Detective Story

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Auden elaborated upon his feelings about mystery in his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” in which he admitted, “For methe reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” He identifies five basic elements as “the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives.” “Detective Story” has five paragraphs, with the first three corresponding to the first three of Auden’s mystery elements, followed by the reader substituting for the suspects and detectives.

“The Guilty Vicarage” is almost an explication of “Detective Story,” whose main theme, as with most of Auden’s poetry of the 1930’s and 1940’s, is guilt. “All crimesare offenses against oneself,” Auden writes in his essay. His poem shows how a murderer virtually condemns himself to death by committing his crime, how he must be consumed by guilt. Auden writes that society must assume the role of punisher of the murderer. In “Detective Story,” the reader, representative of society, feels momentary unease at the carrying out of the verdict.

“Execution,” according to Auden, “is the act of atonement by which the murderer is forgiven by society. In real life I disapprove of capital punishment, but in a detective story the murderer must have no future.” Auden’s reader senses the justness of the punishment, especially since it meets the demands of the fictional formula, while being disturbed that someone (although a fictional character) has to die to fulfill his or her need for entertainment. Auden defines the murder in a detective story as “the act of disruption by which innocence is lost,” and his poem forces the reader to share in this loss of innocence.

Auden ends “The Guilty Vicarage” by admitting having desires that make “me feel guilty”; in worrying about this guilt, he feels “guilty about guilt.” He suspects “that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” The emphasis on the reader in “Detective Story” is therefore appropriate, since one of the purposes of mystery fiction for Auden is the expiation of the reader’s guilt. Since the characters do not exist, the reader must experience their guilt for them. On another level, the “magical satisfaction” of the detective story for the reader “is the illusion of being dissociated from the murderer.” The key word is “illusion” since for Auden the reader’s and the murderer’s guilt is a shared burden.

It is fitting that “Detective Story” ends “Someone must pay for/ Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.” To enjoy mystery fiction, the reader must have sinned, must have experienced guilt: “Our loss of happiness.” The murderer in the story is vicariously punished for this loss. Such guilt and punishment are necessary for redemption—“our happiness itself.” This poem about a seemingly mundane subject thus opens gradually to encompass the entire moral universe.

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