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The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist: Violet Smith - Gender Stereotype or an Emancipated Feminist?

Guniya is a final year undergraduate at the University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in writing and literature.

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The short story The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist is set in the late Victorian period. Hence, Violet Smith’s character is shaped by that period's socio-cultural movements and fluctuations. The Victorian period was a time when there were distinct binaries between the two sexes as they were assigned specific and complementary roles. However, these roles were beginning to dissolve as the 19th century drew to a close. Cycling became a gender equaliser as well as a symbol of freedom and emancipation for women.

Violet Smith is the only female character in the story. Her introduction as the solitary cyclist initially portrays a feminist image of her, as the bicycle was embraced by first-wave feminists as an emancipatory tool that granted women the freedom to challenge and defy established patriarchal notions of gender. Violet's character is described through the male gaze. Her description is only physical and not an exploration of her intellect. Watson highlights her feminine traits in a subconscious comparison to the ideal Victorian woman.

In terms of gender, Conan Doyle seems to subscribe to Victorian stereotypical depictions of active, intellectual, and strong men as opposed to passive, instinctive, and weak women. His renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes, is the epitome of scientific thinking, the apex of the masculine rationalist thinker model, who is capable of deciphering the most insoluble mystery and providing a logical explanation for it. Conan Doyle’s female characters, on the other hand, are close to conventional middle-class Victorian notions of women as defenceless creatures in need of protection from external threats. (Kitsi-Mitakou, 2016a)

At first, Violet comes off as a very outspoken and opinionated woman who wants to ‘tell’ her story. She is a swift and agile cyclist who lays traps for her pursuer, surprises him with her clever, supple moves, and even engages him in a stimulating game of hide-and-seek. (Kitsi-Mitakou, 2016a) Furthermore, she calls out Mr Woodley on his unwelcome advances towards her and holds her ground when he tries to harass her. She is a feisty cyclist who shatters the image of the refined, fragile lady-like Victorian woman. There is also a recurring theme and motif of her voice in the story that strengthens her outspoken character. But, as the story progresses, Violet is deprived of her speech both literally, when a handkerchief is stuffed into her mouth, and figuratively, when she's passively settled into the institution of marriage like an ideal Victorian woman. The story endorses Victorian gender stereotypes, as it is based on the ‘helpless-woman-rescued-by-clever-and-strong-man’ motif.

And, while Conan Doyle adopts the image of the New Woman, who is free to mount her bike and move about at her own will, he wants to make sure she won’t go very far. After all, not all women cyclists were intimidating gender benders. The “solitary cyclist” is a unisex term that is used interchangeably for both a male and a female character in the story. Conan Doyle’s story projects bourgeois, hegemonic femininities and masculinities but there are breaches and contradictions in the narrative which shatter the illusion of monolithic gender identities. Violet’s vigorous solitary rides, the friction mark on her sole, even her silenced voice at the end destabilise the domesticated model of the feminine.


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References

Doyle, A. C. (2020). The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist. SAGA Egmont.


Kitsi-Mitakou, K. (2016). Gender Trouble in Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.” Gender Studies, 15(1), 27–44. https://doi.org/10.1515/genst-2017-0003

© 2022 Guniya Sharma

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