The stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle offer an interesting insight into the spirit of the Victorian epoch as well as the personal outlook of women on violent crime. It should be admitted that Victorian society was not ready to agree with the idea that a woman could be involved in a violent crime or have psychological problems and deviations. However, Sherlock’s notable stories “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” proved that a woman could become the initiator of the violent crime, which the detective investigated.
The three stories mentioned above show a woman as a criminal who committed a crime. In this context, it can be admitted that the Victorian world was not ready to consider woman’s individuality and identity in the context of criminal activities. In general, Doyle’s stories could be considered to be the product of the social and cultural environment in which the author lived. Thus, his perception of gender is affected by the epoch because women are predominantly demonstrated as passive actors, approving the stereotypical ideas about Victorian women. At the same time, Doyle still managed to portray some of the women as criminals, which was acceptable to the Victorian mindset.
In Doyle’s stories, Sherlock is represented as the reflection of the attitudes that existed in Victorian England about women and their participation in crimes because they are described both as perpetrators and victims. Sir Arthur did not use women as the antagonists of his stories. On the contrary, he preferred leaving a positive role or the role of a victim to female characters. At the same time, Doyle has managed to create a remarkable female character that embraced the quality of a criminal and the object of Sherlock’s affection. In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Doyle writes, Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as this. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the later Irene Adler, of dubious memory. (Doyle)
Hence, Ms. Adler was an uncommon character in the described epoch. Nonetheless, this personality was specifically admired by Sherlock whose outlook on Victorian values was distorted. What is more, Irene Adler could be more typical of the modern emancipated epoch, in which women are almost equal to men.
Apart from the deviating description of female identity, Doyle also tended to avoid the consideration of the problem of sexual violence. Such a position is also explained by the tangible influence of the Victorian public. While the author failed to use females as primary antagonists, he preferred using them as victims; Doyle also focused on this gender gap because there could be no other perception and idea about the Victorian woman which would be understood and accepted (Hysell 243). The concept of sex in the Victorian world was associated with marital duty; therefore, women had to conform to the traditional conventions, within which they were good mothers and wives.
Although female characters are stereotyped, the fact that gender is one of the key elements of Doyle’s stories is undeniable. As a result, Sherlock Holmes has conditioned critical examination of tales. Specifically, there is a close relationship between gender and rationality because they relate to the cultural context of the described stories. While referring to Adler’s character, it should be admitted that the heroine’s disguise suggests the degree to which the outside world perceives gender as well as how it can be faked and manipulated visually, publicly, and illusionary. Doyle’s stories focus on the natural expression of inborn subjectivity.
Thus, cross-dressing could also imply a rich literary history, but still, it referred to the common problems about femininity and gender in Holmes’s stories. While reading the stories, it is evident that Doyle argues that women create a challenge to traditional Western conceptions of truth related to public transparency, visibility, and space. Additionally, Doyle’s narration supports the idea that public transparency confronts the authentic truth. Holmes’s metaphors also aim to describe the cases to reveal the degree to which this truth and visibility could be congruent with the conventions of Victorian society.
The concept of gender and femininity in Holmes’s stories could also be associated with the way the upper class perceives this issue. When it comes to the tangible and transparent perception of the female role, many stories use metaphors to explain the issue and the social vision of the world. For instance, in “The Adventures of the Norwood Builder”, the author writes, “There is no God heaven, Mr. Holmes, and that same God who has punished that wicked man will show, in His own good time that my son’s hands are guiltless” (Doyle 138). The visual metaphor describes how the author perceives the truth and the visibility of orthodox thinking in the Victorian age. Because images and visibility are associated with knowledge, it is problematic to consider the concept of gender identity. At this point, for Sherlock, Irene Adler is more than just a memorable woman who takes advantage and outdoes him in wit. Moreover, the heroine embodies femininity Holmes believes should be the ideal one. Thus, her entire identity as a woman signifies Sherlock’s acceptance of women being equal to men. What is more interesting is that the protagonists do not associate her with traditional women, namely wives and mothers, but perceive her as an intelligent and witty individual who can compete with men.
The underscored concept of femininity that exceeds the accepted stereotypes is openly revealed in Doyle’s story. Specifically, the author admits, “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and prevails the whole of her sex” (Doyle 5). The description of Irene Adler was cited by Watson. At the end of the story, Doyle reveals Adler’s image, embedding her in traditional domesticity through marriage, when she marries Godfrey Norton, thereby entering the acceptable form of social existence. As a character, Adler also offers the bodily and visual image of femininity and gender, which is more important because it provides all women with public access. More importantly, Adler recreates Holmes’s system of detection, but her attitude and behavior signify a complicated mixture of invisibility and visibility. In contrast to Holmes, who was unconventional at that time, Watson is the brightest embodiment of Victorian morals and ethics. The reason is that he expresses his conservative beliefs about women and marriage in general. Thus, his visions differ significantly from Holmes’s ones because he prefers assigning traditional roles and qualities to women such as femininity, kindheartedness, and their roles as mothers and wives. Moreover, he does not agree with Holmes’s moral vision, although he respects his opinion. In the story, Watson recognizes his vision of the world, which is more orthodox. Therefore, Holmes and Watson are juxtaposed, striking the balance between the opposite outlooks on the moral structure of society as well as the laws of ethics.
Victorian conventions always presented women as victims, which was significantly denied and despised by the protagonists of Doyle’s story. This is the reason why Holmes endlessly admires Irene Adler who cannot perform the role of the traditional victim, as accepted by society. Moreover, her intelligence and awareness of social rules as well as her aspiration to exceed the accepted stereotypes are among the qualities which fascinated Holmes. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes could be considered the revolutionary thinker of the time, who strived to break the cannon and traditions and create a new moral framework, which would not divide society according to gender and social status. As a result, such an attitude could create new perceptions and understanding of the current ethics and role of gender in Victorian society.
In conclusion, Doyle’s respected hero Sherlock Holmes has managed to highlight the new perception of gender and femininity in the Victorian age. He is among the few characters who attracted the reader’s attention to the new image of women. Irene Adler is the brightest representative of the new kind of women who ignore the accepted female roles of wives and mothers. Thus, she transforms her intelligence into major merit, which is also admired by Sherlock Holmes. To strike the balance, Watson aimed to reconcile their radical vision of Holmes by constantly criticizing his actions and untraditional thinking. Watson adheres to the morals and ethics of the time, striving to make Holmes more aware of the accepted stereotypes and norms. In such a way, Doyle attempted to minimize the criticism on the part of Victorian society. Additionally, Doyle’s stories first depicted women not as victims of the crime but as criminals, which was also uncommon at that time.
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