What is the social struggle in Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The social problem represented in Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" can be thought of as two-fold. The first social problem is the resentment and envy individuals with ordinary mental powers feel toward individuals with extraordinary reasoning and deductive skills: "What sympathy Dr. Ransome had was dissipated by the tone. It nettled him, ...." This problem is illustrated in the challenge Ransome and Fielding set for Van Dusen, that of having him confined in Cell 13 of death row in Chisholm Prison (a most unkindly challenge indeed):

"Well, say prison walls," he replied. "No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners."

The second social problem is the classic one that other great deductive heroes of literature, like the unequaled Sherlock Holmes, pose to society. That problem is the one of whether logic alone can determine the best actions to take; is it indeed logic that determines the correct action to be taken? For instance, in "The Problem," it is Van Dusen's logical skills that enable him to choose the right actions to take in order to effect his escape. It all depends upon his having noticed that field rats come and go through the pipes entering the prison cells. From there, his logical prowess isolates the correct actions to take. In this case, those actions depended upon first requesting a shoe shine, some money, and tooth powder (from the days before tooth paste):

"I should like to make three small requests. You may grant them or not, as you wish. ... I would like to have some tooth powder ... and I should like to have one five-dollar and two ten-dollar bills. ... I should like to have my shoes polished."

Futrelle presents an interesting case in support of the supremacy of the power of logic in relation to action.