Lacan, Doyle, and Holmes: Men and the Feminine (Part 1 of 3)

Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Playwright William Congreve penned the infamous phrase “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” in 1697 (Moncur). Throughout literary history, the woman scorned has been a powerful antagonist, instigating trouble and woe for a story’s protagonist, often for the purpose of revenge. In its most simplistic sense, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, A Scandal in Bohemia, centers on this type of conflict. A woman, Miss Irene Adler, means to cause trouble and heartache for her former lover, the King of Bohemia, by revealing to his betrothed princess a photograph. What exactly is contained within the photograph, beyond that it is a picture of Adler and the King together, is not known, but it is suggested that its very existence is a threat to the monarchy of Bohemia.

A Scandal in Bohemia-10

Irene Adler could be interpreted as the ultimate feminine caricature – not only is she enacting a horrible revenge for a loved scorned, but even to Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate reasoning machine, “she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (Doyle 346). However to take the character of Irene Adler, and indeed the story’s chief protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, as mere static representations of stereotypes of their genders would deprive the story of a deeper sociological truth. With the application of some of the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the true natures of these characters are revealed and their impact felt.

Jacques Lacan
Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” discusses the various ways in which a signifier operates within the imaginary and thus exerts power over the actions of those who come in contact with it. Even though his work focuses on the way these theories apply within another classic detective story, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter, Lacan’s work can be used to unveil the effects of a signifier in many other situations.

Lacan claims that to be in possession of a symbolic signifier is to be possessed by it. “Falling in possession of the letter – admirable ambiguity of language – its meaning possesses them” (Lacan 44).The subjects who receive and seek to claim the signifier (in Lacan’s example, a letter, and in A Scandal in Bohemia, a photograph) as their own, internalize certain aspects of what the signifier stands for. Lacan argues that, in the case of the letter which signifies desire, the possession feminizes the subject. “[The letter] forgets him so little,” Lacan postulates, “that it transforms him more and more in the image of her who offered it to his capture” (Lacan 47). Along with the feminizing effect of possession, Lacan supports the belief of an equally masculating effect with the loss of the signifier.

An illustration of the Oedipal Triangle and Lacan's interpretation of it, via John Phillips
An illustration of the Oedipal Triangle and Lacan’s interpretation of it, via John Phillips

In his mapping of character relationships onto the Oedipal Triangle, Lacan has the Queen [the woman originally in possession of the letter, the representation of the imaginary and, in the Oedipal Triangle, the mother] moving into the position of the King [the man who is blind to the letter’s existence and, in the Oedipal Triangle, the father]. The Queen is at once transformed into something more than just a mere damsel in distress; she becomes a person who occupies a place of authority. “The proof is not only that the Queen dares to call the police,” Lacan explains, “[but that she] has taken that step…less out of being ‘driven to despair,’ as we are told, than in assuming the charge of an impatience best imputed to a specular mirage” (Lacan 47). Ultimately, Lacan argues that “the sign is indeed that of woman, insofar as she invests her very being therein, founding it outside the law, which subsumes her nevertheless, originally, in a position of signifier, nay, of fetish” (Lacan 45).

Works Cited

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Vol. 1. Random House Value, 1992. 346-67.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on “The Purloined Letter'” Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. The Purloined Poe Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading. New York: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 28-54.

Moncur, Michael. “Quotation Search – Quote Search – The Quotations Page.” The Quotations Page – Your Source for Famous Quotes. 2007. The Quotations Page. 01 Mar. 2009 <;.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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