The Valley of Fear Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Valley of Fear Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Valley

Vermissa Valley itself is a symbol, one that is essentially explained by the title of the novel. The reader learns early on that John Douglas lived in a literal valley in the western United States. However, even after leaving America, Douglas’ wife refers to living in “the valley of fear.” It is not only a literal valley, but a looming entrapment from which Douglas cannot quite escape.


Encirclement is a strong motif in “Valley of Fear”, meant to illustrate Douglas’ struggle to escape entrapment by the Scowrers. This motif is can be seen in various forms: the moat surrounding Douglas house, the triangle inscribed in a circle which is the mark of the Scowrers, even Douglas’ wedding ring, which he claims he has worn so long he cannot physically remove it. Even the “valley of fear” itself is an example of this motif, as a valley is a geographically sunken area, typically encircled by mountains.

Struggle Against the Unseen

Douglas’ struggle in “The Valley of Fear” can be seen as an allegory of struggle against the unseen. Fear itself is unseen and faceless, and in many ways, so are the Scowrers. Existing as a large and odious organization with many members, it was impossible for Douglas to protect himself completely from their plots. The book tells us that the crimes the Scowrers commit before they are apprehended by Birdy Edwards go completely unpunished, one of the main reasons being the inability of the victim to identify his attacker.

Moriarty is just as removed and unseen, with men under him acting as “invisible agents”. An interesting addition to this allegory is the fact that the body discovered at the beginning of the novel, (thought at first to be Douglas), has been almost decapitated by a shotgun blast. The corpse then, can be seen as figuratively and literally “faceless.”

The Shotgun

The shotgun, which is the murder weapon described at the beginning of the story, is an important symbol. It’s most immediate purpose is obvious: as Holmes points out, it is most definitely an American weapon. The sawed-off shotgun is used by Doyle to clearly underline the American connection. The weapon is also symbolic of the Scowrers themselves however. It is everything the Scowrers are: cold, brutal, and extremely deadly. As Holmes points out, the triggers are wired together, ensuring both barrels discharge at once, maximizing the impact.

The shotgun ironically embodies the paradox of the Scowrers as well. It is sawn off so it can be carried under a coat, in other words, concealed. However, the loud report of the weapon would make a stealthy crime impossible. This is much like the Scowrers, a “secret” society, yet one that everyone is aware of.

Moriarty's Note

Perhaps one of the cleverest pieces of writing in “The Valley of Fear” is Moriarty’s note. It is an extremely short message, consisting of only two sentences: “Dear me, Mr. Holmes. Dear me!” It is through this note that Holmes deduces Douglas’ demise at the hands of his arch rival, making it somehow odious in its simplicity. Moriarty’s note is symbolic of the professor himself. This message, if viewed by a stranger, appears totally innocent, almost polite.

Likewise, Professor Moriarty is viewed by the public as a banal math professor, and is even described by a policeman as “fatherly”. To Holmes, the message means something much more sinister: it taunts from a distance. This fits Holmes description of Moriarty, whom he likens to a “motionless spider.”

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