Madame Irene Adler is a Femme Fatale Archetype

Although Irene Adler is a minor character in “A Scandal in Bohemia” by Conan Dolye, she is described as a femme fatale archetype, which is a cliche of detective fiction. Ironically, her name means “peace” in Greek, which is not what she is to Sherlock Holmes and Watson throughout the short story as his intellectual rival. Within the first page, she is described as “dubious” and the only woman to oppose Holmes. This single detail establishes the power at play against the detective. Holmes is sure of her strong intelligence and will. He states, “She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men.” (Doyle, 8) Two characteristics of a femme fatale are seductiveness and to disrupt the patriarchy, causing men to panic. In this quote, Holmes explicitly states that she is very beautiful and that she is cunning, painting Adler as the stereotypical villain-esc femme fatale. 


Mid-way through the story, Adler hurriedly gets married. This action does not align with marriage standards of the time, however the cultural and social expectation that when married, a woman can not own property; therefore the incriminating picture Adler is hiding would technically be her husband’s. Legally, the highly sought after picture is no longer Adler’s after marriage. This is a strategic move on femme fatale Adler’s part; seducing a man to marry her just to use him as jailbait. Also, Adler crossdresses as a man, which is defintutally not the norm in the Victorian Era. Adler’s marriage and crossdressing separates her from any other woman (not that there are any in the stories we read, other than another bride), furthering her as a femme fatale by challenging social concepts. 

Even though Holmes solves the case (which is very Victorian happy ending of him), Adler still gets the best of him, hence her degrading nickname “the woman.” Watson says of Holmes, “He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.” (Doyle, 19) In this quote Watson tells us that Holmes has a specific image of women and often made fun of women’s intelligence. The seductive, daring Adler broke his image. To Holmes, Irene Adler is a dangerous woman that breaks the mold of what he and most of society believes of women, and is therefore her intelligence (and by extension existence) is a threat to his reputation as a detective and man. 

4 thoughts on “Madame Irene Adler is a Femme Fatale Archetype”

  1. I completely agree with you, I do believe that Irene Adler is painted as a femme fatale figure in the story, and I would encourage you to think about how this archetype situates her in the plot. After all, Irene Adler is just as smart (if not smarter) than Holmes, and this coupled with her independent nature as a woman results in her being vilified. Doesn’t it just make sense that a beautiful, intelligent, and independent woman would have to be the villain? After all, she was doing the opposite of what women of the time were expected to do — going as far as crossdressing, as you mention. Overall, I agree with you but would just add that looking at this through feminist theory would deepen your argument.

  2. I enjoyed your post as it fully explained Irene’s role in the story and what she represents. Specifically, the point about her getting married usually is a step back for female characters because it reverts back to the traditional mold. In this instance, her still having the picture and crossdressing showcases the power she has and further portrays the New Woman. I think it is significant that Sherlock Holmes, who is usually the one who comes out on top, is bested by a woman in this story and not another man. It would be interesting to see how a spinoff would look where Irene is the main character solving mysteries her own way.

  3. I Loved reading your post and I totally agree with you. To the point of one of my fellow commenters, I find it eyebrow-raising that Irene WOULD be the villain, but I digress. I wonder if reading Irene Adler through a queer lens would add any depth to this argument. The fact that she cross-dresses could be a point to build off, or a feminist lens, adding some New Women flare to the text. Overall, some really good takes.

  4. I believe your quote about Irene having “the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” connects really well to our conversation about homosocial desire (Doyle, 8). Sherlock was believed to not have time for things like love and women however “the woman” that entices him has both male and female attributes. Irene even dresses in a way that modern society would consider “androgynous”. Just adding to the idea that maybe just maybe this story is just about sexuality and gender appearances that exists outside the binary.

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