Decoding the Subtext: A Scandal in Bohemia

Decoding the Subtext: A Scandal in Bohemia


Baring-Gould dates A Scandal in Bohemia in May of 1887.  Watson tells us that the date is March of 1888, but throughout the case he eludes to his recent marriage, suggesting a later date. For those that abide by the one marriage rule, this would place the case no earlier than March of 1889.  Given the sensitive subject matter contained within the case, it is highly likely that Watson disguised certain facts, lending weight to the March, 1889 theory.  Watson met Mary in September of 1888, and married her in late ’88, early ’89, suggesting that he would be newly wed in A Scandal in Bohemia; a fact that is verified by Watson’s narrative and several of the statements made by Holmes throughout the case.  A Scandal in Bohemia was first published in July of 1891 and marks the start of what was to become The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  It is the third reminiscence to come from Watson’s pen.


Watson, some months into his marriage, once again finds himself in Baker Street.  There, he finds Holmes engaged by a mysterious letter which promises intrigue and interest. No sooner does Holmes catch Watson up to speed then the sender of the letter arrives, in disguise, to seek Holmes’ aid.  Holmes is immediately able to reveal the identity of this masked client, who turns out to be none other than Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, the hereditary King of Bohemia.  The King requires Holmes’ assistance in retrieving a photograph, the release of which would mean certain scandal.  Holmes’ cunning and wits won’t be enough, however, to retrieve this photograph from its owner; one Ms. Irene Adler, of dubious, and questionable memory.

The Subtext:

The story begins with Watson’s introduction of Ms. Irene Adler. This interesting for a number of reasons, the most prevalent being Watson’s suggestion that there was something definitive concerning this woman and her role in Holmes’ life.  This has led several scholars to make the assumption that Holmes held Adler in some regard; indeed, some scholars have even suggested that the Great Detective was, in fact, in love with the woman.

Seconds later, however, Watson is very particular to note that Holmes is incapable of love, stating that love goes against his very nature, and that there was no possible way that Holmes could have felt anything beyond mere professional admiration for Irene Adler.

I want to take a moment to put these warring allusions into perspective.  Within the span of a paragraph, Watson suggests that Holmes’ interest in Irene went beyond simple professional interest, and then goes on to tell us that Holmes was incapable of love and, hence, could not have possibly loved Irene.  These two statements are in clear conflict, and here one must examine Watson’s motives in order to fully comprehend his intentions.

First, as we have seen in previous cases, Watson is very much interested in romanticizing Holmes.  Holmes himself has called Watson on this on numerous occasions.  It is obvious, then, that Watson feels the need to portray Holmes as a human, quite capable of love.

At the same time, Watson does not want to consider the possibility that Holmes could love, simply for the reason that a Holmes in love would result in a Holmes no longer interested in Watson’s company.  It is clear here, then, that Watson both wants and needs Holmes to be capable of love, and yet does not wish for Holmes to love anyone (aside, perhaps, from Watson, that is).  In other words, Watson wants Holmes to love, but rejects Irene as a source of that love by stating that Holmes is incapable of love, even though he has just gone out of his way to suggest the exact opposite.


We see, too, in Watson’s description of Holmes (as nothing more than a cold, precise, calculating mind, incapable of human emotions) a sense of bitterness, which suggests that Watson longs for something more.  Indeed, Watson even speculates on Holmes as a lover, automatically rejecting the notion, again with much bitterness.

This introduction is quite long-winded, a sign of Watson’s agitation regarding the subject matter.  Indeed, after theorizing on Adler, and Holmes’ interest in her, Watson then turns to his recent marriage, waxing poetically over his wife, married life, and how happy he is for several paragraphs.  The reader is given a sense of falsehood here, as Watson’s assurances that he is happy seem slightly unnecessary.  In fact, it calls to mind the old adage:

Methinks [the boy] doth protest too much.

Finally Watson moves on to the actual case, and by this point the reader is thoroughly convinced that: a) Watson is not entirely as happy as he wants to appear, and b) Holmes has no interest in Adler, aside from professional curiosity and, perhaps, grudging respect.

The case begins with Watson’s arrival at Baker Street.  It should be noted that Watson was not summoned, but rather, found himself in the area and had a keen desire to see Holmes again.  This is curious, for one cannot help but wonder how often during his absence from Baker Street Watson found himself in the area.  How often did his need to see Holmes overwhelm his [supposedly] happily married existence?

It is obvious that Watson is still quite attached to the Great Detective and the life they shared, for upon arriving at Baker Street he refers to the rooms as our lodgings.  Regardless of the dates used, it has evidently been several months since Watson was last entitled to that claim.

