Unlike many Sherlock Holmes adventures, “A Scandal in Bohemia” does not present an unsolvable mystery for modern fiction’s preeminent detective. Instead, Holmes must trick a young woman, Irene Adler, into divulging the whereabouts of a photograph that could damage the reputation of his latest client, the King of Bohemia. While Holmes is famous for his use of the powers of observation and deductive reasoning to solve crimes—his assistant, John Watson, portrays Holmes as more machine than man, rejecting emotion in favor of logic and intellect—“A Scandal in Bohemia” provides a brief glimpse of the detective’s human side when he meets the unique and mysterious Adler. When Holmes finds himself bested by Adler, he comes to admire—and perhaps feel a certain affection for—this woman whose cunning matches his own. The story explores the tension between Holmes’s cold and almost inhuman deductive abilities and his uncharacteristic response to Ms. Adler in order to question whether emotion is incompatible with reason.
Watson’s description of Holmes at the beginning of the story establishes him not just as an excellent detective, but as superhuman in his intellectual abilities. Watson, who has accompanied Holmes on many cases and observed his methods, describes him as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” and compares him to a “sensitive instrument.” When Holmes sees Watson again after months apart, he deduces a number of details of Watson’s life that seem incomprehensible to the doctor. Holmes notes, for example, that Watson has employed a clumsy servant girl based on the cuts on the inside of his left shoe. Watson is astounded by Holmes’s ability to know so much about him just based on his outward appearance, which leads to a discussion between the two men in which Holmes tells his friend, “You see, but you do not observe.”
Holmes employs this same incredible process of observation and deduction on the “mysterious” masked visitor to 221B Baker Street, whom he identifies as Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, a.k.a. King of Bohemia, well before the man can unmask himself. The detective walks Watson through his process, deducing solely from the short note he has received that the client is a German nobleman living in Bohemia. Together these moments reflect Holmes as an expert collector of what he refers to as “data,” again underscoring the methodical, machine-like approach he takes to his work—and suggesting that all human behavior can essentially be boiled down into discrete, observable data points.
Unsurprisingly, the remarkable precision of Holmes’s powers of deduction doesn’t translate to any sort of similar emotional sensitivity. In fact, Watson portrays Holmes as socially aloof and somewhat marginalized due to his disdain for human emotion or contact. Watson begins his story by noting that he and Holmes had drifted apart prior to its events, largely due to their differing lifestyles: Watson was beginning to enjoy the comforts of married life, whereas Holmes “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.” He makes these comments without judgement, accepting Holmes’s isolation as an essential part of his being. Holmes’s social and emotional detachment is further intensified by his drug use. When Watson was not around, the detective would hide away in his apartment, alternating “between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”
When the two men meet again, it is Watson, not Holmes, who initiates contact. Holmes seems uninterested in seeing his friend and hardly speaks to him at first. Watson is used to this treatment, however. He notes that Holmes’s “manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me.” Once again, Watson comments without judgement and ascribes this behavior to Holmes’s unique personality, sensing that emotionality would only distract him from his detective work. Strictly logical judgment and reason are thus presented as antithetical to social connection; this is regarded as an acceptable trade-off for Holmes’s remarkable talents.
Adler is one of the few characters to elicit anything like emotion from Holmes, and one of the major themes of “A Scandal in Bohemia” is Watson’s surprise at his friend’s rare and somewhat contradictory behavior towards her. Watson is quick to note that “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.” However, Holmes’s reaction to Adler is about as close as the detective would ever get, in this or any other story, to an emotional attachment to a woman.
It is notably Adler’s cunning that catches Holmes’s attention, and for him, “she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” In fact, Watson begins “A Scandal in Bohemia” with a statement about Holmes’s feelings for Adler, claiming that to him, “she is always THE woman.” When the King attempts to give Holmes a valuable emerald ring for his work, the detective requests the photo of Adler instead, adding that he values it more highly. This kind of sentimental memento is a surprising choice for a man like Sherlock Holmes and suggests more than passing interest on his part. Yet it is not the image of Adler, per se, that attracts Holmes’s attention, but rather the fact that she alone is able to dupe one of the world’s greatest detectives. In a way, Holmes’s interest in Adler only reinforces his single-minded obsession with intellect and cunning.
Adler herself, however, appears much more emotional than her would-be antagonist, getting married midway through the story and then skipping town with her beloved. For Adler, it seems, emotion does not prevent her from outwitting the great Sherlock Holmes—and would in fact suggest that feeling and logic are not as incompatible as they may seem. Either way, “A Scandal in Bohemia” presents two sides of Sherlock Holmes: the cold, calculating mind that speaks of emotion “with a gibe and a sneer,” and the glimmer of sentimental attachment to another person. While this brief show of emotion is not nearly enough to “throw a doubt upon all his mental results” or truly distract him from his work, his admiration for Adler gives readers a glimpse of the man behind the machine.
Logic vs. Emotion ThemeTracker
Logic vs. Emotion Quotes in A Scandal in Bohemia
You see, but you do not observe.
“Your Majesty had not spoken before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia.”
“He’s a brave fellow,” said a woman. “They would have had the lady’s purse and watch if it hadn’t been for him. They were a gang, and a rough one, too. Ah, he’s breathing now.” “He can’t lie in the street. May we bring him in, marm?” “Surely. Bring him into the sitting-room. There is a comfortable sofa. This way, please!”
“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty”
“Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly,” said Holmes. “You have but to name it.” “This photograph!”