illustration of a wax-sealed envelope with a quill resting beside it

The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

Start Free Trial

Critical Essay on "The Purloined Letter"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Throughout his career, Poe was fascinated by the idea of a "bi-part" soul, half imagination, half reason—an idea that was expressed in many of his works. As Roger Asselineau noted about Poe in his entry for American Writers, "His works reflect this double aspect of his personality: the abandonment of the self-destructive romantic artist and the self-control of the conscious and conscientious craftsman." At first glance, somebody looking at Poe's stories may be tempted to label each one as either a horror story—emphasizing imagination—or a detective story, which emphasizes reason. However, with Poe, it is not always that simple, especially with Poe's detective stories. Kenneth Graham notes in the Introduction to Selected Tales that Dupin "is the most famous instance of the fusion of the faculties, in his 'bi-part soul'." The idea of the bi-part soul is especially prevalent in "The Purloined Letter," where Poe uses both characterization and dialogue to emphasize and demonstrate the possibilities of this duality.

Out of the four characters in Poe's ‘‘The Purloined Letter,’’ only two of them, Dupin and the Minister, embody the author's idea of the ‘‘bi-part soul.’’ Consequently, these two men are the political power brokers in the story, engaged in an intellectual war, while the other two—the narrator and the Prefect—trail along behind, oblivious to what is going on around them.

Dupin is a powerful character, who has a reputation for being able to use his logic to solve mysteries that others cannot. As a result, people like the Prefect seek him out when they have a case that gives them "a great deal of trouble." Still, although the Prefect praises him for his logical abilities, Dupin has admittedly romantic and illogical notions, like sitting in the dark when listening to the details of potential cases. Dupin believes that "If it is any point requiring reflection," then they can ‘‘examine it to better purpose in the dark.’’ The Prefect says this is one of Dupin's ‘‘odd notions,’’ something that Dupin freely admits is ‘‘very true.’’

The Prefect cannot comprehend why somebody would choose illogical, artistic ideas over purely rational methods, and in fact disdains all things that are creative. The Prefect indicates that although the Minister is ‘‘not altogether a fool,’’ ‘‘he is a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.’’ However, Dupin, who the Prefect respects, admits his own poetic side, saying, ‘‘I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself.’’ In fact, it is precisely Dupin's ability to merge both the rational and the creative mindsets that allows him to solve the crime. As Stephen Marlowe notes in the Introduction to The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories, "yet for all his skill as a logician, Dupin is proof that success in detection needs the inspiration of a poet as well.’’

In Poe's view, both qualities are needed to make an effective criminal, too. Like Dupin, the Minister is both creative and analytical, something that neither the narrator nor the Prefect realizes. Says the narrator, ‘‘The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.’’ The Prefect is equally as stumped as to the true nature of the Minister, focusing only on his mathematical side when trying to determine how and where the Minister might hide the letter. As Vincent Buranelli notes in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, "The thief...successfully hides the letter from the police because he is both a poet and a mathematician.’’ George Colton agrees, noting in The American Review that the Minister "identifies his own intellect...

(This entire section contains 1602 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with that of his opponents, and consequently understands what will be the course they will pursue in ferreting out the place where the letter is concealed." Only Dupin is aware of the truth, and he lets the narrator know of the Minister that "as poet and mathematician, he would reason well," and that "my measures were adapted to his capacity."

While Dupin and the Minister engage in their intellectual battle, employing both their analytical and creative powers against their opponent, the Prefect and the narrator are out of the fight altogether. Both men attempt to rely on purely rational thought. The Prefect is logical to a fault, and assumes that the letter can be found by logical methods alone. Says Dupin, "He never once thought it probable, or possible, that the minister had deposited the letter immediately beneath the nose of the whole world." The Prefect cannot comprehend why someone would want to hide something in plain view, so the letter becomes invisible to him.

