Study Guide

The Return of Sherlock Holmes Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


Hunting metaphors and jungle imagery are motifs, recurring in nearly every story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Watson frequently compares crime-fighting to hunting, casting himself and Holmes as hunters or predators stalking their prey. Generally, Watson mentions hunting briefly, but he sometimes extends the metaphor for entire paragraphs. Here's an example of one of the longest hunting metaphors:

It was a long and melancholy vigil, and yet it brought with it something of the thrill which the hunter feels when he lies beside the water-pool, and waits for the coming of the thirsty beast of prey. What savage creature was it which might steal upon us out of the darkness? Was it a fierce tiger of crime [...] or would it prove to be some skulking jackal [....] (Black Peter.20)

"Fierce tiger of crime" (Black Peter.20)? Oh that Watson. He does get over-the-top at times. Since hunting references crop up so frequently, it begs the question as to why Watson links crime-solving with hunting. Well, both require patience. Watson and Holmes often go on stake-outs, just like hunters do. Hunting, for Watson, also seems to be an activity involving skill, strategy and adventure. This is also how he views fighting crime.

It's also worth noting that all these hunting references help to link solving crimes, especially in the "jungle" of London (Empty House.36), to the British Empire. In the 1890s, hunting was considered a "manly" sport that occurred out in the "wilderness" of the British Empire, in places like African savannas or Indian jungles. Holmes and Watson often go after foreign criminals in England, London especially. So crime-solving for Holmes and Watson is a sort of exciting sport where they track down and capture some sort of foreign "prey."

Watson's "tiger of crime" spiels might seem ridiculous, but his hunting references give us hints as to how detective work, criminals, and foreigners especially were thought of in the late nineteenth century.

Scientific Detachment

Sherlock Holmes is a sort of paragon, or model, for science and rationality. He's frequently described as "cold," "inhuman," logical, etc. The man is practically a robot at times. Holmes is the ultimate detective, with his extreme scientific detachment and logic. What's interesting is that these recurring mentions of scientific detachment aren't always that positive. Holmes is so logical and detached that he's cold and often unpleasant. The use of the word "cold" to describe Holmes may be something of a subtle critique, as well as a stated fact, on Watson's part. Holmes is more of a tool than an actual role model for people. He's the ultimate scientist/detective, but he's also more like a machine than an emotional human being at times.


Crime-solving as theater is a comparison that appears in nearly every story in this collection. Watson notes that their house in Baker Street is like a stage (Priory School.1). In fact, Sherlock Holmes stories read a lot like TV show episodes, complete with new cases, guest stars, recurring cast members, and a handy sum-up at the end of every episode. Though to be more accurate, modern TV shows play out like a Sherlock Holmes story. At any rate, there's a lot of theatrics and performance themes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes himself is often likened to a budding thespian, or actor; he has a definite flair for the dramatic.

Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke out clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. (Six Napoleons.43)

Holmes's penchant for acting contrasts with his extreme scientific detachment and helps to make him a more complex character. He may be a bit like a robot, but he's a robot with an acting-bug. Which is scary actually – he might be a Cylon.

Theater comparisons are also important in terms of narrative. The plots of Sherlock Holmes stories are often structured a lot like a play: they have a clear beginning, middle, and end; everything is resolved at the end; characters often go off on lengthy monologues to explain things; and Holmes often makes dramatic reveals to his audience.


As we noted in the "Writing Style" section, journalism plays an important role in the narrative of Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson's own narrative style has a lot in common with the style of 1890s journalism, as we can see in the fictional newspaper clippings included in lots of the stories. Newspapers also act as an important symbol in these stories though. Newspapers are a source of information and are a major part of daily life here. Journalism in the 1890s was becoming a lot more like the journalism we have today, thanks in part to new communication technologies (like the telegraph) that made it quicker and easier to get information. News was more fast-paced in this era and people were also a lot more aware of what was going on in the world. The cases that Holmes and Watson tackle often have an international scope, and it makes sense that newspapers would play a major role in their work and their daily lives. Holmes and Watson often solve cases very quickly too, which also is reflected by the speed of the news-cycle in this period.


The modes of transportation featured in these stories help to characterize the 1890s and act as important symbols. Trains and bicycles are especially important in the universe of Sherlock Holmes. Trains were getting faster and were going more places in the 1890s, and we frequently see Holmes and Watson catching trains to solve crimes outside of London. In London, the duo usually takes cabs (of the horse-drawn variety) to get around town, but a ton of the characters in these stories opt for a new form of transportation: the bicycle. One of the stories featured here, the "Solitary Cyclist," even hinges on bicycles, and the "Priory School" features a bike chase.

There was actually a huge bicycle craze in the 1890s. New bikes were safer and were relatively cheap, so people of all social classes could own and use them. Bikes and trains help to represent how connected the modern world was becoming; people could move around faster.

Trains and bikes help to collapse not only geographic boundaries (people could travel all over the place pretty easily), but also class boundaries (both rich and poor people could travel). These ideas are also reflected in the crimes that Holmes and Watson solve. Their cases involve people of all social classes and nationalities and often occur in places outside of London.

Want to read more about transportation in Victorian London? Check out this cool site, a Dictionary of Victorian London, that has primary source articles on every topic under the sun.

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