The title character of The Hound of the Baskervilles is, of course, the most memorable and gripping symbol in the book (including in the literal sense, as it grasps hold of its victims throats!). Vividly described as “an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen” (p. 167), the hound—although ultimately explained rationally as a mixed-breed dog decorated in phosphorous paint—nonetheless symbolizes the dark irrationality and terror of life that we struggle to keep at bay. Both Sir Charles and Selden die with expressions of terror on their face, attempting to flee that which cannot always be fled. Even Sherlock Holmes, the great rationalist, is, we are told by Watson, unnerved when he hears the hound’s cry. To borrow language from Watson’s summary of the case, the hound symbolizes “those dark fears and vague surmises which [cloud] our lives so long and [sometimes] end in so tragic a manner” (p. 171). Of course, a large part of the book’s message is that this symbolic hound can be defeated—readers must not forget that Holmes empties a revolver into the beast! At the metaphorical level, however, Holmes’ real weapon is his mind, reinforcing the novel’s thematic emphasis upon the necessity and the power of the intellect.
Baskerville Hall is another symbol that looms large in the text. It has fallen into a general state of disrepair, representing the way in which the Baskerville’s family legacy has fallen. Sir Henry’s declared intent to restore the Hall is thus his declared intent to restore his family’s legacy of good works, a legacy that has been tarnished. To what extent are any of us able to come to terms with our families’ “dark fate” (p. 104)—the various “hell-hound[s]” (p. 112) which, symbolically speaking, pursue us all—as well as their conflicted presents in order to restore hope for their future is a thematic concern that Conan Doyle advances through the use of the family home as a symbol (a common trope in Gothic literature).
The moors surrounding Baskerville Hall, and particularly the Great Grimpen Mire, also serve symbolic purposes in the novel. Watson makes it clear that the moor and mire are a disorienting location: “Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track” (p. 86). The moor is, Beryl Stapleton warns Sir Henry, a place to be avoided as one values life and reason. The physical setting thus acts as a metaphor for the way late Victorian society felt “mired” in a fin de siecle malaise regarding the end of the old certainties of life.
The net, first seen as a tool used by Stapleton in his butterfly collecting, is another symbol in the book. Indeed, Chapter 13 takes its title (“Fixing the Nets”) by using Stapleton’s butterfly nets as a metaphor for the resolution of the mystery: as Holmes says, “We have him, Watson, we have him, and I dare swear that before tomorrow night he will be fluttering in our net as helpless as one of his own butterflies” (p. 156). In this metaphor, it is Holmes, not Stapleton, who is the “catcher”—of criminals.