Style and Technique

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Legrand, the hero, is similar to other Poe characters; he is well educated, possessed of excellent reasoning powers, somewhat reclusive, formerly wealthy, and known for his mental instability. Like Dupin, the hero of Poe’s later detective stories, Legrand’s actions puzzle other characters, especially the narrator friend, with whom the reader tends to identify. Combining two such characters with a puzzling situation became a formula for Poe in creating suspenseful stories.

The structuring of “The Gold-Bug” in two parts is also typical of Poe. Suspense builds in the first part because neither the narrator nor the reader understands Legrand’s actions. The quotation used as a head note implies that Legrand may indeed be mad. When his actions lead to the discovery of the treasure, one mystery is solved. A major question remains: How did Legrand know where to look? In the second half of the story, Legrand explains the reasoning that led to such success. Again, suspense builds as he gives his detailed explanation, which by the end of the story ties up all loose ends. Regardless of whether he guesses the answers, the reader is treated to mystery and suspense in a well-wrought tale in which the hero accomplishes his goal.

In addition to suspense, “The Gold-Bug” includes a touch of humor, principally achieved by the incongruity between the elevated language (used by many Poe characters) of Legrand and the narrator and the dialect of Jupiter. Blacks in Poe’s tales are often comic stereotypes; their powers of understanding and intellect are limited, and their language contrasts sharply with that of other characters. In Jupiter’s case, Poe gives him the black dialect of Virginia rather than that of South Carolina, no doubt because Poe was more familiar with Virginia blacks.

“The Gold-Bug” immediately became popular after winning the Dollar Newspaper story contest (and a prize of one hundred dollars) in 1843; it has also inspired much critical comment. It has been praised for its original plot and for the realism of the description of Sullivan’s Island. The story is one of a relatively small number in which Poe used a real place as a setting. In many incidental details, it reflects Poe’s experiences during his tour of army duty at Fort Moultrie, between 1827 and 1828.

Whatever the source of the popularity of “The Gold-Bug,” it remains one of Poe’s best-known stories. It appeals to readers who love a mystery, a cryptograph, and sustained suspense, and who enjoy a happy ending with well-deserved rewards.

Places Discussed

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*Sullivan’s Island

*Sullivan’s Island. Barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, near Charleston. During the early nineteenth century, the sea islands near Charleston were barren, isolated locations, accessible only by water and inhabited by relatively few people. Sullivan’s Island, at the mouth of Charleston harbor, was notable mainly for Fort Moultrie, which guarded the entrance to the port. Edgar Allan Poe was quite familiar with Sullivan’s Island, since he had been stationed at Fort Moultrie during his brief service in the U.S. Army and selected the island as the suitable location for a story about the discovery of treasure buried by pirate captain William Kidd.

Despite its proximity to Charleston, Sullivan’s Island’s distinguishing characteristic was its isolation. Aside from the garrison of the fort and a few summer residents, there were only a few year-round inhabitants of the place. Densely covered with myrtle trees, the narrow, sandy island becomes home to the once-wealthy William Legrand, who has left New Orleans because of some misfortunes. Legrand lives with his single slave, Jupiter, in a small hut located at the center of an...

(This entire section contains 373 words.)

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almost impenetrable growth of myrtle trees. He is literally, as well as figuratively, cut off from the world he has left behind.


*Mainland. Region between Sullivan’s Island and Charleston. Although not separated from civilization by water, the land just beyond Sullivan’s Island is equally wild and barren. When the narrator, Legrand, and Jupiter go there in search of the treasure, they pass into a desolate area without evidence of human life. In his emphasis on the strangeness of the area, Poe departs from the realities of southern geography, transforming the level, sandy landscape into one filled with inaccessible hills, huge crags, and deep ravines. Although unrealistic, these touches add to the atmosphere of the story, which requires an isolated, wild, and exotic location.


Tulip-tree. Tree on the mainland that allows Legrand to determine the exact location of the buried treasure. Jupiter climbs this extremely tall, old tree, where he finds a skull attached to an upper limb; lowering the “gold-bug” of the title through the empty eye socket of the skull reveals the burial site of Captain Kidd’s treasure.


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Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966. One of the most important philosophic studies of Poe’s work. Presents Poe as basically a religious writer in that he becomes his own god, his own supreme maker of prophecies and parables.

Hassell, J. Woodrow, Jr. “The Problem of Realism in ‘The Gold-Bug.’” American Literature 25 (May, 1953): 179-192. Includes a discussion of how fantasy and realism are blended and sometimes in conflict in “The Gold-Bug.” Shows how Poe was able to give an appearance of reality to the fanciful elements in the story.

Kempton, Daniel. “The Gold/Goole/Ghoul Bug.” Emerson Society Quarterly 33 (1987): 1-19. Interesting study of the basic logical/aesthetic pattern of “The Gold-Bug”; notes that the protagonist of the story looks on the world as if it were an encoded message written for the elect by the hand of God.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A useful study of the nature of writing in Poe’s stories and the relationship of writing to death. Important for understanding pattern and interpretation in “The Gold-Bug.”

Williams, Michael. “The Language of the Cipher: Interpretation in ‘The Gold-Bug.’” In Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Charles May. New York: Twayne, 1991. Excellent study of Poe’s philosophic interest in the power of language and his tactic of embedding interpretative strategies within his stories.




Critical Essays