Attachment aside, Watson obviously feels a great sense of loss, too, for he refers to Holmes as my former friend and companion.  This is certainly a conflicted narrative, which is perhaps an indication of Watson’s conflicted emotions; he wants to be happy in his married life, and yet he misses Holmes and the life they had together.

As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the Study in Scarlet, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers.

The above passage sums up nicely the entire introduction.  I’m going to analyze this in pieces, for there are several noteworthy elements contained within.

The first in the reference to wooing.  Several scholars have suggested that this paragraph references Mary Morstan, or some earlier wife.  One can argue, however, that this passage refers instead to Holmes.  There are two points in favour of this theory, which we will examine in turn:

1) Watson mentions his wooing and A Study in Scarlet in the same sentence.  This implies that the two are related.  We know that Watson was a bachelor in A Study in Scarlet, for it was then that he first took rooms with Sherlock Holmes.  We know too that that he had not met any particular female during this period, for the case ends with the two men ensconced in Baker Street, cohabiting peacefully.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that since Watson mentions the two he wishes us to associate his wooing with A Study in Scarlet.  And since Watson was a bachelor with no female prospects in A Study in Scarlet, Watson intends for us to connect said wooing to Holmes.

2) Watson, in reflecting back on his wooing, is overcome with a keen desire to see Holmes again.  If, as some scholars have suggested, this wooing was in reference to Watson’s wife, it is very likely that the memory should result in a keen desire for Watson to head home and see his wife.  Since, instead, it is Holmes that Watson suddenly desires to see, one can easily connect the two and suggest that Watson’s desire to see Holmes is directly related to his earlier wooing.  This theory becomes even more prevalent when one considers the fact that Watson just happened to find himself in Baker Street, a clear indication that Watson’s subconscious desire for Holmes was directing his actions.

Heading inside, Watson takes particular care to mention Holmes’ reaction upon seeing his old friend and biographer.  It is evident that Watson worried over this reaction, and so he is pleased to learn that Holmes is thrilled by Watson’s arrival.  In fact, the two immediately fall back into familiar patterns, bantering back and forth and in general enjoying one another’s company.  It is obvious, then, that regardless of where either man is in his life, together they are timeless.

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

“Seven!” I answered.

“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson.”

There is clear teasing in this exchange, and one gets the impression that Holmes delights in getting a rise out of Watson, especially where his marriage (something that Holmes does not, as we will see in The Sign of Four, approve of) is concerned.

I want to take a moment now to touch on the dating of this story.  Assuming Baring-Gould’s chronology, which dates A Scandal in Bohemia in May of 1887 and Watson’s first marriage in the late fall of 1886 or early winter of 1887, then it is safe to say that several months have passed between Watson’s marriage and this case.  This seems reasonable when one examines the dialogue contained within the story.  It is obvious, based solely upon Holmes and Watson’s interaction, that they have not seen one another since Watson’s marriage.

So far Baring-Gould’s chronology seems accurate, except that he dates The Reigate Squires in April of 1887, and that this story takes place after Watson’s marriage.  If this is the case, then Holmes and Watson have seen one another since Watson’s ‘first’ marriage, and since the dialogue in A Scandal in Bohemia suggests otherwise, we can automatically discount Baring-Gould’s date and assume a date of 1889, making the wife in question Mary Morstan.

It is important to clarify dates, because, as previously mentioned, it has been some months since Holmes and Watson last saw one another.  Indeed, it is curious to note that Holmes has not sought Watson out since Watson’s marriage.  For two close and intimate friends this is slightly unusual, as one would expect that their friendship would continue regardless of Watson’s martial status.  One cannot help but wonder at the reasons behind this drifting apart, particularly in the context of Watson’s marriage.  It is obvious here that both men felt some level of awkwardness; a usual sensation for two men bound solely by friendship.

It is interesting to note, too, that, despite the passage of months, Holmes and Watson immediately fall back into their previous patterns; Holmes deducing to Watson’s amazement, Watson’s amazement fuelling Holmes’ deductions.  It is evident here that Holmes missed Watson, as well as the chance to show off his skills for an enthusiastic audience.  That Watson missed Holmes has never been in doubt.

In fact, Holmes is so glad to see his old friend and companion that he immediately includes Watson in his latest case, not bothering to ask Watson if he has the time (despite the fact that Watson now has both a practice and a family life).  Watson, it is interesting to note, does not consider either before agreeing readily.

Hold it up to the light.”

