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The Murders in the Rue Morgue

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Student Question

How is the reader-response theory applied to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"?

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Reader-response theory is concerned with the experience of the reader in reading a text. Unlike New Criticism, which sees “literary meaning” as encoded in the text by the author, reader-response theorists see meaning as created by the reader in the act of actually reading the words. That is, until someone reads Poe’s story, there is no meaning. This has radical implications for understanding how literature works. If the reader is the person who “makes“ the meaning, then that meaning is bound to be very different from reader to reader. This is why many reader-response critics are interested in “interpretive communities.” Interpretive communities can be identified by looking at the sum of readings produced by many readers.

Poe really anticipated the reader-response movement. He writes explicitly (in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition”) about how he structures his stories and poems specifically to create an effect and evoke an emotion in the reader. In that sense, his writing is a bit like a game, in that you can see stories like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as a set of rules which, if followed, will cause a particular experience for the reader.

This “game” idea is explicitly referenced at the very beginning of the story, in the discussion of chess and whist as two modes of solving problems. The case of the “impossible” murders Poe lays out in the story is itself a kind of game for the reader, which, like whist, will require reason and imagination to solve. In fact, it is possible to read Dupin as a kind of stand-in for the reader. Like the reader, Dupin is presented with a set of impossible circumstances surrounding the murder. He is also similar to the reader in that his job is to figure out a solution to the puzzle. Unlike Dupin, however, modern readers likely have considerable experience with mystery stories, either through other books they have read or movies or TV shows they have seen. A reader-response reading of Poe’s story would evaluate how the reader’s experience of Poe’s story was mediated by these other experiences and seek to understand the significance of “mysteries” as a whole.

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How would you write a readers response theory essay on "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"?

Reader-response theory says that meaning comes not just from the literal words on the page, but from the meaning that a reader constructs in his or her head based on individual experience and knowledge.

This meaning will differ based on the reader's social location, which includes age, gender, social class, ethnicity, nationality, and place in history. Therefore, when you look at Poe's detective story using this interpretive lens, you examine how your social location influences your understanding of the tale. For example, a twenty-first century reader is not going to understand the story the way someone would who read it the year it first appeared. Our cultures have changed. What elements of the story seem odd to you? Does Poe mention items you have never heard of? Do you detect racism or sexism in the story in a way an earlier reader might not have? When Poe was writing, detectives stories were relatively uncommon, but today they are everywhere. How might your own knowledge of the detective genre influence how you read the story? How does your age or ethnicity help you relate to the story or make it difficult for you to relate to it?

As with all interpretation, you want to support your ideas with specific examples from the text. 

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