Posted by: marycib | September 29, 2010

Gender and Race

The roles of gender and race materialize in a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, specifically “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”. In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes alludes to the fact that there is only one woman, Irene Adler, who possesses any semblance of power allowing for the constraints of her sex in Victorian society. As Watson describes, “she is always the woman…she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (Doyle 11). While it might seem that Adler tenuously holds a false sense of power during the pursuit of the photograph of her and the King of Bohemia, at the end of the story she still possesses the photograph. But her strength is still compared to that of males when the King of Bohemia says, “She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (Doyle 16). There is still no position in society for a strong woman without a comparison to men. Adler declares in her farewell letter that she keeps the photograph “only to safeguard myself, and to preserve a weapon which will always secure me from any steps which he might take in the future” (Doyle 24). Adler realizes that she is in a position to seize the upper hand and secure her place in society.

With race, however, the somewhat optimistic tone assumed with respect to women is not apparent with race. Effie cannot even confess to her husband that she had married a black man not only due to her fear of society’s reaction, but also because she fears her husband’s reaction. When Effie’s daughter is inside the cottage, she wears a mask and white gloves “so that even those who might see her at the window should not gossip about there being a black child in the neighborhood” (Doyle 224). There is also a condescending tone taken when the portrait of Effie’s late husband is revealed: “There was a portrait within of a man, strikingly handsome and intelligent, but bearing unmistakable signs upon his features of his African descent” (Doyle 223). This description suggests that being of “African descent” somehow detracts from his “handsome” and “intelligent” features. Because Effie fears the stigma of an interracial marriage in Victorian society, she unnecessarily creates a mystery due to the race of her late husband and daughter.


  1. I was also intrigued by Doyle’s portrayal of women in “The Yellow Face”. At the end of the story we are assured of the goodness of the husband and reminded of the failings of the wife. Not only does she keep a secret from her husband (she thinks for his own good) but in the end we see it was done needlessly – “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being” (Doyle Vol I p431) Where earlier in the story this reader expected the truth to confirm what Effie told her husband, that the secret was for his own good, instead we learn that Effie’s own attitude towards race is perhaps more skewed than her husband’s. We learn the extent which she went to conceal her biracial daughter, and this revelation certainly doesn’t cast her in a positive light.

    It is interesting to compare Effie’s secrecy with Irene Adler’s: while Effie conceals her daughter for fear of shame or adversity, Irene threatens to reveal a secret rather than conceal one.

    It would be easy to conclude sexist overtones in the stories, and I won’t deny that they are certainly present in parts, but I think it is important to also note the less than glowing terms used to describe all of Sherlock’s clients and/or suspects – not just his women characters. I think Doyle’s portrayal of women is, as a rule, oversimplistic as opposed to unsavory, and perhaps Effie and Irene are BOTH exceptions to this trend.

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