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.