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Arthur Conan Doyle's The Brown Hand: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

No collection of Victorian Era ghost stories would be complete without a glance into the troubling relationship between Britain and her colonies. Rudyard Kipling’s “At the End of the Passage” and B.M. Croker’s “‘To Let’” are brilliant examples of how invading a foreign culture can conjure the ghosts of guilt and regret in a heart once filled with imperialistic hubris, thirsty for wealth or adventure. Doyle was keenly aware of the disasters incurred by empire. Try to think of a single Sherlock Holmes adventure that didn’t somehow involve a current (The Sign of Four, “The Speckled Band,” “The Crooked Man”) or former (A Study in Scarlet, Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Five Orange Pips”) British colony – the dangers Holmes faces are almost always caused by the shadowy relationship between Britain and a colony. Dabbling in the affairs of another culture transforms the intruder – for better or worse – and the colonizer stands to become haunted by the ghosts of shame and rage that work their way back home. This story is a rich study in colonial sins haunting the guilt -burdened malefactor – all in the perceived safety of the English countryside. The only cure to imperial crimes, Doyle suggests, is complete reimbursement, or – if the transgression is otherwise irredeemable – a “reasonable compromise.” 

 

The story begins with the narrator explaining how he came to inherit his uncle, Sir Dominic Holden’s, immense fortune, and hints at an extremely bizarre backstory to the inheritance. The protagonist (a poor doctor named Hardecar) finds himself bidden to visit his uncle, a former Army surgeon who served for decades in India, at his gloomy house near Stonehenge. Hardecar is impressed by the old man’s bizarre and macabre collection of medical curiosities – cysts, tumors, fetuses, limbs, and organs all pickled in formaldehyde – which line the shelves of his study, and notes that both Holden and his wife seem abysmally unhappy. Hardecar spends the night in the grisly laboratory and is awakened by the sight of a one-handed man in traditional Punjabi robes gazing helplessly at the rows of specimen jars. With an attitude of anguish, he then disappears in the moonlight. Confronted with this phenomenon, Holden explains that the phantom is the source of his misery: years ago, he amputated a Muslim worker’s gangrenous hand and accepted the limb as payment. At first unwilling to part with the limb, he agrees to allow Holden to borrow it for a while as long as it is returned after death, but the hand is destroyed in a fire that ruined part of his morbid collection, and the Punjabi died shortly after, apparently ending the story. However, when the worker died, his ghost followed Holden across the globe, desperate for his hand (Muslim tradition holds that the entire body must be buried in one piece for the soul to go to Paradise, and that a dismembered man will roam the world until he is reunited with his limbs).

 

Holden believes that the ghost will never be satisfied, but Hardecar suggests finding a replacement hand to appease his spirit. He goes to a naval hospital and pickles the amputated hand of an Indian sailor, placing it on the shelf for the ghost to find. Unfortunately, Hardecar realizes that he has made a mistake when the spirit rages at him – shaking the stump of his right hand at the pickled limb: a left hand. Deeply outraged, the ghost smashes the jar on the floor and storms out of the room. Before the ghost can be angered any further, Hardecar returns to the hospital where the sailor’s right hand is also at the morgue. He places the right hand on the shelf and waits for the miserable spirit to find it. Afraid for Hardecar’s life (now that he is aware that the ghost which smashed the jar can manifest physically in the world), Holden refuses to let him sleep in the lab, so everyone goes to their beds and waits to see what happens. In the morning, Holden’s mood is entirely transformed – relieved and rested, he reports that the ghost woke him up in his bed, appearing with two hands. Face illuminated with joy, the spirit made three bows to the shocked surgeon, before disappearing forever. The Holdens lived the rest of their days in unprecedented peace and happiness, and when they died during an epidemic, it was found that their wills had been altered to leave their vast fortune to Hardecar in thanks for putting them, and the Punjabi, to rest.

 

By 1857 the experiment of the British Empire had run into the most cataclysmic colonial misadventure since the Black Hole of Calcutta. The Indian Mutiny was a costly conflict drenched in gore and noted for its civilian massacres, moral travesties, and grisly retributions. Blood was spilled liberally on both sides, and all parties were guilty of crimes against humanity. When the British finally squelched the rebellion, its public image and national identity had been damaged irreparably. By the time this story was published British atrocities in Africa, China, India, and South America had continued to plague the public imagination, haunting the sense of national pride and morality with the ghosts of guilt, shame, and disgust. It was a haunting which Doyle more than once chose to tackle, but perhaps none go further in their exploration of colonial trauma, distrust, and reparations than “The Brown Hand.”  

 

Infusing his ghost tale with a taste of the logic and deduction, Doyle provides a solution to the disastrous race relations in the British Empire – making symbolic reparations in place of irredeemable losses to Anglo-Saxon colonial ventures. Life and limb may not be replicable, but suitable compensations and national gestures of apology can be made. Other Doyle ghost stories have far grimmer plots, but this one attempts to exorcise a social ill rather than take the pessimistic stance that many colonial ghost stories (see: Kipling) strike. Images of decayed invaders feature prominently in the landscape with its Roman ruins, foreshadowing the Empire’s ghostly fate if left unaltered, draping the plot in a dreary pall of constricting doom. While the specter is certainly not duped into believing the replacement hand to be the original, it responds to a respectful effort to right the wrong (no pun intended). After this the suffocating vapors dissipate from the English countryside. A similar effort, Doyle ventures, would exorcise the demons of the spiritually anemic Victorian society.

 

You can read the original story HERE

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Doyle's best horror and ghost stories HERE

 

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