The narrator is not much better off. Even though Dupin says that the Prefect's searching measures were ‘‘the best of their kind,’’ and that they were ‘‘carried out to absolute perfection,’’ he lets his friend know that this was not enough. ‘‘Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it.’’ The narrator laughs at this statement, which flies in the face of the rational thought to which he is accustomed. If the Prefect's methods were perfect, then how could they not have found the letter? The narrator at first thinks that Dupin is joking, but soon realizes that Dupin "seemed quite serious in all that he said," and so listens some more. Dupin continues to explain that the defect in the search methods "lay in their being inapplicable to the case and to the man."

The narrator suffers, like the Prefect, from a tendency to rely totally on established systems of thought and past experience. The narrator is unaware of this, even though he had described this quality in the Prefect earlier in the story, when he noted that the Prefect "had the fashion of calling everything 'odd' that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of 'oddities'." The narrator, too, is blinded to the possibilities of these "oddities," and so is unable to make the analogies that Dupin makes to solve the case. As Buranelli notes, ‘‘Dupin thinks by analogy when he solves the mystery ... by inferring the behavior of the criminal from a knowledge of how human psychology operates.’’ It is this duality of imagination and reason that places Dupin and the Minister ahead of the other two men.

The way in which dialogue is expressed in the story also helps to illustrate the duality of emotion and rationality. However, in this case, the model is flipped. Whereas in a person's thought processes, a touch of imagination and emotion affected reason in a good way, when dialogue becomes emotional, Poe shows it to be inferior. This is most notable in the dialogue of the Prefect and Dupin. Although the Prefect attempts to remain completely rational and unemotional in his thought processes, he uses emotional language at times. ‘‘Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?’’ the Prefect says in response to Dupin's suggestion that the mystery may be too plain. This outburst shows the Prefect's tendency to get emotional in his speech, as well as his tendency, once again, to rule out any possibility that does not match his past experiences. In another instance, when Dupin asks the Prefect if he can describe what the letter looks like, the Prefect says, ‘‘Oh, yes!’’ and immediately pulls out a memo book with the description. His over-eagerness in providing information to Dupin reflects his eagerness in his misguided search for the letter.

Dupin, on the other hand, is completely levelheaded and rational throughout the tale. He remains calm, even indifferent—as when the narrator tells the Prefect to "proceed" in giving them details about the mystery, and Dupin says, "Or not." This cool behavior is evident throughout the story, as when Dupin gives the Prefect his advice to search again, and the Prefect says that it is not necessary. ‘‘I have no better advice to give you,’’ says Dupin. He continues to keep his level demeanor when he tells the Prefect to make out the check to him: "you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter."

Dupin is also rational as he walks the narrator through the lengthy deductive reasoning process that he used to figure out where the letter was, and as he tells the narrator how he recovered the letter, which could have been a potentially dangerous situation. Dupin notes that the Minister has "attendants devoted to his interests," and that if he had taken the letter outright—as the narrator suggested—Dupin "might never have left the Ministerial presence alive." In other words, although it is Dupin's ability to combine imaginative and rational thought processes that allows him to get inside the Minister's mind and leads to Dupin's discovery of the letter's hiding place, it is his purely rational outside demeanor, reflected in his language, that gives him the means to steal it back safely.

In Poe's ‘‘The Purloined Letter,’’ the author illustrates the concept of the bi-part soul—combining reason and imagination in one person—an idea that dominated many of his works. In the story, Poe depicts two poet/mathematicians, embodiments of the idea of the bi-part soul, as people who are intellectually superior to both friends and foes. These creative and rational hybrids become, within the context of a detective tale, political power brokers who can work the system to their advantage, by operating outside of conventional society's rational thought and expectations.

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.

Fiction Themes in Edgar Allan Poe

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Graham's Magazine carried in its issue of April, 1841, a short story entitled ‘‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’’ Nothing quite like it had ever been seen before. The reading public was accustomed to tales of crime, whether fictional or of real events, and the violent deaths of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter would not have been a cause of any particular note, except possibly for protests over the shocking details. What was of note was the novel manner in which the author treated his subject. With "The Murders in the Rue Morgue'' Poe became the only American ever to invent a form of literature. He invented the detective story.

