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This page contains information on "A Scandal in Bohemia." Click here for information on Arthur Conan Doyle. Click here for "The Speckled Band". Click here for "The Blanched Soldier". Click here for "The Final Problem".

Summary of "A Scandal in Bohemia"

This story begins with Watson deciding to drop by and see his close friend, Sherlock Holmes, whom he had not seen much of lately because Watson’s married life had kept him busy. Holmes immediately gives Watson a lesson in the difference between seeing something and observing something. Together, they examine a letter Holmes recently received that gave him instructions to expect a visitor wearing a mask later in the evening. Holmes asks Watson to stay and meet this stranger.

A masked gentleman enters and introduces himself as Count Von Kram and claims he is a member of the Bohemian nobility. Immediately, Holmes discovers who the man really is- Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, the King of Bohemia. When Holmes addresses him properly, the man is shocked his true identity has been discovered and tears off his mask, admitting who he really is. The King is engaged to a daughter of the King of Scandinavia named Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen and needs Holmes’ help in covering up a scandal that could threaten his engagement. The only evidence of the relationship between the King and this other woman, Irene Adler, is a photograph of the two of them. This photograph is currently in Adler’s possession and after multiple unsuccessful attempts to get the photo from her, the King has had to turn to Holmes for assistance.

The next morning, Holmes disguised himself as an unemployed groom and paid a visit to Adler’s home in order to gather more information on the woman. After observing the layout of the house and learning that a lawyer by the name of Mr. Godfrey Norton is her most frequent visitor, Holmes witnesses the two get into two different cabs and head to the same location. Holmes follows them into the church and finds himself forced into being a witness to Godfrey Norton and Irene Adler’s marriage. After the short ceremony, they all go their separate ways.

Holmes devises a plan to get the photograph with Watson’s help that evening. Disguised as a clergyman, Holmes will cause a commotion and emerge with a bloody face, just as Adler, now Mrs. Norton, is arriving home for the evening. Adler has the “clergyman” brought into her home while his wounds are being tended, and Holmes requests a window to be opened so he can breathe fresh air. When he sends a signal, Watson throws a smoke-rocket through the window and yells, “Fire!” Other people take up the call and are thrown into confusion. With the threat of her house burning down, Mrs. Norton rushes to a panel in the wall to protect her most prized possession, giving away the hiding place for the photograph. With this valuable information, Holmes reveals that it is a false alarm and there is no fire, and leaves the house, meeting back up with Watson. When they arrive back at Holmes’ residence, a voice wishes him a good evening. Although he recognizes the voice, he is unable to place it.

The King, Holmes, and Watson arrive and Mrs. Norton’s home the next morning to photograph only to discover that Mrs. Norton and her new husband left in the middle of the night and do not plan on ever returning to England. The panel that previously held the scandalous picture now holds only a picture of Mrs. Norton. She left a note for Holmes, explaining it was her who wished him a good evening, realizing who he was after the suspicious “fire.” Mrs. Norton claims to be in love with her new husband and promises never to expose the King unless he makes threats against her. The King accepts this and offers Holmes a ring as a valuable reward. Impressed by the woman, Holmes asks to keep the photograph of Mrs. Norton and the King gives it to him.


Unless otherwise noted, all textual references refer to "A Scandal in Bohemia" from the collection: The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.(1)

Topics for Discussion

Star Crossed Friends

Watson is a man of average resources and sensibilities while Holmes is, “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen.” (177) The former is drawn into the ordinary interests of life, specifically marriage and household management, while the latter resists them in favor of an drug charged and work centered bachelorhood. Like all cross-purposed associations, the friendship of Holmes and Watson exists only as an intermediary to or a digression from the more normal situations of life. However, Watson’s irresistible need to return to Holmes’ side and Holmes’ uncharacteristically warm reception of him prove it is a digression of great personal significance for both men.


Geographical Space

The client in this story is not only from a foreign country, but the king of a foreign country. Holmes is also able to discern his ethnicity from clues on the letter, and it is obvious he can tell many things about a person's background from such details.

  • How does this story juxtapose the domestic/British life with the foreign/Bohemian life? Do you think this juxtaposition was intentional, or is it the interpretation of the reader? Also, how does this add to the "intrigue" of the case?

Physical Appearance

As with many Victorian narratives, physical traits are used to determine personality traits. When Watson meets the king, the top half of his face is covered with a mask. "From the lower part of his face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy" (181).

  • What does this reveal about people of that era? Was it shallow to presume so much from physical appearance, or was it simply another method of observation? After all, Holmes is constantly using his observation skills to his advantage.

Gender

The story opens with, "To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex" (177) and ends with "And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman" (194).

Irene Adler represents all woman, and although she is a formidable opponent, she is not referred to by her name. Perhaps this is to avoid any personal conflict on Holmes' part, although Watson assures the reader that he is not in love with her (177). Irene Adler is played by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes. She is rarely referred to by her actual name, and instead referred to as "woman" or "muse."

  • Why does Watson refer to the title as honourable, when it really marginalizes and dehumanizes her based on her gender?
  • Think about the recent film-should they have updated Adler's role for modern times, even though the movie is set in the 19th century?
  • Do you think Holmes respects that Adler is able to outwit him, or does it hurt is pride?

