“The Gold-Bug” belongs to the small group of stories that Edgar Allan Poe called “tales of ratiocination,” that is, tales in which logical reasoning is employed to solve a puzzle. Other Poe stories of this type are “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter”—a series of three in which the protagonist is Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur detective, whose unnamed friend tells the stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were admittedly inspired by the Dupin tales, and Poe has often been called the father of the modern detective story.
Poe’s ratiocinative tales differ from his others in several ways. The vocabulary of several of his tales of terror not only reveals a nervous or fearful state of mind on the part of the narrator but also arouses an emotional response in the reader. The vocabulary of the ratiocinative tales, however, is consciously unemotional to stress the analytical nature of the tales. The structure of these tales also differs from that found in the tales of terror. A representative terror tale builds up to a climax of action, often violent, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The limited action of a ratiocinative tale occurs mainly in the first half of the story; most of the latter half is devoted to the explication of the mystery or puzzle given earlier. In “The Gold-Bug,” the action centers upon locating, digging up, and transporting the treasure, and this action is completed almost exactly halfway through the story. Nearly all of the remaining half is made up of the narrator’s questions and Legrand’s detailed answers or explanations concerning the parchment map and the translation of the cryptic message contained in the numbers and other characters or symbols on it.
“The Gold-Bug,” then, combines the romance of finding buried treasure with the mental excitement of unraveling a mystery. Critics have pointed out inaccuracies in geography and topography, defects in character portrayal, and weak attempts at humor in Jupiter’s speech. The reader, however, forgets or ignores these as Poe carries the reader along in the search first for immense wealth and then for a meaning in an enigma.