I did so, and saw a large “E” with a small “g,” a “P,” and a large “G” with a small “t” woven into the texture of the paper.

“What do you make of that?” asked Holmes.

“The name of the maker, no doubt; or his monogram, rather.”

“Not at all. The ‘G’ with the small ‘t’ stands for ‘Gesellschaft,’ which is the German for ‘Company.’ It is a customary contraction like our ‘Co.’ ‘P,’ of course, stands for ‘Papier.’ Now for the ‘Eg.’ Let us glance at our Continental Gazetteer.” He took down a heavy brown volume from his shelves. “Eglow, Eglonitz–here we are, Egria. It is in a German-speaking country–in Bohemia, not far from Carlsbad. ‘Remarkable as being the scene of the death of Wallenstein, and for its numerous glass-factories and paper-mills.’ Ha, ha, my boy, what do you make of that?” His eyes sparkled, and he sent up a great blue triumphant cloud from his cigarette.

Here we are treated to Holmes’ amusement at forcing Watson to try his hand at deduction.  Holmes hands Watson a letter and asks what Watson thinks of the paper.  Watson, rather brilliantly, in able to deduce that the paper is expensive, and that the note has been written by a well educated, upper class male.  Holmes’ pride is obvious in his response of: Ha, ha, my boy.

Aside from the obviousness of Holmes’ excitement, it is curious to note that Holmes, having not seen Watson for some months, and having lost Watson to a wife, possessively refers to him as my boy.

Watson’s description of the incident is even more particular, for he is found once again referring to Holmes’ eyes, this time informing the reader that they sparkled.  I know of no other male who is so preoccupied by his friend’s eyes.

This small exchange is interrupted by the arrival of the King.  Watson, uncertain as to his new role in Holmes’ life, offers to leave, but Holmes will not hear of it.

Stay where you are.  I am lost without my Boswell.

This order to stay is followed by a confession of need, Holmes automatically validating Watson’s role in Holmes’ life by admitting he is lost without Watson, comparing him to Boswell, one of the world’s foremost biographers, and indeed, half of one of the most intense friendships documented in literature.  For a man who does not show emotion openly (and indeed, Watson has told us that love is beyond Holmes’ capabilities) this is a particularly open and telling statement for Holmes to make.

This statement also shows how much Holmes values Watson’s work,  for despite the many times Holmes has downplayed Watson’s writing, it is clear here that Holmes sees some value in it; enough that he is willing to compare Watson to Boswell, a celebrated biographer.

Despite Holmes’ order to remain, Watson is uncertain, and questions how Holmes’ client might feel.  Holmes, again revealing the depths of his affection for Watson, states: Never mind him, a statement which clearly suggests that Watson is far more important to Holmes than his work.

Indeed, upon the King’s arrival, the King does indeed seem uncomfortable with Watson’s presence, and requests to speak to Holmes alone.  Watson does not hesitate in leaving, and yet, Holmes still places Watson above the career he so cherishes.

I rose to go, but Holmes caught me by the wrist and pushed me back into my chair.

Clearly Holmes is unwilling to allow Watson to leave, perhaps in response to his happiness at finally seeing Watson after these so many months.  In fact, he tells the King that it is both or none, again demonstrating Watson’s importance, and Holmes’ desire to once again have Watson by his side.  It is evident, then, that Holmes not only missed Watson, but that Holmes feels some sort of protectiveness where Watson is concerned.

I’m going to deviate for a moment to touch on the theme that runs throughout this story (and indeed, several of the stories).  Here, we are once again given a case in which it is a woman who is at fault.  A woman who threatens ruin.  This is particularly noteworthy in the context of Watson’s marriage, for it becomes obvious that Holmes wishes Watson to reconsider a life entrenched with the female sex.  Indeed, throughout Canon women are seen as quite problematic. This is quite fascinating when one considers that Holmes never marries, nor does he show any interest in a female character.  It is also interesting to note that the majority of the cases which follow this trend occur during Watson’s marriage.

To deviate again, this time with reference to dates, it is interesting to note that Watson once again refers to his marriage, only this time he references A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.  His use of the present tense suggests that his marriage occurred after these cases, which again suggests that the wife in question is Mary Morstan.

We are now going to turn to Irene Adler, and examine why so many scholars felt that Holmes was in love with her.

Holmes, having spent the day masquerading as a groom for Adler’s estate, returns to Baker Street to relay his experience to Watson.  He states:

She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet.

Highly suggestive, and used often as proof positive that Holmes was attracted to the woman.  However, a second later he reveals:

So say the Serpentine Mews, to a man.

