The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the story titled "A Scandal in Bohemia" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, what is Irene Adler's personality?

Although Irene Adler speaks only a few lines in all of "A Scandal in Bohemia," a clear picture of her personality emerges through the other characters' recollections of her and the letter she leaves Sherlock Holmes. She is a modern, shrewd, independent woman—as the King of Bohemia puts it, a "well-known adventuress" with "the mind of the most resolute of men." Her intelligence is confirmed after Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the king go to her home only to discover she has outsmarted them. "I have been trained as an actress myself," she writes in her letter to Holmes, explaining how she caught on to him. "Male costume is nothing new to me." She is also given to jealousy, as shown by her threat to send the photo of her and the king to the king's future in-laws. Ultimately, however, she shows her decency by agreeing to withhold the controversial photo and put the king's disloyalty behind her.

Why, according to Sherlock Holmes in the story "A Scandal in Bohemia" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, do so many people overlook clues hiding in plain sight?

As Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. John Watson, "you see, but you do not observe." As people go about their lives, they filter out anything they see that's familiar or seemingly unimportant. For example, when Holmes asks Dr. Watson how many steps lead up to Holmes's office, the doctor has no idea—despite having walked up the steps "some hundreds of times." Holmes, on the other hand, knows there are exactly 17 steps—because he's been paying close attention: "I have both seen and observed," he says. His point is that the key to detecting clues is to remain ever-vigilant in observation of the world. Without strong, clue-identifying observation powers, sound reasoning—the bedrock of any successful investigation—is not possible.

How is Sherlock Holmes able to dig up so much information about Irene Adler in the story "A Scandal in Bohemia" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes?

In "A Scandal in Bohemia" Holmes disguises himself as a shabbily dressed groom (a person who works with horses) in order to infiltrate Adler's household in Chapter 1 of the story. His undercover work pays off. Adler's staff easily accepts him—"ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes"—and he uses his position to scope out Adler's house and grounds. He's also able to extract details about her schedule and personal life from her carriage driver: "There is a wonderful sympathy and freemasonry among horsy men," Holmes tells Watson, "Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know." Indeed, Holmes's disguise provides him with intelligence that would have otherwise taken him days or weeks to gather. Of course, two can play at the disguise game. At the end of the story Adler dresses up as a youth and follows Holmes back to Baker Street. Her disguise is so convincing that when she greets Holmes he is none the wiser.

In "A Scandal in Bohemia" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, what do the men's feelings about Irene Adler imply about perceptions of women during the Victorian era?

Much ado is made in this story about Irene Adler's cleverness and independence. So much so, in fact, the King of Bohemia and Sherlock Holmes seemed bowled over by her combination of smarts and beauty. To Sherlock Holmes, Adler is simply "the woman"; no clarification about which of the world's many other women is necessary. As for the king, he whines repeatedly about the circumstances that keep him from marrying Adler, whom he is clearly impressed by. After she gets the best of the men, the king exclaims, "Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen?" The men's reactions to Adler, whom they see as so atypical, strongly imply that women were perceived to be the opposite of Adler: meek, modest, and dependent. Otherwise, they wouldn't take her behavior and attitude as such a surprise. She is clearly an exception.

In what ways does Sherlock Holmes express his admiration for Watson in the story "The Red-Headed League" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes?

Sherlock Holmes demonstrates his fondness and respect for Dr. Watson repeatedly in Chapter 2. In the very beginning of the tale, after Wilson arrives unexpectedly to Holmes's house on Baker Street, Holmes introduces him to Wilson thus: "This gentleman, Mr Wilson, has been my partner and helper in many of my most successful cases, and I have no doubt that he will be of the utmost use to me in yours also." He goes on to praise "my dear Watson" for sharing "my love of all that is bizarre." His eagerness to include Watson in his investigations reinforces his respect for his friend. Additionally, his invitations for Watson to join him in social functions, such as watching a music performance at a local church, further indicate that their relationship is more than professional. Sherlock Holmes clearly views Dr. Watson as both a friend and crime-solving partner.

How is the Scotland Yard police officer, Peter Jones, contrasted with Sherlock Holmes in the story "The Red-Headed League" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes?

