden is possible insane; Stapleton himself is described as “crazy”by Henry, and even Henry himself, the aristocratic lord, has a nervous breakdown after seeing the Hound.
We dwelt for a minute or two on Holmes extended presence on the moor, as he hides away to better observe the goings-on. Is this a fitting place for him, given that he may exist outside the boundaries of neurotypicality? Or is his ability to handle all of the creepiness of the moor (unlike his compatriots) more evidence of his supreme rationality? We saw how the television series Sherlock answered this question–Holmes becomes very unhinged after thinking he sees a hound, and Watson assumes the voice of reason. Of course, it’s never quite that simple, and later in the episode, we learn that Holmes has been subjected to a drug which heightens his response to fear.
After the break, we looked more carefully at Victorian phrenology, a major influence in this text. If the moor suggests that our environments can influence our mental states, then the practice of phrenology seems to suggest the opposite–namely, that we are biologically destined to be who we are, regardless of our environment. This is, of course, the classic nature versus nurture debate. The Victorians, we suggested, were obsessed with categorization, and the practice of determining personality types through phrenological readings fit into this obsession. Quite popular in England until the mid-nineteenth century, phrenology was used to judge criminality and mental soundness, among other things. By the time Doyle was writing Baskervilles, the practice was passe, leaving us to wonder where Doyle actually stood on it: is his phrenology-obsessed character, Dr. Mortimer, an object of satire? If so, why does our narrator (Watson) seem to use phrenological methods to describe other characters? We looked for these instances, and discovered that both Selden (the convict) and Stapleton (the murderer) were described in ways that linked their physical characteristics (e.g. Selden’s small animal eyes) with their moral character.
Finally, we summarized some of our findings thus far. I handed out a “Neurotypicality as Social Construct” venn diagram (here), and we observed some of the patterns in suggested, adding characters like the Bartleby narrator and Dr. Mortimer to the mix. For next time, we are back into the history of autism, courtesy of Silberman. See you then.