A Scandal in Bohemia

by

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Themes and Colors
Logic vs. Emotion Theme Icon
Disguise and Deception Theme Icon
Love, Friendship, and. Admiration Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Scandal in Bohemia, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice Theme Icon

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as with most of Holmes’s adventures, the detective serves a very unconventional form of justice that is not necessarily in line with state-sanctioned law and order. As a private detective, Holmes is deliberately separate from official law enforcement and is able to take on cases that the police could not—and he is also able to use methods that aren’t available to the police. The story ultimately suggests the justice and the law are not synonymous, and sometimes it requires extralegal measures to solve a tricky case.

The case of the King of Bohemia is not one that would commonly be solved by the London Metropolitan Police, which is why the King has come from Prague himself to consult with Holmes directly. The King emphasizes the importance of secrecy in this case, as exposure would be shameful for the royal family. Despite the fact that Dr. Watson chronicles many of Holmes’s adventures, the detective himself is considered more discreet than the local authorities would be. More importantly, he is known for “clearing up those mysteries which had been abandoned as hopeless by the official police,” according to Watson. This establishes a hierarchy of investigative work, in which Holmes is not only separate from, but also better than, the police. This means that he is often employed by the rich and powerful, such as the King of Bohemia and “the reigning family of Holland.” In essence, while most Londoners are at the mercy of the Metropolitan Police, who may or may not have the capacity to bring about justice, Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary detective work is reserved for a privileged few.  

Because he is not connected to any official police force, Holmes is not bound by the same moral codes of behavior, and often spends much of his time breaking the law in the pursuit of truth. Holmes is unfazed when, in the course of their discussion, the King of Bohemia admits that he has resorted to bribery and attempted robbery to retrieve the photographs from Irene Adler. Unlike the police, Holmes is unconcerned about the letter of the law, especially when it involves a mystery that interests him. The detective is unconcerned about his client’s crimes in part because his own methods of investigation are unethical, if not outright illegal. He uses disguises and trickery to gain information about Adler, and even employs accomplices to stage an authentic-looking ruse to get him into Adler’s home.

As morally questionable as they may be, such methods of investigation prove effective, and Holmes is proud of the fact that he is not bound by law in the course of his investigation. When he asks Watson to help him, he asks him, “You don’t mind breaking the law… nor running a chance of arrest?” Both Holmes and Watson seem to enjoy the freedom that comes with private investigation, and Watson justifies tricking Adler by telling himself that they “are not injuring her. We are but preventing her from injuring another.” Holmes, on the other hand, feels no need to make justifications whatsoever.

The conclusion of the investigation, in which Adler leaves England without giving up the photo, raises the question of whether or not justice has been served in this case. Adler has clearly outsmarted the detective and his client, and Holmes is forced to admit as much to the King, noting: “I am sorry that I have not been able to bring your Majesty’s business to a more successful conclusion.” Yet his apology is insincere, as Holmes is more interested in Adler’s wit than the fate of the King’s marriage. The King’s response highlights the ultimately subjective nature of justice, however. He is satisfied with the outcome of the case because Adler has pledged not to expose their past relationship and ruin his chances of a royal wedding. In the end, the objective was not to obtain the photographs or even to punish for any crimes she may have committed; the ultimate goal was to make the King of Bohemia feel that his secret was safe. He closes the case by announcing that the “photograph is now as safe as if it were in the fire.” The fact that the King and Holmes are willing to take Adler at her word establishes this woman as an extraordinary character who is somehow more trustworthy than an ordinary criminal.

In contrast to a police investigation, in which solving the case and administering justice are one in the same, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes often place law and order into question. More importantly, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is reflective of a historical period in which modern investigation was mysterious—and therefore not part of orthodox police work—and a set of experimental methods that were only available to those who could pay for a private detective. Holmes sees the work of police, who worked to keep the streets of London safe and clean, as beneath him, and is content to take on more “interesting” cases that engage his mental capacities and allowed him to break the law, if need be.

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Justice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice appears in each part of A Scandal in Bohemia. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice Quotes in A Scandal in Bohemia

Below you will find the important quotes in A Scandal in Bohemia related to the theme of Justice.
Part 1 Quotes

Not a bit, Doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell. And this promises to be interesting. It would be a pity to miss it.

Related Characters: Sherlock Holmes (speaker), Dr. John Watson
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

“Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly,” said Holmes. “You have but to name it.” “This photograph!”

Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis: