A Scandal in Bohemia Summary

Arthur Conan Doyle

A Scandal in Bohemia

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A Scandal in Bohemia Summary

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“A Scandal in Bohemia” is the first short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring his now iconic character Sherlock Holmes. It was published in 1891 and is also well known for introducing the character of Irene Adler, a woman who becomes a romantic interest for Holmes in later works.

The story begins with a married Watson paying Holmes a visit. While Watson is there, a masked  visitor enters the room claiming to be Count Kramm, an agent for a wealthy client who does not wish to reveal himself.

Holmes quickly identifies the masked man as Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and the hereditary King of Bohemia. The man admits that Holmes is correct and removes the mask.

The king is engaged to a Scandinavian princess, but he is worried about his previous liaison with the American opera singer Irene Adler. During that liaison, he had written letters to Irene and had a picture of the two of them made; now the king is worried about his fiancee’s strict family and wants to have the letters and picture back.

The problem is that Irene refuses to return either, and the king requests that Holmes locate the photograph. He has already tried to retrieve it himself, sometimes through forceful means, and his offer to pay for it was also refused. Irene is now threatening to send it to his fiancee’s family, so the king is desperate for help.

The photograph is too bulky to be carried on Irene’s person. Holmes surmises that she must have it hidden close to her. Holmes receives money for expenses from the king, and asks Watson to meet him at his home the next day.

The next morning, Watson visits Irene’s apartment disguised as a drunken, out of work groom. Some of the stablemen inform him that she has a frequent gentleman caller, the barrister Godfrey Norton of the Inner Temple. Norton visits her on this particular day, and then he takes a cab to a church. A little while later Irene leaves, heading to the same place. Holmes follows and then accidentally becomes the witness to their marriage. They all go their separate ways after the small ceremony.

Watson has been waiting for Holmes to arrive back at his apartment. Sherlock is amused by the earlier events and fills Watson in on them when he arrives. Watson agrees to be part of a plan to discover where Irene has hidden the picture.

Watson dresses as a clergyman, and he and Watson head back to Irene’s apartment. A group of men is standing on the street, and when she arrives, they fight over who will get to help her. Holmes rushes over to protect her and seems to be hurt in the scuffle. Irene takes him into her apartment, where he is laid on the couch to recover. At a prearranged signal, Watson tosses a smoke rocket into the apartment and shouts “fire!”

Holmes tells Watson later that he saw Irene rush to her most prized possession, the photograph, when she thought the building might be destroyed. Holmes now knows its hiding place. He tells Watson that he was unable to take it at that moment because he was being watched, but that he will return later. At that moment, the two men are bid goodnight by a familiar-sounding youth, who slips away in the crowd.

Holmes tells the king of his findings, but when he goes to retrieve the photograph, Irene’s elderly maidservant tells them that Irene has left hastily for the train station. Instead of the photograph of her and the king, Holmes finds only a photograph of her in an evening dress, and a letter addressed to him.

In the letter, she explains that she was the youth from the previous night, and congratulates him on doing such a good job fooling her with his disguises and locating the photograph. She has left with Norton, however, who is an honorable man. She will not give the photograph to the king’s fiancee’s family and wishes only to keep it to prevent further action against her by the king.

The king is impressed with this result and asks Holmes how he wishes to be paid. Holmes takes only the photograph of Irene, telling the king, as the king laments what a wonderful woman Irene is, that they are not of the same station. He insinuates that her station is far higher than the king’s, but Holmes’ subtlety  is lost on the king.

Watson has already referred to Irene as “the late Irene Adler,” alluding to her death in the intervening three years between the events described in the short story, and the moment at which they are recounted. Holmes, however, refers to her honorably from then on as “the woman.”

As with all Holmes stories, observation is at the forefront of the story. Holmes is able not only to see, but to really observe. This talent is normally lost on the rest of the characters in the story. In this particular story, however, he is matched and bested by the observational skills of Irene.

One of the major themes of the story is the battle between wit and force. The two major male players in the game of subterfuge use force to try to retrieve the photograph. They are bested by Irene’s use of her wit and clever disguises. Ultimately, wit wins.