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The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe
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What is the single effect in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter?"

The key effect in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" is ratiocination, or reasoning. In fact, on July 2, 1844, Poe wrote to the poet James Russell Lowell and said that "The Purloined Letter" was “perhaps, the best of my tales of ratiocination.” In order to examine how ratiocination is working, let’s quickly review the story. The story is divided into two sections. In the first part, the Prefect of the Paris Police visits Dupin, a character who appears in several other Poe stories, because he has a problem. A stolen letter is being used to blackmail a female aristocrat.

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The key effect in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is ratiocination, or reasoning. In fact, on July 2, 1844, Poe wrote to the poet James Russell Lowell and said that “The Purloined Letter” was “perhaps, the best of my tales of ratiocination.”

In order to examine how ratiocination is...

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The key effect in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is ratiocination, or reasoning. In fact, on July 2, 1844, Poe wrote to the poet James Russell Lowell and said that “The Purloined Letter” was “perhaps, the best of my tales of ratiocination.”

In order to examine how ratiocination is working, let’s quickly review the story. The story is divided into two sections. In the first part, the Prefect of the Paris Police visits Dupin, a character who appears in several other Poe stories, because he has a problem. A stolen letter is being used to blackmail a female aristocrat. The Prefect knows who has stolen the letter, but he can’t find the letter. After listening to the Prefect detail his search for the letter, Dupin’s advice is to search again.

A month passes and the Prefect returns, unsuccessful. Now he is willing to give fifty thousand francs to the person who can find the letter. Dupin immediately asks for the check and, once receiving it, produces the letter.

The second part of the story involves Dupin explaining how he figured out where the letter was hidden. The reader gets to listen to a story about a schoolboy so astute at reasoning that he wins a reasoning game every time. Dupin segues from this into his own reasoning on how he found the letter. Finally, the story ends with Dupin admitting that D—, the letter thief, once did him an “evil turn” in Vienna, so for revenge, Dupin decides to leave a clue in the fake letter that he leaves behind when he takes the original. This clue is, of course, the story’s last line.

So, really, this story is about a game of wits. We know this because Dupin mentions time and time again how opponents in reason aren’t always an equal match. That’s why the schoolboy in the reasoning game can figure out how to trick his rival players. It’s also why, according to Dupin, the Prefect can’t find the letter. Dupin says the police’s measures of investigation “were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, and to the man.” So, in this reasoning game, the police weren’t quite up to par. Only Dupin and D—, as intellectual equals, are able to play this intellectual game of cat and mouse.

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A single effect is a paradigm that Edgar Allan Poe created signifying that a story must produce one specific and consistent effect in the reader. This is what would make a plot successful, or unsuccessful.

In the case of "The Purloined Letter", the single effect is suspense. From the beginning of the story, we know that a letter that could ruin a man has been stolen. We never find out what the letter says except that it is highly derogatory. Then, we don't ever find out either the complete name of the person whom the letter intended to hurt, all we know of him is that his name is "Minister D----." Finally, when we see the maneuvering of the letters (switching them from fakes to originals, to copies) the suspense is even more intense. Then in the end, when we realize what is going on and that it was a revenge we become relieved.

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