It becomes evident, then, that Holmes has not had the opportunity to see Ms. Adler.  Indeed, he is repeating second-hand information.

Seconds later, he refers to Irene Adler’s male visitor as dark, handsome and dashing.  This comes as the result of a first-hand glimpse of the man, and yet no one has suggested Holmes’ attraction to Norton.  When one puts this into context, the only conclusion one can draw is that the theory that Holmes was in love with Irene Adler is quite flawed.

Holmes continues to relay his findings to Watson, but half way into his recollection, he pauses, and states:

I fear that I bore you with these details.

This is very indicative of Holmes’ worry that he might lose Watson’s interest.  When one ties this in to Holmes’ earlier insistence that Watson participate in the case, it becomes quite evident that Holmes misses Watson’s presence and involvement.  It is entirely conceivable that Holmes mourned the loss of his Watson upon Watson’s marriage.

Watson assures Holmes that he is following you closely, a statement which seems to alleviate Holmes’ fears, for Holmes immediately picks up where he left off.

Again we are witness to Holmes’ description of Norton, Irene Adler’s male companion (and later husband).  Although Holmes has mentioned that Adler is a lovely woman, he describes Norton as a remarkably handsome man, dark, aquiline, and moustached. His description of Norton is far more flattering than any description Holmes gives Irene.  It is obvious, then, where Holmes’ interests lie, and while his heart may belong to Watson, he is clearly capable of appreciating an attractive man.

It is interesting to note here, too, Holmes’ preferences for moustaches.

Upon completing his tale, Holmes announces that he has work to do, and instantly requests Watson’s aid.  Watson is, of course, delighted to help.

Then I am your man.

I was sure I might rely upon you.

And off the pair go, to stage a dramatic scam in hopes of discovering the whereabouts of the King’s photograph.  During this time, it is interesting to note that Watson, upon spotting Adler, speaks at length of her beauty, seemingly surprised by it, something that would not have occurred had Holmes implicitly stated her attractiveness.  Indeed, throughout the story, Watson speaks more fondly of Adler than Holmes does.

Understandable, perhaps, when one considers that Holmes has spent at best twenty minutes in her presence (a brief glimpse in front of her house, five minutes in the church, and ten minutes inside her house).  That he could have fallen in love in such a short span of time is quite preposterous.

Returning to the story, their ruse goes off without a hitch, and Watson, following Holmes’ instructions to the letter, waits for his friend on the street corner.  Ten minutes later, Watson is joined by Holmes.

Slipping through the crowd I made my way to the corner of the street, and in ten minutes was rejoiced to find my friend’s arm in mine.

I fail to see how anyone can read the above passage and still insist that Adler claimed some piece of Holmes’ heart.  The whole of it belongs, clearly, to Watson.

Satisfied with the progression of the case, Holmes and Watson return to their rooms.  Upon returning to Baker Street, Watson tells us:

I slept at Baker Street that night.

A curious thing to do, considering Watson has a wife waiting at home.  In fact, Watson makes no mention of his wife, nor does he consider contacting her to let her know where he is.  Holmes, it would appear, is far more important to Watson than the woman he has vowed to cherish ’till death do us part’.

So far, for the Great Detective, the case appears to be running smoothly.  That lasts until the next morning, when they arrive at Adler’s to retrieve the photograph, only to discover that she has vanished, along with the King’s picture.  Holmes is stunned, and one gets the impression that he has quite put out by Adler’s wit.  There is grudging respect there, however, and I suspect that it is this reason (and this reason alone) that he keeps her photograph.  It is possible, too, that Holmes anticipated coming up against Adler in the future, and wanted to commit her image to memory, so that he might avoid falling victim to her disguises (the reader will recall a cheeky, goodnight, Mr. Holmes) a second time.  The cold, callus manner in which he requests the picture is not suggestive of a man in love, but rather, a man slightly annoyed at having been bested.

I very much doubt Holmes’ irritation lasted long, for the case concludes with Holmes setting off in my company for his chambers. One can only conclude, then, with:

Ooh, la, la.

  1. JL82
    January 3rd, 2010 at 17:42
    Quote | #1

    Watson’s motives in saying that Holmes called Adler “The Woman,” could be just the opposite: he knows that this may be interpreted as infatuation on Holmes’ part, and therefore, will distract from speculation about Holmes and Watson’s relationship.

  2. JL82
    April 24th, 2010 at 20:39
    Quote | #2

    It is interesting to note that we never hear an actual threat from Irene Adler – only the king’s fear that she could blackmail him. Even Holmes says “IF she produces the papers for blackmail…”

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