Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The unsettling moorside setting of the novel draws on the tradition of moors in earlier gothic novels, such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, as terrifying, eerie, and almost supernatural spaces. The moor itself represents danger, fear, and irrationality. All the violence in the novel occurs on the moor, including the random and shocking death of the wild pony in the Grimpen Mire. The pony’s death emphasizes the moor as an unpredictable and even actively hostile locale. In addition, the moor itself seems to inspire irrationality in others. The common folk who live on the moor are all portrayed as superstitious and credulous. Sir Henry Baskerville doesn’t believe in the family curse until he’s forced to walk on the moor at night and begins to give credence to the curse. In addition, a central feature of the moors in the novel is the remnants of primitive societies. Through a Victorian mindset, the invocation of primitive peoples is also an invocation of savagery and irrationality, a world far removed from what they saw as civilized and rational Victorian Britain.
The titular hound of the Baskervilles primarily symbolizes the tension between science and superstition within the novel. Even characters with scientific backgrounds like Dr. Mortimer and Dr. Watson find the terrifying howling and large footprints a challenge to their otherwise fairly rational minds. Watson keeps circling back to the fact that he hears the hound’s howl as something impossible to explain away, leaving open the possibility of a supernatural explanation. As he lays out the arguments for a supernatural or a real hound, Watson is forced to admit “the natural explanation offers almost as many difficulties as the other,” because of the complex logistics of hiding a hound on the moor. Only by revealing the corporeality of the hound, can Holmes dispel superstition once and for all. By the end, we are left with a dog painted with phosphorus, and the triumph of science and reason—Holmes’s methods—over superstition.
However, the hound also represents the dark side of the Baskerville family and the curse itself. The hound of legend appears initially as a cosmic punishment for Sir Hugo Baskerville’s horrific violence and greed in hunting a young woman like a fox or deer, forcing the hunter to become the hunted. The hound, in this sense, represents Hugo’s inhumane cruelty. Just as Hugo Baskerville hunts a young woman with dogs, Mr. Stapleton, centuries later, again chooses a dog as his weapon of choice. It is no coincidence that Holmes notes that Mr. Stapleton bears a striking resemblance to Hugo out of all the Baskerville ancestors, just as his father before him was said to. If there is a curse of the Baskerville family, it seems to be a more mundane inheritance of a tendency toward violence that some of the branches possess. In this way the hound ties into the novel’s use of Victorian ideas around inheritance, bloodlines, and genetics.
Mr. Stapleton’s Net
Mr. Stapleton’s omnipresent butterfly net signals his dark intentions. He carries his net at all times, even when he jealously berates Sir Henry for his attentions toward Miss Stapleton. In observing this scene, Watson calls the net “absurd,” and indeed, it at first appears to be a comical quirk of Mr. Stapleton’s character. In hindsight, his focus on trapping and snaring animals and insects can bring to mind Hugo Baskerville’s hunting. As Watson realizes when Holmes reveals Mr. Stapleton as his prime suspect, Mr. Stapleton must use patience and craftiness in catching his specimens, more like a hunter than a harmless scientist. Notably, Watson and Holmes use net imagery when discussing the plot against Sir Henry Baskerville, both to describe the danger threatening to ensnare Sir Henry and Holmes’s plot to entrap the culprit. With this in mind, Mr. Stapleton’s net is an early visual clue to his true identity as the culprit.