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“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Doyle is a classic Gothic tale with a twist

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“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Doyle is a classic Gothic tale with a twist. The traditional Gothic tropes, such as an abbey, castle, or other ruined estate, groans or shrieks, a male protagonist and an evil male antagonist, a female heroine, murderers or assassins, skeletons or skulls and other signs of death, ghosts or the suggestion of ghosts, and a murder in the dark, are all used in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” The twist is that Doyle railed against the superstitious tropes of the traditional Gothic tale by presenting Holmes, a character that showed science will overcome wild fears every time. Nevertheless, he liberally used traditional Gothic tropes to create the very atmosphere of irrational fear that he would then dispel with reason. However, in line with classic Gothic literature, Doyle does follow the formula written about by Ed Cameron in his paper titled “Ironic Escapism in the Symbolic Spread of Gothic Materialist Meaning” when he says, “Even though Gothic novels, according to Halberstam, introduce all sorts of unnatural acts – ranging from theft, incest and rape to torture and murder – Gothic authors do not condone such perversity; they take a moral stance against these degenerate acts which produce such monstrosity” (23). In his story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, Doyle will take the traditional moral stance against degeneracy, and use the murderer to end his own life and solve the mystery as he does exactly this in the denouement of his story.

The Gothic plot is similar to other genre’s in that it represents a curve with a beginning opening scene, a series of crisis building to a climax, and then the curve goes down as the resolution occurs and the denouement if necessary is written. The opening often begins with a description of the scene where the story will occur. In Gothic literature it will usually involve a painting of a picture of gloom which is composed of an ancient ruined building, a family that is decaying with no heirs, and a conflict that involves the repression or murder of a woman, or both. To contrast with another genre, such as science fiction, the opening would be a scene that occurs on a beautiful planet light years away from Earth. Instead of decay one might expect to be enticed by a beautiful beyond imagination world where we want to live. The same contrast can be made with a western genre novel. It involves a scene where we would love to live. The conflict in these other genres may or may not involve a woman, and the conflict is often not with another human, but often with the challenge of living in a new world, with conflict involving alien beings. Also, in science fiction the climax and resolution is often happy, and humanity survives and triumphs over aliens. In Gothic literature, the ending is not happy in the traditional sense.

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Doyle introduces the apparent supernatural to produce the dark Gothic mood and tone of the story and uses classic Gothic tropes like oppression of women, and murder, which are set in a dark, decaying estate in the possession of an heirless male to introduce the uncanny in his story. This was a familiar technique of Gothic authors during this time. As Ed Cameron says in his essay “Ironic Escapism in the Symbolic Spread of Gothic Materialist Meaning”, that “Along with all these arguments in favor of understanding the Gothic sublime as at least a latent form of the uncanny, lies the supposition that the late eighteenth century fostered a favorable environment for the literary development of the uncanny” (18). Doyle will nonetheless use science to explain the apparently uncanny or supernatural and bring the plot line to resolution.

His description of the villain Dr. Roylott correlates his physical appearance with the interior evil of the man as was common during this period. Corrina Wagner says in her essay “The Dream of a Transparent Body: Identity, Science and the Gothic Novel” that “This attempt is manifested most clearly, for instance, in the popular science of physiognomy, which posited that individual character was embodied in the features of the face” (75). Here is how the character Holmes in Doyle’s story describes Dr. Roylott “A large face, scared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every deep evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep set, bile-shot eyes, and the high thin fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey (273). In relating an uncanny resemblance with evil, Doyle does not deviate from classic Gothic literature.

As Chris Baldick says in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, “The term ‘Gothic’ has become firmly established as the name for one sinister corner of the modern Western imagination, but it seems to work by intuitive suggestion rather than by any agreed precision of reference” (xi.). Part of the intuitive suggestion of calling a piece of literature Gothic is to inform the reader that this genre of literature invokes the dark and supernatural. In the case of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” his twist is to show that the supernatural can be explained scientifically. Baldick says in his introduction that, “Such a contrast helps to clarify the fact that the most troublesome aspect of the term ‘Gothic’ is, indeed, that literary Gothic is really anti-Gothic” (xiii). This is exactly what Doyle is doing by giving us a scientific explanation for every apparently supernatural occurrence. This is also in line with what Baldick asserts that “Gothic fiction on the other hand, usually shows no respect for the wisdom of the past, and indeed tends to portray former ages as prisons of delusion” (xv). Doyle is showing us his derision of the former ages by using the scientific to expose the delusions.

Gothic literature informs the reader that this piece of literature will invoke a connection with the dark past. The term Gothic originated from the architectural style defined during the medieval times when the Catholic Church built huge cathedrals. These cathedrals had pointed arches, pointed windows, angels, ribbed vaulting, and stained glass windows. There were designed to give the impression of a gateway to the heavens. This is one of the reasons there are often references to the Catholic Church. However, the references soon became dark as the abuses of the Church that led to the reformation started to be reflected in the Gothic literature. Images of the Spanish Inquisition are also sometimes eluded in the literature. Now the windows often are used to illustrate the dark of a stormy night, and the only light is when the moon is uncovered to reveal some evil of the night.

The reader can also expect that the Gothic architecture will be reflected in the literature as a building in ruins. The family also can be expected to be portrayed as in ruins and heirless. Every aspect from the architecture, buildings, weather, characters, and plot will be somehow having a decayed and dark tone. Gothic architecture is defined in a more dark way as illustrated in Sir Bertrand: A Fragment, “After a painful march he was stopt by a moated ditch surrounding the place from whence the light proceeded; and by a momentary glimpse of moon-light he had a full view of a large antique mansion, with turrets at the corners, and an ample porch in the centre. The injuries of time were strongly marked on everything about it” (Aikin 3). This shows the classic decay in the use of word antique framed in a moon-lit night. The decay makes us think of death, which is something we all fear, and provoking this fear in us is a classic Gothic literature technique.

