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A Scandal in Bohemia

In A scandal in Bohemia, the king of Bohemia approaches Holmes with the belief that he is about to be blackmailed by a spurned ex-lover named, Irene Adler, who has the intention of revealing their affair by publicizing a photograph of her and the king taken at the time of the affair. The king employs Holmes to retrieve the photograph in order to save the reputation of the king. The drama that relates to the retrieval of the photograph happens against a backdrop in which everyone is in disguise and there are fundamental misconceptions as well as a suggested, potential relationship between Adler and Holmes. Ultimately, the drama gives the perception of Adler as a deeply disturbing presence fro Holmes because she confounds his preconception of women’s inability to think rationally (Doyle, 2008).

Sherlock Holmes considers the first photograph the king engages him to retain and realizes that it is symbolizes a dominant representational technology. It may represent a proof of authenticity and as a manipulation too that gives its owner momentous power and authority. The other photograph represents Irene and it replaces the first photograph. Holmes sees exactly what the king sees, “the woman”. The image represents the essential feminine qualities captured in a single image. Watson cryptically starts the narrative to Sherlock Holmes considering Miss Adler as the subject of this image. According to Holmes “Miss Adler is always a woman” (Doyle, 2008). Watson makes the audience believe that Irene Adler holds a prestigious place for Holmes, who is romantically attracted to her, and only to her.

Irene Alder is the only woman who catches Holmes attention. The major question that arises is hwy she represents “the woman” in his mind. Irene Adler has the power for the perfect observing machine because according to Holmes, she is just a mere photograph. To be precise, Adler represents two photographs, the one Holmes was hired to obtain and the one that he receives as payment for his services. Since according to Holmes, Adler would always be “the woman”, it is only appropriate that she should lie to him and foil his plan by disguising herself as a man, thereby necessitating the detective to give himself away unawares. Irene poses a threat not only because she is a commoner capable of embarrassing royalty, but also because she is a woman who can be mistaken for a man. She challenges the detective’s perception of her as well as her conformity to specific gendered behavior and norms. Moreover, Holmes is for a moment deceived by a woman’s disguise as a man (Doyle, 2008).

Holmes notes that he has knowledge of women’s behavior and further advances that women are naturally secretive. He says that “when a woman has an intuition that her house is on fire, her instinct is to immediately rush to the thing which is most valuable”. This is an indication that woman valued their homes. The place of women in the Victorian era was at home taking care of their households. The key role of a woman in the Victorian era was getting married and performing homely chores. Holmes perfectly presents a similar situation where he believes that Irene Adler’s priority was her home. Moreover, Holmes holds the view that women are predictable beings directed by impulse and instinct, fundamentally unlike men who had the know-how to take advantage of those traits (Doyle, 2008).

When Irene appears at Holmes’ front door dressed as a man in a coat and hat instead of a woman in evening dress, Holmes literally fails to see her. He observes her but fails to see her, because he observes the visual laws that dictate the way a woman should appear rather than describing the way she is (Doyle, 2008). A typical Victorian woman was expected wear dresses that portrayed style elements like layering trims, V waists and bell sleeves. Hence the image that Adler presented was not the one that was expected of a won in the 19th century Victorian era.

According to Holmes reasoning, the cabinet photograph of the king he was looking for was too large to be concealed on Irene Adler’s person. So large did the image loom in his mind to the extent that he could only see the photograph when he should be seeing her body. It eventually turns out that the photographic image was not disguised on Irene’s body. Instead, her body itself was hidden from Holmes by the photographic image of her as “the woman” as it was established on his mind (Doyle, 2008).

When Irene Adler thwarts Holmes plan of recovering the photograph and runs away with it, she leaves a note explaining how she fooled him into giving himself away. Adler says that “she takes advantage of the freedom that male costume gives” (Doyle, 2008). This statement illustrates that men had a higher sense of freedom and autonomy compared to women in the Victorian era. Regardless of whether they were single or married, the society expected all Victorian women to be helpless, fragile, weak and incapable of making sound decisions. Men on the other hand were considered autonomous beings able of making sound and logical decisions. This is the reason why Adler decided to disguise herself in a man’s clothes so that she could gain a sense of autonomy and freedom that was accorded to men in the Victorian era.