Doyle depicts Peter Jones as incompetent in explicit and implicit ways. Holmes tells Watson that Jones is "not a bad fellow, though an absolute imbecile in his profession"—a pretty clear opinion of Jones's abilities. However, the very fact that it is Holmes who has convened the group of men at his house, and it is Holmes who has cracked the case, is an implied rebuke of the police. This idea that it takes an outsider to get results, and that "official" authority figures are incompetent, is now completely taken for granted in popular culture. It anticipates the stereotype, now so common in modern movies and fiction, of the outsider cop or private detective out for justice in his own way.

In the story "The Red-Headed League" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, how is John Clay's arrest an example of situational irony?

John Clay—otherwise known as Vincent Spaulding—is a career criminal featured in Chapter 2. According to the policeman Peter Jones, Clay is a "murderer, thief, smasher, and forger." He's also an insufferable snob, which isn't entirely surprising given his royal lineage. These two competing truths collide into conflict during his arrest. When he is arrested, he demands Jones, a common officer of the law, treat him with proper deference, coldly instructing him to "not touch me with your filthy hands" and to always say "sir" and "please." This is quite a demand coming from a thief and murderer! Clay is so arrogant he believes his high social status still entitles him to respect, despite the fact that he is a veteran criminal. Jones sarcastically agrees to his demands and responds with faux humility: "Well, would you please, sir, march upstairs, where we can get a cab to carry your Highness to the police station?" "That is better," Clay says, with absolutely no self-awareness. The dissonance between his perception of himself and his actual self is farcical, ironic, and the reason the scene works so well. It feels completely Shakespearean—and completely sitcom-like.

In the story titled "The Red-Headed League" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, what does the concert lead Watson to conclude about Sherlock Holmes's nature?

The concert gives Watson a moment to think about human nature in general and Holmes's nature in particular. As he watches Holmes become engrossed in the violin music, Watson concludes Holmes has a "dual nature" that "alternately asserted itself." On one hand, Sherlock Holmes is a coldly rational investigator who relies on logic to reason through his crime cases. On the other hand, at the concert he is taken over completely by the music, showing himself to be—at certain times—a slave to passion. Watson believes both dispositions are a part of Holmes, who goes through life switching between them. Despite his generally detached, no-nonsense demeanor, Holmes is human after all, and if the circumstances are right he can be just as swayed by emotion as anyone else.

On what grounds does Sherlock Holmes argue that life is stranger than fiction in the story "A Case of Identity" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes?

Sherlock Holmes insists fictional stories are no match for real-life dramas. This is because, Holmes explains, the mystery and plots involved in normal people's everyday lives "make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable." Watson disagrees, and cites a crime story reported by a recent edition of the paper as evidence. The article's headline is "A husband's cruelty to his wife"— indicating to Dr. Watson a sad but completely conventional domestic abuse case. Holmes, however, reveals that Watson is completely wrong: the case is remarkably far from cliché. According to the report, the husband's cruelty involved taking out his fake teeth after every meal and chucking them at his wife. After relaying the story Holmes basks victoriously, confident in his views of real-life versus fiction. Holmes's theory seems to be justified given his various cases, so many of which involve bizarre schemes concocted in the pursuit of money, honor, or some other coveted but completely normal end. This includes "A Case of Identity," which chronicles the not-so-typical story of a stepfather who disguises himself as a suitor in order to trick his stepdaughter out of her inheritance. Most people would probably have a hard time dreaming up such a strange scenario.

In the story "A Case of Identity" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, why is Miss Mary Sutherland so easily taken advantage of?

Mary Sutherland isn't a rube. Only 25 years old, she has a good typing job that earns her a decent salary, and she is independently minded enough to defy her father-in-law to attend the gasfitters' ball and seek out the help of Sherlock Holmes when her beau goes missing. Despite her independent spirit Sutherland is dominated by the men in her life. Her father-in-law, James Windibank, exerts control over her twice: in his role as father-in-law, and in his disguise as Hosmer Angel. Additionally, she relies on her dead Australian uncle, Ned, whose trust provides her with an interest payment. All of which is to say, because she is a woman, Sutherland's situation is precarious, despite her independence.

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