The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | A Scandal in Bohemia | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

An unnamed narrator describes, in first-person, Sherlock Holmes's obsession with a woman named Irene Adler. After the narrator's description of Adler, he explains he hasn't seen Holmes in some time. The narrator has been occupied with his new wife and his home, and Holmes has either been either holed up in his home on Baker Street, in London, studying crime-solving techniques or out solving crimes in different locales In Europe and Asia.

The narrator then describes a recent encounter he had with Holmes. On an evening in March 1888, while he is travelling home after visiting a patient, the narrator (a doctor, we learn) passes Holmes's house and feels compelled to pay his old friend a visit. When the narrator enters the house, Holmes's greeting reveals his name: Watson. Holmes immediately makes a number of observations about Dr. Watson: he has returned to practicing medicine, he has been walking in the rain recently, and his servant girl is doing a poor job. Watson is astounded by Holmes's assertions, which are all correct, and asks him to explain how he came to them. Holmes laughs, and then explains he simply focused on small but revealing details in Watson's presentation such as: a noticeable scar on Watson's shoe, which indicates that mud was scraped off it (presumably by an incompetent servant); and a mark of nitrate of silver on Watson's finger, indicating his work in medicine. "I see it, I deduce it," he says.

Holmes then asks Watson to look over a letter he's been examining. The letter, which was written on expensive notepaper, says at a quarter to eight this evening, a "gentleman" will pay a visit to Holmes's residence to discuss something important. As well he may be wearing a mask. Holmes and Watson scrutinize the notepaper. They quickly deduce the letter was written by a wealthy Bohemian (someone from the German-speaking central European country). Their predictions are confirmed after the letter writer arrives at Holmes's house.

The masked guest is a towering hulk of a man. At first he claims he is the representative of the House of Ormstein, a royal Bohemian dynasty, but after Holmes sees through his meager disguise he confesses he is indeed the King of Bohemia. He explains his predicament: Five years ago, while he was in Warsaw, he had a relationship with an "adventuress" named Irene Adler. At mention of her name Holmes instructs Watson to find Adler's file in his archives, a comprehensive record of "men and things" the detective keeps. Her file reveals she is a retired American opera singer who was living in London (and had once lived in Warsaw). The king confirms these details, and explains he had sent Adler "some compromising letters" and a photo of the two of them together.

The king explains none of his attempts to silence her have been successful; he has tried to pay her off, and he even had her house burglarized and her luggage confiscated. He is supposed to announce his engagement to the King of Sweden's daughter in three days, but Adler has threatened to send the photo to her family on the day the engagement is announced. Holmes asks the king for Adler's address in London, and instructs Watson to return to his house at three o'clock the next day.

Chapter 2

Watson returns on time, but Holmes isn't there. Soon, however, he arrives home—wearing the disguise of a shabby horse groom. He explains to Watson his disguise enabled him to get information about Adler from her stable staff and to survey her homestead without suspicion. He learned she's frequently visited by an attractive lawyer named Godfrey Norton, which concerns him. If Norton is her lawyer or friend, she may have given him the photo or mentioned it to him; if she's his mistress, however, it's unlikely Norton would know about it. While Holmes was mulling this he saw Adler and Norton race off for the Church of St. Monica in separate carriages. He followed in his own carriage. When he got to church he saw they were at the altar, and after a short time spying he was dragged to the altar to be a witness to their marriage. Holmes worried this meant they would flee together from London (along with the photo), and was relieved when they departed the church in separate carriages. He returned to his house to meet Watson.

Holmes asks if Watson will act as an accomplice while he makes his way into Adler's house to find the location of the photo. Watson cheerfully agrees, despite Holmes's warning that their caper is illegal and may lead to arrest. Holmes explains he will find a way to get into the house. A few minutes after he's inside, the sitting-room window will be opened; at Holmes's signal, Watson is to throw a smoke rocket into the room and yell "fire!"

That evening the duo goes to Adler's house; Holmes is disguised as a clergyman. As Adler's carriage arrives a fight breaks out among the "loafing men" standing nearby and her security personnel. Holmes rushes toward the scene to assist Adler, but when he enters in the fray he's bloodied and knocked down. He's escorted into Adler's sitting room to recover, and after a few minutes one of Adler's maids rushes to open the window and give the bruised clergyman some air. As instructed Watson throws the rocket through the window and yells "fire," setting off a commotion in the house.