Adler leaves her other photograph with the king, who might care to possess it. The photograph portrays Adler in her evening dress. However, it is Holmes rather than the king who desires this photograph of a woman alone in what might be referred to as a female costume. The image of Irene Adler in this photograph symbolizes a more predictable feminine sexual object in Holmes’ imaginations. Holmes values the photographs more highly compared to even the jewels offered to him by the King (Doyle, 2008). This is an illustration of a woman as a sexual object. This can also be related to the place of a woman in the Victorian era whereby her chief use was to bearing a large family as well as maintaining a smooth family atmosphere. Though Victorian men were allowed to keep mistresses, their wives or mistresses were expected to be faithful regardless of their own misdemeanors. This implies that women were regarded as objects of sex.

It is thus clear that the Irene Adler uses the first photograph as a weapon to secure and safeguard herself while the second photograph is used by Holmes as a weapon to secure and safeguard his image of “the woman”. When Holmes speaks of Irene Adler or refers to her photograph, it is always on the basis of the prestigious title of the woman. Hence, according to Holmes, the photograph not only symbolizes the woman but it is in itself “the woman”. Tucked away in his file, the photograph replaces Irene Adler as a person (Doyle, 2008). This photograph also serves to remind us that the Victorian ideology of gender blinded even the most observing machine in the world to the extent that it resulted to limitations on vision that even Holmes was obliged to observe.

Holmes has respect for Adler precisely due to the fact the she did not act like women in general. This is the reason why he always referred to her as “the woman”. Adler seems to have entangled herself from the chains that bound a Victorian woman. She eventually attains the much desired independence. In Holmes’ eyes, Adler obscures and dominates her entire sex. It eventually transpires that Adler is in love with a lawyer named Godfrey Norton, whom she subsequently marries (Doyle, 2008). This was contrary to the Victorian era that was marked by hypocritical and artificial relationships. Majority of women married men as an obligation to meet societal expectations rather than out of love. Irene Adler went against this expectation and married the man that she was truly in love with. Adler only intends to keep the photograph so as to safeguard herself incase the king ever tries to harm her.

The tale presents an image that is symbolically real in its relationship to Holmes. This relationship underlines the social position of Holmes as outside the cultural norms that prevailed in the Victorian era. At the beginning of the tale, Holmes is described as loathing the society with is whole soul. Adler disturbs Holmes’ cultural Bohemia by challenging his sense of intellectual superiority (Doyle, 2008). The culture expected men to be intellectually superior compared to women. But it turns out that Adler outwits Holmes intellectually by disguising her actual image.

Adler portrays an entirely opposite image of an ideal Victorian woman. She seems to be in the rule and control Holmes and the king. She keeps the photograph with the aim of preserving a weapon which will always protect her from any steps that the king might take in the future. Hence, the main intention of Adler is to control rather than to destroy (Doyle, 2008). Therefore, the tale is fundamentally concerned with the ideology of replacing male authority figures such as the king of Bohemia and Holmes. The image of Holmes also metaphorically represents a rejected suitor. Additionally, much of significant action concerns street ownership. For example, Holmes stages a small riot in the street in which, in the guise of the clergyman, he is wounded and taken into Adler’s house. A Victorian man was expected to be the sole owner of land and property including his wives and children. This however is not the case with Holmes who loses land ownership to Irene Adler.

In conclusion, Adler becomes an independent being who can infiltrate the streets without the fear of being molested because her male costume gives her the freedom to do so. In this context, the streets become owned through subversion and stealth as parts of the city became progressively redefined as female owned during the period. This marks the end of the Victorian era that was disregarded women


Doyle, A. C. (2008). A Scandal in Bohemia (2nd Ed). Pearson Education, Limited


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