The King describes Irene Adler in a similar fashion as Mina is described in Dracula. "She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men" (183). Clearly certain traits (like beauty) are attributed to women, while other traits (like intelligence) are attributed to men. He seems to suggest that she should not be underestimated because she is a woman, as she has the "mind of a man." People of this era seem to believe that certain traits (especially gender-oriented) are mutually exclusive--they cannot be attributed to both men and women. There must be a distinguishing line between them.


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Form is Content

“What a woman – oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”

“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly. (193-194)

The king recognizes that Irene Adler has the fortitude to be a great monarch, and laments her poor family connections bar her from the station. In doing so he implicitly acknowledges it is accidents of history, not rules of meritocratic selection, which empower monarchs. Holmes’ powers of observation allow him to spot this moral defect, and the king’s assumption of universal agreement with it. The detective's ironic quip scores a blow on behalf of Irene Adler, but it also lifts the world view which supports it above the monarch's. Holmes’ status as a partial metonymy for reason, as well as his association with the working gentry, suggests the scientifically informed, post-Enlightenment era gives the middle class freer license in their dealings with aristocracy than it enjoyed in previous centuries -- on the strength of science and reason.


“It was close upon four before the door opened, and a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes, walked into the room. Accustomed as I was to my friend’s amazing powers in the use of disguises, I had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” (184)

While solving his mysteries, Sherlock Holmes often uses multiple disguises in order to obtain more information. This particular mystery is different from many of the others as Holmes spends the large majority of the story in some disguise. Much of the story is told to the reader, through Watson, while Holmes is dressed “normally,” but the action takes place while he is disguised as another person.

The morning after accepting this case, Holmes began is detective work after donning the disguise of an unemployed groom in the hopes he would blend in with the local people and gather information about Irene Adler, the woman at the center of the investigation. He came into contact with her after being asked to bear witness to her marriage to Godfrey Norton. Later, Holmes put on “his broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile…in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman” (188). While disguised as a clergyman, Holmes gains access to Adler’s home and discovers where she hides the compromising photograph. Even though Holmes’ only interactions with Adler have been while he was disguised as another individual, she does recognize him. She follows him home to make sure her assumptions are correct and says, “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes” while passing him on the street (192). At this point, he is still in his clergyman disguise, but Adler is able to see through the disguise.

Holmes’ multiple disguises often help him solve mysteries, but not in this particular story. Interestingly, a case in which Holmes spends most of the time in disguise is the one he does not solve. Part of this can be attributed to his overconfidence in his disguises as they clearly did not work as well as he believed-Adler still knew who he was. While in costume, he allowed his actions to be suspicious, something Adler points out in her letter to him, explaining that is how she realized who he really was. Holmes seems to believe that changing his appearance alone is clever enough to fool a woman. Adler, an actress herself, knows how well physical disguises work because she often uses them herself (193). Underestimating Adler simply because she is a woman is the reason Holmes does not solve this mystery (see Pascale Krumm’s article).(2) Holmes put too much faith in his physical disguise alone, disregarding the fact that the individual he was using them against was an accomplished actress as well and would likely see through any disguise if he slipped up in any way. One of Holmes’ most powerful tools contributed to his failure to solve this case.


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Function of Narrator

Once again, Dr. Watson narrates this story, and once again, his entry into the investigation seems purely coincidental. "I was returning from a journey to a patient when my way led me through Baker Street...I was seized by a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers" (Doyle 177-8). Holmes does not reach out to Watson and request his help. Instead, Watson happens to be passing by and is curious to see how Holmes is doing. This curiosity mirrors the reader's, who (presumably) also wants to know what Holmes is doing.

Particularly in this story, Watson is more than just an aid in Holmes's investigation. His presence is vital, for without it the reader would be ignorant. When the mysterious man arrives at Holmes's home, Watson starts to leave, but Holmes convinces him to stay. "Stay where you are," Holmes says. "I am lost without my Boswell. And this promises to be interesting. It would be a pity to miss it" (Holmes 180). The reader is probably grateful for Holmes's persistence, for if Watson had left, the reader would miss out on the interesting events. Like Holmes, the reader wants Watson to stay.

Watson also offers some speculation on what makes a "good" case. "I was already deeply interested in his inquiry, for, though it was surrounded by none of the grim and strange features which were associated with the two crimes which I have already recorded, still, the nature of the case and the exalted station of the client gave it a character of its own" (Doyle 184). Here, Watson may also mirror the opinions of many readers who prefer the "grim and strange" cases, but nonetheless find themselves intrigued. It may also be a way to convince cynical readers that this is a case worth reading, even though it is lacking in the "grim and strange." On one hand, Watson admits his interest is related to the "exalted station of the client." It is an early example of being "starstruck," because he is excited to be involved in the affairs of royalty. On the other hand, his reference to the "the nature of the case" is more subtle. The case revolves around a photograph that could destroy the King's marriage. There is implication that the photograph is sexual, thus the case strongly resembles a modern day "sex tape scandal." These scandals are so popular in the media because of the sordid, sensational nature. Watson is not immune to this appeal.


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Image Gallery

All images borrowed from Wikimedia Commons (3)

References

(1) Conan Doyle, Arthur. "A Scandal in Bohemia." _The Complete Sherlock Holmes." New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953. 177-194. Print

(2) Pascale Krumm. ""A Scandal in Bohemia" and Sherlock Holmes's Ultimate Mystery Solved." English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 39.2 (1996): 193-203. Project MUSE. Web. 6 May 2011.

(3) The following link redirects you to the Wikimedia Commons main page: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

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