Any story must be dramatic in order to be interesting. The drama in a short story is almost always based on a single major conflict (although there might be minor conflicts that are incidental or part of the major one). A conflict in fiction—though not necessarily in real life—usually involves something tangible, or at least identifiable. This so-called “bone of contention” has come to be called the MacGuffin.
In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House the MacGuffin is a document forged by Nora which Krogstad threatens to use against her husband. In Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche and Stanley are fighting over Stella, so Stella is the MacGuffin. Human beings are frequently used as MacGuffins. Countless stories have been written about abducted children, who are always the MacGuffins. The Indiana Jones movies always have very tangible MacGuffins, including a crystal skull and the Lost Ark of the Covenant. In Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, the MacGuffin is a fabulous statuette.
There is no interest without drama, no drama without conflict, no conflict without motivation, and no motivation without a MacGuffin. So the MacGuffin is the nucleus of the story.
In Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” the MacGuffin is obvious. The only problem, or conflict, is finding this letter. The story is a battle of wits between C. Auguste Dupin and the notorious Minister D-. Monsieur G-‘s account of the theft and the exhaustive efforts to recover the letter comprise the “back story.” The story proper begins when Dupin decides to recover it.
Dupin has at least three motives. Monsieur G- offers a reward of fifty-thousand francs (a sum that would have the purchasing power of at least $120,000 in current American dollars). Dupin also likes to use his analytical powers. And he tells his friend, “D-, at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember.”
Dupin does not need to go over everything the police have done. He knows they were thorough. He tells the highly skeptical Prefect, “Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault. . . . Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain.”
Dupin is right, of course. He visits the Minister and spots the purloined letter in a card-rack but disguised in outward appearance. He tells his friend, the narrator:
“But, then the RADICALNESS of these differences, which was excessive: the dirt; the soiled and torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent with the TRUE methodical habits of D-, and so suggestive of a design to delude the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document,--these things, together with the hyperobtrusive situation of this document, full in the view of every visitor, and thus exactly in accordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived; these things, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in one who came with the intention to suspect.”
Poe’s story is all about the recovery of a missing document. There is no other significant conflict—although in the “back story” there are conflicts between the Prefect and the Minister and between the Minister and the “exalted” woman from whom he stole the letter. Although this information is rendered in the form of dialogue, it is no different in function from straight prose exposition.