Posted by: yujingx99 | November 2, 2020

“I see it, I deduce it”: Visual Practices in A Scandal in Bohemia

As readers of Othello would know, the ocular proof can be badly abused. Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “A Scandal in Bohemia” occupied by stalking, overseeing and disguising presents various visual practices that shed light on the problems in ways of seeing.
Voyeur? Prying from outside the window
The window is a nexus between the private and public spheres. Its transparency seems to expose the dweller unconscious of an outdoor observer. Standing below Holmes’ window, the dweller becomes a passive subject of Watson’s gaze: “[his] rooms were brilliantly lit, and, even as [Watson] looked up, [Watson] saw his tall spare figure pass twice in a dark silhouette against the blind.” On the next day we find Holmes outside Briony Lodge, prying into the windows of Irene Adler. The “machine” observes his subjects in the house with his “high-power lenses”. However, what he captures is no different from silhouettes, for the internal content of his subjects remains dark, solid, and therefore indecipherable. As Watson demonstrates, the brighter the surroundings, the darker the person. If the scandal of Adler and the King of Bohemia is about a private photo misplaced in public, what they would have faced a publicly practised voyeurism. As the torrent of public opinion surrounds them, their individual character is increasingly neglected and invisible and their images nailed based on an ephemeral moment in life.
Portraitist? Painting pictures in the mind
Other than spatial implications, the story also has highly visualising descriptive language. Watson meticulously and closely describes the costume of the King of Bohemia on his first arrival at 221B Baker Street, generalising the impression as “barbaric opulence”. He also deduces the King’s “strong character” from his weighty appearance. Although his description paints a thorough picture of the King, here he assumes the position no different from the coloniser who fancies the exotic as the barbaric (the characterisation of Irene Adler also has exotic undertones). The dichotomy between the visual and the mental is also underlined and confused through the King’s description of Irene Adler: “she has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men”. It is as if beauty is a natural inclination of women and intellect is exclusive for men. Watson and the King’s textual (re)creations of the pictures they see undergo their own biases, revealing the disparity between different mediums. As they introduce people unknown to their audience, they assume the role of a portraitist who, merges his own perspective with the image of his subject. Sometimes mental pictures are painted before proven by visual evidence. For instance, Watson says that “[the] house [of Irene Adler] was just such as I had pictured it from Sherlock Holmes’ succinct description”, and Holmes is sure about the identity of Godfrey Norton at first glance through his correspondence with former descriptions.
Disguiser? Learning the truth through writing
Watson describes Holmes’ disguise as clergyman as such: “[his] expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime.” Holmes’ disguise borrows a social identity while not assuming its function and responsibility. It is a visual mimesis that relies on stereotypical traits of a certain group, which only tricks the eye. He attempts to use this strategy to finally steal the photo from Irene Adler’s house, only to find the latter more professional than him. Disguise reveals the constructiveness of identity and of reality, something that Holmes attributes to writing, through which the final truth is ironically revealed to him. In the beginning of the story, he rightly deduces the identity of the King of Bohemia through his letter. However, when he converses with the King, he is in total disbelief with writing:
[King:]“There is the writing.”
[Holmes:] “Pooh, pooh! Forgery.”
[King:]“My private note-paper.”
[Holmes:] “Stolen.”
[King:]“My own seal.”
[Holmes:] “Imitated.”
Conscious of the disguise of words, Holmes turns to the ocular proof. However, as a sophisticated disguiser, he should learn the latter’s authenticity is rather parallel to the former, instead of complementary.

Works Consulted
Primary source:
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Strand Magazine, July, 1891. E-version by Stanford Continuing Studies, 2016.
Secondary sources:
Colin, Williamson. “The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes.” Hamlet Lives in Hollywood: John Barrymore and the Acting Tradition Onscreen, edited by Murray Pomerance and Steven Rybin, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2017, pp. 35–46.
Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. “Private and Public Eyes: Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Woman.” Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin De Siecle, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2008, pp. 25–69.


Responses

  1. Hi Yujing! This is a really excellent read, thank you for posting it. Your use of quotes from the short story is so well thought out and really helps to illuminate the points you’re making, which are already very clear. Your points about the implicit bias present in both Watson and the King’s visualization of events and the way that characters’ descriptions of one another and the environment affect the ways they interact with one another are really, really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    • Charlotte, I’m glad you like the post. Thanks for commenting!


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