Sherlock Holmes, Femme Fatales

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The femme fatale can be described as an irresistibly attractive woman, often the love interest of the protagonist, who uses her sexuality as means to acquire what she wants and fulfil her own desires. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia appears to be a prototype for this femme fatale figure which has become a feature in almost all texts of the Noir fiction world. The traits of the femme fatale are evident largely in the physical appearance of the women, the way they act and their function as a plot device. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon provides an excellent example of the role of the femme fatale in noir detective fiction.

The socio-historic context of both texts offers certain parallels in how the femme fatale came to be seen as a valid characterisation of women in detective fiction. Victorian England, when Doyle wrote, was a patriarchal society where women could be loosely relegated to two groups: either ‘decent’ women who lived at home under the protection of men, or ‘bad’ women who were immoral. Doyle created Adler as an American in order to evade these categories. Adler is also an opera singer, which allows her to behave unconventionally. Holmes regarded her as an ‘equal’ with the mind and intellect of a man, and he was able to see her as outside the conventions of Victorian society. Hammett’s world of 1929 America is more complex, with new attitudes of opportunity and post-war euphoria. Prohibition and the Great Depression added an air of gloom. Brigid therefore is justified in being an opportunist.

Adler can be seen as the prototype of the femme fatale in that she was intellectually Holmes’s equal. Unlike the typical Victorian Lady, with an idea of individuality and control over her own life, She is able to be different to the stereotypical women of the time and area. Adler is able to do so primarily because she is of American origin, giving her this flexibility in not having to be part of the norm....
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