Ambiguity of Gender in a Questioning Age

As previously discussed in class, the Sir Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” plays around with the roles of gender and gender ideology, primarily through the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, although we have also discussed Watson in this manner. As noted in the Fin de Siècle reading, gender was a primary focus of the time period along with the struggle for personal identity, bringing these issues to the forefront of people’s minds. Through the characters of Holmes and Adler, Doyle mimics the same action by drawing upon stereotypes to make it appear that his characters conform to their given genders, while mixing the ideologies of masculinity and femininity to comment on these developing societal notions.

Within the story, adjectives used to describe the characters are as important as their actions. In the first paragraph on the first page, Sherlock is described as a sort of machine, “cold” and “precise” with “perfect” reasoning and observing skills, never speaking about the “softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.” Whether or not this was definitively the description of a masculine figure at the time, it is along the lines of how society describes masculinity now. Masculine figures show ambition, but not excessive emotion. Placing this description of Holmes in the context of his feelings, or lack thereof, for Irene Adler, seems to solidify the notion that he has better things to worry about than feelings, which sets him on the masculine end of the spectrum. However, the second half of the paragraph turns this metaphor into a more vague question of gender when the machine becomes “delicate” with a “finely adjusted temperament,” threatened by the smallest piece of “grit.” Here, the line separating genders is altered and no longer clearly defined as it was in the first half of the paragraph.

As for Irene Adler, the first introduction the reader has to her is as “the woman,” who “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (1). This statement undeniably aligns her with the female gender and does so through the eyes of a man. The gaze here becomes important when the King of Bohemia describes her as having “the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (8) and later Holmes refers to her as “a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for” (11). What is intriguing about these statements is that a resolute mind is not expected of a woman, but her beauty is mentioned many times within this one story. It seems as if the expectation of women portrayed throughout descriptions of Adler is to be a pretty face, but no resolution or strength of mind are expected. Adler’s masculine description here and eventual disguise as a man tie into the notion from the reading about the icon of New Woman that could “mark an image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence, promising a bright democratic future” (xvii). Adler begins to show this female independence, but in the context of this story, not without masculine-leaning tendencies.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” brings into focus the “questions of contemporary identity, whether concerning gender politics, sexual identity, or conceptions of subjectivity itself” (xvii), in part due to the descriptions and in part due to the processes of thought. In order for Holmes to outsmart Adler, he must think like a woman, and for Adler to outsmart Holmes, she takes on the thinking strategies of a man. The two cross identities, so to speak, in order to play their game, bringing in these topics of the Fin de Siècle and introducing the questions of what makes a person masculine or feminine and where is the line drawn between the two, potentially using gender to highlight the larger theme of ambivalence about the time period. The reading states, “Such problematic complicities and ambivalences at the beginnings of modern feminist thought have proved productive sites for thinking through the articulation of gender with other significant markers of identity” (xviii), and this is what Conan Doyle takes advantage of within the text. Not only is Irene Adler beautiful and intelligent, but she, unlike all of the other white, British, male criminals we’ve read about in the context of these stories, is able to outsmart Sherlock Holmes’ “best plans” by use of “women’s wit” (19). In this instance, what was once believed to be straightforward was taken and challenged, similar to what happened during the Fin de Siècle.