Lacan, Doyle, and Holmes: Men and the Feminine (Part 2 of 3)

Photo by Ding Yuin Shan via Flickr
Photo by Ding Yuin Shan via Flickr

Lacan presents a theory that, while engaging, relies on a relatively narrow-minded definition of feminine characteristics versus masculine characteristics. For Lacan, the feminine is a shadowy, deceptive form, both indefinable and irresistible. However, it is still a position of vulnerability, one that presents more risks than rewards. If a man falls into a ‘feminine’ role, his secrets and securities are fated to be “ravished” by an aggressive party.

Lacan points to the character of the minister in The Purloined Letter, as proof of feminine weakness, arguing that “we may allow our monster to proliferate, but it cannot be by sheer stupidity that he now comes to be its dupe. For in playing the part of one who hides, he is obliged to don the role of the Queen and even the attributes of femininity and shadow” (Lacan 44). If the minister was able to avoid this unfortunate transformation, he may have been able to avoid being tricked by the more masculine Dupin.

The Purloined Letter.jpg
The Purloined Letter” by Frederic Lix – “Модный магазин” (Fashion magazine), 1864, №23 (December). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lacan, in unmasking the desires of characters within Poe’s novella, finds himself exposed. He diminishes the characteristics of the feminine, equating them with deception and weakness, while at the same peppering his seminar with sexually suggestive words, arranged in such sentences as to suggest Lacan’s lust for the female form itself. His descriptions of the letter, which in the Lacanian interpretation is a stand in for desire, speaks to his sense of its sensuality. “The purloined letter [is] an immense female body, stretch[ed] out across the Minister’s office… [Dupin] has only, with his eyes veiled by green lenses, to undress that huge body” (Lacan 48). As if that wasn’t enough, Lacan lavishes an entire paragraph on the physical location of the letter, in sexually hyperbolic language:

“And that is why without needing any more than being able to listen in at the door of Professor Freud, he will go straight to the spot in which lies and lives what that body is designed to hide, in a gorgeous center caught in a glimpse, nay, to the very place seducers name Sant’Angelo’s Castle, in their innocent illusion of controlling the City from within it. Look! between the cheeks of the fireplace, there’s the object already in reach of a hand the ravisher has but to extend” (Lacan 48).

With this skewed view of femininity, it is hard to trust Lacan’s interpretation of how a signifier, such as a letter, affects its possessors.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1890.jpg
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1890“ von Herbert Rose Barraud (1845-1896) – (search: Arthur Conan Doyle, pic 17 of 18). Lizenziert unter Public domain über Wikimedia Commons.

Doyle’s story, A Scandal in Bohemia, provides the reader with a more accurate, or at least more inclusive, theory of how a signifier affects the subjects it comes in contact with, imparting a far more well-rounded view of human sexuality. In it, the photograph stands as the main signifier, occupying the same over-determined meanings of Poe’s purloined letter. Borrowing Lacan’s use of the Oedipal Triangle and taking the scene in the narrative where the King relates his problem to Holmes to be our ‘primal scene’, the position of ‘King/Father’ does not in fact belong to the King of Bohemia; it in fact belongs, “[t]o Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia” the King’s intended bride (Doyle 354). She is in the position of blindness, yes, but also notably one of power. If the King’s misconduct was revealed to her, the King would be “ruined”. It is her discovery of the photograph that strikes fear into his heart. “She is herself the very soul of delicacy. A shadow of a doubt as to my conduct would bring the matter to an end” (Doyle 354).

The King of Bohemia in this case that occupies the role of ‘Queen/Mother’. He must hide his ‘desire’ (a photograph of a possible explicit nature) from the ‘King/Father’. He hides by pretending to have nothing to hide. It is only with the entrance of Miss Irene Adler that his ‘desire’ is in great danger of exposure. Indeed, Irene Adler is in the position of the ‘Minister/Child’. She has seen the ‘Queen’s’ desire, and through her cunning, “threatens to send [Clotilde’s family] the photograph”, unveiling the true natures of his majesty’s desire for all the world to see.

As the Oedipal Triangle shifts, the characters assume new roles. The King shifts position into the ‘King/Father’ slot (he is blind to all that is going on, cannot find the photograph, nor knows how it is being located), Irene Adler becomes the ‘Queen/Mother’ (believing that her ‘desire’, aka the photograph, is hidden where no one can steal it), and our protagonist Mr. Sherlock Holmes assumes the role of the ‘Minister/Child’ (seeing what the ‘Queen’ believes to be hidden, therefore unveiling her desires).

However, one finale rotation of the triangle takes place within the final pages of the story. Irene Adler shifts into the position of ‘King/Father’, being blind to who Holmes really is and how he is capturing her precious photograph. At the moment of Holmes’ discovery of Irene’s hiding place, he slips into the role of ‘Queen/Mother’, believing that he alone will possess the photograph. He feels he has been successful in ‘hiding in plain sight’, unaware that he has been revealed to none other than Miss Irene Adler herself.

In this final scene, Irene occupies the role of ‘King/Father’ and the role of ‘Minister/Child’. “You really did it very well,” Irene admits in her final letter to Holmes, “You took me in completely” (Doyle 366). Here she is most clearly the ‘King/Father’, blind to what has been going on right under her very nose. However when she begins to speak of “when [she] found how [she] had betrayed [her]self” and her awareness that Holmes had “made [her] reveal what [he] wanted to know” she asserts herself once more into the role of minister, being able to see Holmes’ true form and true object of ‘desire’, her photograph. In a stroke of genius, she steals the photograph away from him before he has even laid a hand on it, and escapes the country, never to be seen again.

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.

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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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