Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Purloined Letter” has been the subject of considerable commentary, most interestingly as the bone of contention between two of the more prominent contemporary French thinkers, the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who have argued about the story’s pertinence to the themes and significance of psychoanalysis. It would require considerable space to lay out the complicated arguments that each of these thinkers mounts in reading Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, but one could characterize this debate briefly as signifying the difference between a reading of the story as presenting readers with a definite and finitely circumscribed set of meanings (roughly Lacan’s position) and one that denies categorically, on behalf of Poe’s story, the possibility that any definitive interpretation of the elements in this or any narrative can ever be produced. One could say, perhaps too schematically, that Derrida’s claim rests primarily on the fact that the precise contents of the letter are never revealed, and that therefore the letter itself becomes an emblem of the indeterminacy in meaning that the tale enacts. Certainly the central tension in the story between the calculating and rationally motivated Dupin and the more shadowy narrator—whose relation to Dupin is established in prior stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—as well as the difficulty of knowing precisely how to apply the closing...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
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The hallmark of "The Purloined Letter" is its use of abstract logic by C. Auguste Dupin. The story is one of what Poe called his "tales of ratiocination," which employed reason—rather than horror, as in many other Poe stories—as a narrative tool. Dupin, who also solves the cases in some of Poe's other tales of ratiocination, is a detective who uses deductive reasoning to solve the case of the stolen letter.
In the story, Dupin relies on what he knows of the situation to deduce the correct hiding spot of the letter. Dupin's reasoning is based on three factors: what he knows of the Prefect's behavior and thought processes; what he knows of the Minister's behavior and thought processes; and what he knows of human nature in general.
As Dupin explains to the narrator, he knows, both from recent conversations with the Prefect and from past knowledge, that the Prefect follows "principles of search, which are based upon the one set of notions regarding human ingenuity" to which the Prefect was accustomed. Dupin notes that the Prefect has "taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter.... in some out-of-the-way hole." In the Prefect's experience, when somebody wants to hide something, they go to great pains to hide it in a secret compartment or some other hidden area, thinking they are clever. In the past, the Prefect has found many of these compartments, so he assumes that he will do...
(The entire section is 1148 words.)