Watson and Holmes regroup later outside the house, and Holmes explains he didn't retrieve the photo, but he did identify its location: a recess near the bell pull. Exactly as Holmes had planned, the thought of losing such a precious item to a fire spurred Adler to reach for the photo. Holmes's announcement that the fire was a false alarm, however, spurred her to return the photo to the recess. Holmes also explains that the fighting mob in front of Adler's carriage had been organized by him, and the "blood" on his face was simply red paint. Holmes says he, Watson, and the king should return to the house at eight o'clock the following morning to retrieve the photo, reasoning Adler will not yet be up. As Holmes and Watson reach Holmes's house, a young man walking by wishes Holmes a good night and then disappears.

Chapter 3

The trio arrives at Adler's house the next morning. The king, who has never lost interest in Adler, sulks when Holmes informs him she is now married. The three men walk up to Adler's house, and are met by one of her servants. They are taken aback when the servant addresses Holmes by his name. She informs them Adler and Norton left England on a 5:15 a.m. train. Holmes rushes toward the recess, and pulls out a photo of Adler (by herself) and a letter addressed to him. The letter explains Adler had been notified a few months ago that "the celebrated Sherlock Holmes" may be hired by the king. Still, she didn't realize she was being followed by Sherlock Holmes until the false alarm. After realizing she'd been the target of Holmes, she disguised herself as a youth and followed the "clergyman" to his home and confirmed his true identity. She says the king need not worry; she is now a happily married woman, and has no interest in exposing their former relationship. However, she is holding on to the photo to protect herself from any future harm. After reading the letter, the king moons over her yet again, and complains she cannot be his queen. He thanks Holmes for resolving the matter. Holmes asks the king if he may keep Adler's photo. The king agrees.

Analysis

This first story introduces readers to the collection's two main characters, the crime-solving investigator Sherlock Holmes and his friend (and frequent accomplice) Dr. Watson. The opening anecdote, which describes Holmes's mysterious relationship to the woman named Irene Adler, reveals much about Sherlock Holmes's personality and beliefs.

The specific reason this woman has so captured Holmes's imagination is only alluded to, but it's clear her intense effect on him is atypical. As "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen," Holmes disdains emotional responses such as passion and love, because "such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament" could distract him from his mission and "throw a doubt upon all his mental results," Watson explains. Nonetheless, it is clear Adler has unsettled Holmes, machine or not. Holmes refers to Adler simply as "the woman," further clarification being unnecessary.

After commenting on Holmes's fixation on Adler, Watson, who is narrating the story, moves on to profiling Holmes himself, whom he describes as something of a loner and a workaholic; when he's not traveling around the world solving crimes, he likes to hole up at his home on Baker Street and bury himself in his books. He "loathes" society, Watson tells us—and frequently uses cocaine. Temperamentally, Holmes is extremely composed and unemotional; when Watson arrives to his house, he muses, Holmes "was glad, I think, to see me." His disposition reflects his world view, which is guided by logic and reasoning. He is all head, and very little heart (with exceptions)—and thus has little interest in small talk, niceties, or similar exchanges that don't have a utilitarian purpose. Accordingly, It's no wonder he's not very interested in social functions.

Before the king interrupts their meeting, Holmes explains to Watson his shortcomings in perception. "You see, but you do not observe," he tells Watson. "The distinction is clear." Holmes has trained himself to look at objects and people with fresh eyes and enormous concentration—even mundane things like the number of steps in his house (17, to be precise). This process has enabled him to wring clues out of everyday things most people overlook. He is such an astute clue-catcher because his reasoning depends on it; his deductions—and ultimately, conclusions—are only as good as his information. Thus his remarkable power of observation is a crucial tool for intelligence gathering.

Holmes's confident, if not superior, view of his abilities may explain his infatuation with Irene Adler. She not only outsmarted Sherlock Holmes, the renowned crime-solver and master of disguise, but she challenged his ideas—and surely, many readers' ideas—of what a woman is capable of. When Adler's servant greets Holmes by his name after the trio arrives at the Adler residence, the typically calm investigator gets a "questioning" and "rather startled" look on his face. Her cleverness, it seems, enchants him. (Likewise, the King of Bohemia grows even more enamored of her; "what a woman—oh, what a woman!" he exclaims after reading her letter.)

It's interesting that this story—the very first Sherlock Holmes tale Doyle published, no less—ends in failure. It may seem strange and even a little risky to introduce a new fictional character who fails, but this demonstrates Doyle's originality and, possibly, a subversion of reader expectations. Even great men aren't always great, Doyle seems to be telling the reader. Paradoxically, Holmes's very failure makes him a more sympathetic character.

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