Posted by: Lily R | November 2, 2020

Staging a Scandal in Sherlock Holmes

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the concepts of truth and claim are obscured for both the characters and the reader. Individuals such as the King and Holmes engage in disguise, and the objectivity of portraiture is called into question. When the King originally tells Holmes and Watson about the portrait of Irene Adler, the detectives are unalarmed about its existence. However, when it comes to light that both Adler and the King are pictured in the photograph — and that Adler plans to use it for extortion — its seriousness is multiplied. In this short story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses these moments of obscurity to build a scandal which remains largely unclear to the reader but nevertheless assumes massive importance within the text.

In order to build the suspense and elevation of this scandal, Conan Doyle begins by validating the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes. He is propped up as a genius through his observations of Watson’s incompetent maid and the number of stairs leading to his apartment. When the King enters in disguise, therefore, the reader is already expectant that Holmes will discover his identity. I believe that Conan Doyle chose to introduce the King in disguise in order to dually prove Holmes’ skills and to align the King with trickery and deceit.

The King is implicated in the scandal with Adler in many different ways — he tells Holmes about letters, personal papers, stamps, and photographs — but the only significant form in this story is the portrait depicting both him and Adler. This is a subset of the era this story was written in, as there are now forms of technology which would work to discredit this portrait, such as Photoshop. In some ways, therefore, the scandal is staged by Adler, as she introduces importance to the form of the portrait. If Adler did not tell the King her intentions for the photograph, the scandal would not have come to light and the story would not be written.

I also think it is important to consider the individuals left outside of this story’s narrative. Holmes, being a well-propped-up and trained detective, should have reasonably considered individuals who are also intertwined with the scandal, such as the photographer and the printer. However, Conan Doyle left these individuals out of the narrative in order to better stage the drama of the short story. To the reader, oversights such as this appear relatively obvious, but the author maintains the authority to introduce (or refuse to introduce) complications such as this. In this way, Conan Doyle, is also complicit in the scandal, as his role allowed him to stage a truth claim similar to Adler’s.

Because of the way objectivity and truth are represented through portrait evidence in this story, Holmes is given power when he takes the portrait at the end. The story is framed to view him as a trustworthy protagonist, despite his failed investigation and constant deception throughout the text. If the reader’s perception came from Adler, Holmes may be viewed as the subject of a scandal himself. Because of Conan Doyle’s staging, however, Holmes is entrusted with the evidence with little consideration from surrounding characters or the reader.

This story complicates the ideas of objectivity, truth claim, and scandal by proving that trust can be manipulated depending on who stages the scene. We see this through the King’s explanation of the portrait, the consideration of the photographer and outside parties, and Conan Doyle’s own vision of Holmes as a benevolent genius.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Lily! I love your assertion that Conan Doyle introduced the King in disguise to establish Holmes’s skill as a deductionist. I’m also really interested in your comment that Conan Doyle is complicit in the scandal of his own design through both his exclusion of certain individuals from the story and his willingness to allow Holmes to get away with things he shouldn’t be able to. Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

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