Doyle’s, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” has the same type of description. “The building was of grey, lichen-blotched stone, with a high central portion, and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on each side. In one of the wings, the windows were partly broken, and blocked with wooden boards, while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of ruin” (Doyle 276). In contrast to science fiction and western genre the architecture is often beautiful, well maintained, and used to illustrate success or civilization advancement in the case of science fiction. Doyle lets us use our imagination as Baldick talks about when he says concerning Gothic literature, “The Gothic fragment, which is the forerunner of the Gothic tale proper, ingeniously exploits the aesthetic principle behind the appeal of ruined buildings, by suggesting a lost whole which the reader’s imagination is then invited to reconstruct.” Doyle is very effective in using the reader’s imagination to guess about what the Gypsies living on Dr. Roylott’s estate are up to. We are left asking ourselves if they have anything to do with the murder because the Gypsies make us think of curses and magic, which are often used for an evil purpose in Gothic literature.

In traditional Gothic literature the family is often portrayed as heirless and in ruins much as the Gothic Architecture illustrates. In the story I chose to analyze, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, the family and residence is portrayed as follows:

In the last century, however, four successive heirs were of a dissolute and wasteful disposition, and the family ruin was eventually completed by a gambler, in the days of the Regency. Nothing was left save a few acres of ground and the two-hundred year old house, which is itself crushed under a heavy mortgage…the last squire dragged out his existence there living the horrible life of an aristocratic pauper, but his only son, my stepfather… (Doyle 267)

Again, a familiar Gothic trope of an heirless male living in a decaying estate is portrayed. This is to add an uncanny element to the story by inferring that something supernatural is about to occur at this type of estate as readers of this time were used to experience in traditional Gothic literature. Of course, Doyle will in the end explain the uncanny with science through the use of the character Holmes.

The Gothic literature structure is a formulaic plot although authors will use variations at times. Often in Gothic literature it is a man who is involved in the mystery of how the family came into ruin, and how and why a woman was murdered and oppressed. Other women will sometimes be involved in the resolution of the plot. Women in Gothic literature are also reflected in their dark dress. An example of both the oppression of women during this time, and their dress is illustrated in the Gothic story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” by the description of “A lady dressed in black and heavily veiled, who had been sitting in the window, rose as we entered…she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and grey, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of a hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature grey, and her expression was weary and haggard” (Doyle 265). The oppression of a woman is also illustrated in the same story in this quote, “…all efforts were in vain, for she slowly sank and died without having recovered her consciousness. Such was the dreadful end of my beloved sister” (Doyle 270). Doyle will use science to explain this apparently unexplainable death which is his twist on the Gothic approach.

Defining what Gothic does not mean is as difficult as defining what it does mean. It does not often mean a happy ending, unless a dead woman, or woman soon to be dead having her revenge by coming back to haunt her male oppressor is an acceptable happy ending. However, Doyle does give us a sort of happy ending in that all of the supernatural fears are exposed by giving them a scientific explanation, that the male oppressor and murderer does get his just reward, and that the female heroine will live happily ever after as the sole heir of the estate. Holmes explains Dr. Roylott’s demise when he says referring to the poisonous snake he has driven back into Roylott’s room, “And also with the result of causing it to turn upon its master at the other side. Some of the blows of my cane came home, and roused its snakes temper, so that it flew upon the first person it saw. In this way I am no doubt indirectly responsible for Dr Grimesby Roylott’s death, and I cannot say that it is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience” (Doyle 285). The antagonist is dealt his fate by the very Gothic weapon of death that he used to kill the woman he had oppressed.

Finally, to understand the term Gothic is important because without understanding the Gothic is dark and often alludes to the oppression of women during this time will promote the full understanding and enjoyment of Gothic literature. There are many metaphors that will not be evident unless there is an understanding of the allusions of the times these stories are set in. Doyle destroys the rich Gothic vision he originally created in the reader’s mind by using the character Holmes and his scientific methods of criminal investigation to make the story more relevant and entertaining. Remember, that we had the hint of involvement of Gypsies using curses or magic when we are told the when the murdered sister said, “Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” (Doyle 270). Holmes shows us she was in fact referring to a deadly poisonous snake from India that was used by Dr. Roylott to commit her murder, and not to the Gypsies that wore bands with speckles on them. We are also shown that the mystery of entry into the room that Holmes states, “My evidence showed that the door had been fastened upon the inner side, and the windows were blocked by old-fashioned shutters with broad iron bars, which were secured every night” (Doyle 270), is explained by the vent between Dr. Roylott’s room and her sisters room, and the rope that hung on the bed. The snake was trained by Dr. Roylott to climb thru the vent in his room, into the sister’s room, and down the rope to her bed. We are also informed that the ghostly whistle was a training signal used by Dr. Roylott to get the snake to return to his room after the murder to remove the evidence. Doyle finally brings us a unique form of justice when Holmes drives the snake back into Dr. Roylott’s room and ends up killing the killer! What a great way to end the mystery and the story! As you have seen, Doyle was able to write a very successful Gothic story that created the uncanny effects using traditional Gothic tropes, but also thoroughly explaining each apparently supernatural event using science to show the rational cause for each event.

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