Themes and Meanings

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“A Scandal in Bohemia” was the first Sherlock Holmes short story that Arthur Conan Doyle published. Two earlier novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), had already introduced the great detective to the public, but largely in the character of, as Watson says, “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” A theme that runs throughout the Holmes stories is that reason is a trusted guide through the confusion of everyday life. As Holmes says to Watson, representative of the ordinary person, “You have not observed. And yet you have seen.”

For those who both see and observe—such as Holmes—even an apparently meaningless detail speaks volumes—and the trained mind is a reliable guide. However, there is something mechanical about the way that Holmes is presented in the two long stories that introduced him, and Doyle both modifies his theme and amplifies the character of Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

The story’s first sentence says of Irene Adler, “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”; the last sentence is almost identical: It says that Holmes always refers to her “under the honorable title of the woman.” In this story, if Sherlock Holmes is the intellect, Irene Adler is clearly the emotions. Watson emphasizes this interpretation by stating Holmes’s aversion to all emotions as disruptive of the working of his mind, comparing a strong emotion in Holmes to a piece of grit in a delicate machine. Here again the reader sees the image of the machine used to describe Holmes. However, to make Holmes only a machine denies him his full humanity; he is indeed capable of powerful feelings, as the story shows.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” might loosely be called the most feminist of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Holmes is something of a misogynist in many of the stories, often scorning what he regards as a feminine tendency to emotionalize life. He frequently makes generalizations about women that seem glib from one who lacks everyday contact with them. That a woman could outreason Holmes, could see one step further than he has, and could anticipate his next move teaches him a lesson that he does not forget: As Watson says near the conclusion, “He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.” Holmes has discovered humanity both in women and in himself.

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