Study Guide

The Gold-Bug

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Gold-Bug Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many years before the story’s present, the unnamed narrator of “The Gold-Bug” made friends with William Legrand, a descendant of an old Huguenot family of New Orleans, who now lives in a hut on Sullivan’s Island, nine miles from Charleston, South Carolina. Once wealthy, Legrand lost his fortune and now lives a simple life with his Newfoundland dog and one servant, an old black man named Jupiter, a former slave. Well educated, misanthropic, subject to mood swings between enthusiasm and melancholy, Legrand spends his time fishing, exploring the island, and collecting shells and entomological specimens, of which he has many.

One unusually cold day in October, the narrator visits Legrand after an absence of several weeks. As the narrator warms himself by the fire, Legrand enthusiastically tells him about a strange bug he has found, one of a brilliant gold color with three black spots and long antennae. Because he has lent the bug to a soldier from nearby Fort Moultrie, Legrand cannot show the insect itself; instead, he draws a picture of it on a piece of paper he takes from his pocket. As the narrator holds the paper, the dog jumps on him, causing his hand to move close to the fire. When he looks at the drawing, he sees a representation of a skull rather than a bug. Legrand is visibly upset by his friend’s reaction, examines the drawing by candle, and then locks it in his desk, saying nothing more. The narrator thinks it prudent not to upset Legrand further and takes his leave.

About a month later, Jupiter delivers a note from Legrand to the narrator in Charleston begging him to come at once. The urgent tone of the note and Jupiter’s comments that Legrand is acting strangely and must be ill alarm the narrator. Jupiter insists that Legrand has been bitten by the gold bug. The narrator fears that his friend’s mind has become unhinged, especially when he sees the spades and scythe that Jupiter has been told to buy. On returning to Legrand, the narrator is even more fearful. Legrand says that the bug will make his fortune, as though the insect were real gold. He promises that the narrator will understand his excitement if the narrator will accompany him and Jupiter to the...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

The Gold-Bug Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

William Legrand has been reduced to poverty by a series of misfortunes. In order to avoid the embarrassment of meeting friends from his more prosperous days, he leaves New Orleans and goes to live on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a small island, usually uninhabited except for Legrand and his black servant, Jupiter. Jupiter will not leave his master, even though he is a free man and could find work to support himself in comfort.

Winters on the island are mild and fires are usually unnecessary, but on a night in October when a friend from Charleston visits, he finds Legrand and Jupiter away from the house and a fire blazing in the fireplace. The two soon return from a quest for entomological specimens. Legrand is in rare good humor. He has stumbled upon an entirely new specimen, a bug of gold. On his way home, he meets Lieutenant G——, who takes the bug to examine it. Because the friend cannot examine it before morning, Legrand takes an old piece of parchment from his pocket and draws a picture of the specimen.

As the friend takes the drawing, Legrand’s dog enters, jumps upon the guest, and licks his face in joy. When the friend finally looks at the paper, he finds that the drawing resembles a human skull. Legrand, somewhat disgruntled at this slur on his drawing, takes the paper back and prepares to throw it into the fire. After one last glance, however, he pales visibly, rises, and seats himself at the table. Then he carefully places the paper in his wallet. As Legrand appears distracted and a little sulky, the friend cancels his plans for spending the night and returns to Charleston.

About a month later, the friend receives a visit from old Jupiter. The servant reports that his master is not well. Going around as if in a daze, Legrand works constantly at a cipher. Once he had eluded Jupiter and stayed away the whole day. Jupiter knows that the gold bug is to blame, for it bit Legrand on the day he captured it, and he knows that the bug is the reason for Legrand’s talk about gold in his sleep. He produces a letter from his master begging the friend to return to the island with Jupiter.

At the island, the friend finds Legrand in a state of great excitement. Filled with plans for an expedition to the mainland, he asks the friend to accompany him. After getting Legrand’s promise that he will consult a doctor before long,...

(The entire section is 981 words.)

The Gold-Bug Extended Summary

"The Gold Bug" first appeared in two installments of the (Philadelphia) Dollar Newspaper in June of 1843. Poe won a $100 prize for his submission of the story to a contest held by that periodical's editors. It quickly became the most popular of his works, surpassed only by "The Raven" as a commercial success.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a physician on whose word we can presumably rely. It concerns an extraordinary treasure hunt, conducted by its main character, William Legrand, that took place many years before the present time of the narration. Legrand, we are told, was a descendant of an old Huguenot family from New Orleans. Like Poe himself, Legrand was well-educated, but having experienced some unspecified reversal in his financial fortunes, he was, at the story's start, a poor man. He was also something of a misanthrope, living in voluntary seclusion in a small hut that he built on Sullivan's Island a short distance from the Atlantic Coast city of Charleston, South Carolina, with his servant, the freed slave Jupiter, and a Newfoundland dog. We are told in advance that Legrand was given to sudden mood swings, alternating between enthusiasm and melancholy.

Legrand was visited at his abode by the narrator on an unusually cold day in October, and the narrator was at first pleased to find his host in an elevated mood. Legrand was excited by his recent discovery of a rare "gold bug" (a "scarabaeus or beetle), that had distinctive markings on its shell. He could not produce the specimen at the time, however, because he had lent it to a lieutenant at nearby Fort Moultrie. Legrand said that he could draw a picture of the insect for the narrator, but finding no paper in the drawer of his writing desk he took a scrap of what turns out to be parchment from his pocket. Legrand completed his sketch and handed it to the narrator, but as the guest held the parchment in his hand, Legrand's dog entered the room, jumped on the narrator, and the paper came close to a fire that had been lit to warm the hut on this unseasonably cold afternoon. What the narrator saw was not the outline of an insect, but the image of a death's head or human skull. Legrand was disconcerted by this turn of events. But as he was about to throw drawing in fire, Legrand noticed something. He locked the drawing in his desk drawer without further comment. The prudent narrator sensed that his presence had disturbed Legrand and left.

About a month later, the narrator was visited in his Charleston offices by the ex-slave Jupiter. He bore a written message from his master which asked the narrator to come at once to Sullivan's Island. Legrand gave no reason for the request beyond indicating that business of the "highest importance" was at hand. For his part, Jupiter was convinced that Legrand had gone mad, ascribing this dementia to Legrand's having been bitten by "de goole bug" when they first found it. The narrator agreed to go to the island, but when he saw a scythe and some shovels in Legrand's skiff, he became alarmed; he nevertheless went to Sullivan's Island to prevent this madman from doing harm to himself or others. Arriving at Legrand's humble abode, the narrator found his friend in an excited state of mind. Legrand proclaimed that the gold bug would make his fortune and then asked the narrator to accompany him and Jupiter on a nocturnal expedition to the mainland. By this juncture, the narrator was sure that Legrand has indeed gone insane. When he asked about the purpose of their excursion, Legrand's reply was merely "'we shall see.'"

The three-man party proceeded in the skiff to the nearby mainland. With Legrand swinging the dead gold bug on a string attached to a stick, they used the scythe to cut through dense vegetation and finally arrived at a tall tulip tree. Legrand ordered Jupiter to climb the tree up to a certain branch, taking the gold bug with him. On the seventh branch up,...

(The entire section is 1599 words.)