The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Valley (Symbol)

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 a valley of fear. Thus it is not only a literal valley, but also a looming entrapment from which Douglas cannot quite escape.

Encirclement (Motif)

Encirclement is a strong motif in The 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 that 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 (Allegory)

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, typically due to 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 (Symbol)

The shotgun, which is the murder weapon described at the beginning of the story, is an important symbol. Its 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 embodies the ironic 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 discharge of the weapon would make a stealthy crime impossible. This is much like the Scowrers: a “secret” society that everyone knows about.

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!” (319.) 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. To Holmes, the message means something much more sinister: it taunts from a distance.