The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Poison Belt, a novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is remarkable in that we, with the central characters, are permitted to witness what seems to be a global apocalypse, while enduring only minimal emotional fall out. This work, fewer than 100 pages, can be read in a single sitting and covers the lapse of only a few hours.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, of course, best known for his iconic character Sherlock Holmes. His Professor Challenger, the central character of The Poison Belt, however, is not well known to contemporary readers. The Poison Belt is the second of several science-fiction-like stories featuring Challenger and his cronies. It was, like so many of Doyle’s works, first published in The Strand. Challenger is like Holmes in a number of ways, notably they are both astonishingly logical, almost to the point of being unfeeling. And yet, Challenger is unlike Holmes in some important ways, as well. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that either central character is equivalent to Doyle himself.
Apocalyptic experiences, at least in fiction, lead to predictable and sometimes passé questions about the nature of life, the human experience, one’s mortality, and, of course, the ultimate meaning of it all. In The Poison Belt, Doyle’s characters ask themselves these same sorts of questions. And the answers at which they arrive are ambiguous and equivocal at best. However, Doyle manages to end the novella on a note of hope. This is possible, however, only because Doyle’s characters have witnessed without participating in what seems to be the end of the human race. In fact, the narrator, Malone, has the sense that he and his companions “were in four front seats of the stalls at the last act of the drama of the world.” This sense of hope, then, is also experienced second-hand, on the part of the characters and feels less authentic than it might otherwise. Malone’s allusion to the theatre suggests that, like the characters, this viewing, this voyeuristic experience of the apocalypse is a kind of catharsis.
More interesting than the metaphysical questions endemic to all this end-of-the-world business is an entirely different set of questions about the reliability and veracity of scientific authority; questions that come up in various ways throughout the story. It seems that the structure of the novel and the characters themselves, including the narrator, ultimately subvert the role of Challenger as an authoritative scientific voice.
Unique to this particular edition of Doyle’s novella is the “Foreword” by Matthew Sweet. Sweet provides a helpful introduction, placing Doyle’s work in its cultural and historical context. Of particular note is Sweet’s discussion of what early twenty-first century readers might perceive of as racism and its relationship to Darwinian theory, as understood in Doyle’s time. Overall, Sweet provides an interesting exploration of Doyle’s uses and misuses of scientific understanding.
The Poison Belt is certainly not the most interesting, moving, or original treatment of apocalyptic themes. It is, however, representative of an unknown side of a well-known writer.
The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle, Foreword by Matthew Sweet