He also perfected it. This first detective story may be the best ever written. Only "The Purloined Letter" challenges it for that accolade, making the two together the high point in the history of crime fiction. The Poe standard slips with "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which is too long and too involved to hold the attention of the reader. "Thou Art the Man" is better, and represents one critical step forward in the handling of psychology in the detective story."The Gold Bug" is a superior product by any definition: It helps to establish the wider category of the mystery story—the category that will be expanded by Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson.

While fashioning the detective story, Poe came to regard it as an exception to the rule that truth is not the object of literary art. He considers it to be a puzzle in which the object is the correct solution, so that it resembles a cryptogram. His argument needs to be qualified. As his own practice reveals, the detective story is much more than a puzzle and is read at least as much for artistic presentation as for the intellectual manipulation of evidence. That is why the great detectives, Sherlock Holmes prominently, have eclipsed their cases. A cryptogram loses its interest when it has been solved, but a good detective story stands re-reading.

According to the classical rules of detective fiction, three elements are necessary for success, the art of the writer being to unite them properly into a coherent and, within the rules of the game, convincing account. These elements are the crime, the detective, and the method of detection. All three are identified and defined by Poe in one sweep of his genius. His practice is so good that it unnecessary to go beyond him to see how a detective story ought to be written.

The crime is the reason for the story, the cause of the incidents that follow. If verisimilitude is to claim the reader, persuading him to withhold his disbelief and to enter into the spirit of the story, the crime must not shock his credibility too much. He must be not only convinced that there is a puzzle worth unraveling, but also carried along by the narrative until the explanation is given to him. Puzzle without crime Poe deals with in "The Gold Bug,’’ which concerns the discovery of pirate treasure after the decipherment of an old map by using the cryptography of which Poe was fond. Puzzle with crime produces the detective story, and Poe is no less credible in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue'' and ‘‘The Purloined Letter’’ than he is in ‘‘The Gold Bug.’’

The discovery that Mme. L'Espanaye and her daughter have been murdered amid mysterious circumstances starts "The Murders in the Rue Morgue'' on its way. The crime has happened on the fourth story of a Paris building. The bodies of the women have been fearfully mutilated, that of the mother thrown into the yard, that of the daughter thrust with tremendous force up the chimney. No one saw the murders or murderers, but several witnesses say they heard voices in the apartment. All agree that one was the voice of a Frenchman; but about the second voice they disagree. A French witness thinks the accents were Spanish; a Dutchman thinks they were French; an Englishman, German; a Spaniard, English; an Italian, Russian.

Who could have had the agility to climb a fourth story apartment, the ferocity to attack two women so horribly, the strength to thrust one corpse up the chimney? Who was it that spoke so strangely that everyone within earshot feels sure that he was speaking a strange tongue?

The crime and the circumstances of "The Purloined Letter'' are completely different. In it the causal situation is theft, the thief is known, and the problem is to retrieve what he has stolen. The criminal is a minister of the Paris government, who, during a visit to the royal apartments, sees an incriminating letter lying on the table. He takes it, knowing that the lady to whom it is addressed cannot protest because of the presence of a third party from whom the letter must be concealed. The police are ordered to find the letter and get it back without letting the thief know what they are doing. Because the authorities are certain that he keeps it in his possession, possibly on his person, their agents, disguised as thugs, hold him up on the street and search him. Meanwhile crime experts, while he is out of the way, go over his rooms inch by inch, probing the furniture, the walls, and every conceivable hiding place—all to no avail. So the puzzle is this: The letter must be on the premises of the thief; the premises have been ransacked, ceiling to floor, wall to wall; the letter is there—but where is it?

When the crimes of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" have been described, when the authorities have admitted failure—at this point every detective story fan since Poe's time has known what the next step is. The detective has to be brought into the case. His name is legion: Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Charlie Chan, Father Brown, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Inspector Maigret, and so on ad infinitum. These are all aliases. His real name is C. Auguste Dupin, who steps forward into modern literature in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." He has been with us ever since.

