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


From the start, the differences between the Lacanian interpretation of the Oedipal Triangle and the one presented by Doyle become evident. Women are placed first in the position of the males in the triangle, not always possessing sight but always possessing power. It is the male characters of Doyle’s story that find themselves more often in the female position of ‘Queen’. Lacan claims that to be in possession of the signifier always feminizes what was once purely masculine. Doyle provides us with an opposing claim: in A Scandal in Bohemia, the signifier masculinizes

The clearest examples of this affectation come about in the characters of Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes. In Lacan’s seminar, he asserts that “A man ‘man’ enough to defy to the point of scorn a lady’s fearsome ire undergoes to the point of metamorphosis the curse of the sign he has dispossessed her of” (Lacan 45). Therefore would not the reverse be equally true? A woman ‘woman ‘enough to defy to the point of scorn a man’s fearsome ire will undergo to the point of metamorphosis the curse of the sign she has dispossessed him of.

Irene Adler.png
Irene Adler” por Charles Dana Gibson (drawing)
Aloxi (first upload in 2006)
ΛΦΠ (current version) – Converted to PNG from GIF format. Licenciado sob Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This certainly seems to be the case with Miss Irene Adler. Just as the Minister in Poe’s The Purloined Letter is “present[ed] as someone ‘who dares all things…those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man’” (Lacan 46), Irene Adler is described by the King of Bohemia as having “a soul of steel…the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (Doyle 355). The possession of the signifier, the photograph, has granted her power and intelligence, traits Lacan reserves for males. Yet at the same time, Doyle is careful to preserve her identity as a woman. Holmes’ describes her as “the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet” and forever refers to her as “the woman” (Doyle 357, 346). For Doyle, the traits of a man and the physicality of a woman coexist happily in one body, creating, in fact, the ‘ultimate’ woman.

As for Holmes, he employs deception as his main tool in recapturing the signifier. According to Lacan, this is a trait of the feminine nature. Yet Holmes has no qualms about first approaching the situation in the guise of “a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered” and later assuming “the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergy man” (Doyle 356, 362). It is only when Holmes occupies the position of the ‘Queen/Mother’ that he dares to confront Irene Adler as himself. Here Doyle presents us with a man with the physicality of men, but who, at the same time, acts as women might. Does this combination of male and female produce something less than a man? On the contrary, this melding of the sexes constructs “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen” (Doyle 346).

Sherlock Holmes Portrait Paget.jpg
Sherlock Holmes Portrait Paget” by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) – de.WP. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Lacan, the possession of the signifier only feminizes; it weakens and leaves the possessor open to attack and vulnerable to shame. Doyle smashes through these assertions, giving the public a story in which the possession of the signifier masculinizes, giving power to one who otherwise might have had none. He shows that the human psyche does not consist of one sex or the other, but that minds that incorporate both of the sexes are infinitely superior to all others.

 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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