Dupin is a gentleman of leisure, reduced in circumstances but not so far as to require that he work for a living. He dabbles in literature and even writes poetry. He has his peculiarities, such as a preference for darkness that leads him to shutter his room during the day, and to go out into the city only at night. He smokes a meerschaum. He knows the annals of crime; and, although a recluse who discourages visitors, he has repeated visits from the highest officials of the police, who reveal to him the facts surrounding certain vexing crimes that have them baffled.

Does it all sound familiar? It should. The more you examine C. Auguste Dupin, the more does the figure of Sherlock Holmes appear in him. Dupin and Holmes even have in common certain minor tricks of their trade: Both, for example, know how to flush out a criminal by means of a newspaper advertisement. We know more about Holmes because Conan Doyle has described him through dozens of stories. Yet Poe has already set the pattern of getting the detective to solve more than one case, and of having him refer back to those that have gone before. Dupin is too strong a character to be held within Poe's limits of the short story, although his personality does not overbear incident as Holmes' does. Literature is full of human types that grew, almost by a natural growth, beyond the intentions of their authors. We know that it happened with Doyle. It seems to have happened with Poe."The Murders in the Rue Morgue'' and "The Purloined Letter'' are not merely good plots leading up to effective endings. They are notable for characterization too. C. Auguste Dupin is the eternal detective.

Everything in the detective story depends on the detective, but there are subsidiary interests. Sherlock Holmes must be balanced by Doctor Watson, a fact that Poe was the first to see. Dupin has a companion, the narrator who plays the part of the listener, the man of middling intelligence who must be enlightened about what is happening, and who thereby passes the necessary information on to the reader. He is the link between the detective and the reader, and in his inability to comprehend the meaning of the clues both flatters the reader and shows off more brilliantly the sagacity of the detective. Holmes says to Watson, "You see but you do not observe." He had in mind that passage in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" where Dupin tells the narrator: "The necessary knowledge is of what to observe."

Holmes enjoys a special standing with Scotland Yard. Before him Dupin had been related in the same way to the French Sûreté. The reason for this is that the ineffectiveness of ordinary police methods must be shown, from which follows the appeal of the authorities to the detective to help them. Holmes is approached periodically by Inspector Lestrade, who knew how Dupin had been approached by the Paris Prefect.

Ordinary police methods having failed, the question is what method of his own the detective will bring to the solution of the crime. Holmes calls his method ‘‘deduction’’; Dupin calls his ‘‘analysis.’’ They are not very different, for each involves an insight into the pattern of the crime and a correct reading of the clues. Holmes, upon inferring Watson's chain of thought, even mentions Dupin's similar achievement as the basis of this blend of logic and psychology. The manner of reading clues was not original with Poe, who knew the passage on "detection" in Voltaire's Zadig. Poe's contribution was to raise the method to the level of a regular technique applied by a detective to the solution of a crime.

Dupin wields the imaginative perception of meaningful symmetries that Poe says elsewhere is the key to both science and art. Intuition, acting amid a welter of clues, sets aside the trivia and fastens on a structure that emerges from putting the essential facts together. Then the intelligence may go to work in a more ordinary way, proving by deduction and induction that the solution thus arrived at is the true one—that the man apprehended is indeed the criminal in the case.

What is needed is the imagination of the poet and the reasoning power of the mathematician. The thief of "The Purloined Letter" successfully hides the letter from the police because he is both a poet and a mathematician. Dupin is able to find it because he too is both a poet and a mathematician. Dupin perceives that such a mind, confronted with the task of fooling the experts who will search his apartments in the most exhaustive way, must arrive at the conclusion that the safest way to hide the letter is to put it in a place so obvious that they will not even consider looking there. Hence Dupin, gaining an entrée, finds the letter just where he expects it to be—in the letter rack.

The horrors of ‘‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ fall into place when Dupin realizes that the salient clues—agility, strength, ferocity, and strange gibberish—can only fit an ape. He then deduces from various other clues that the second party probably is a sailor from a Maltese ship, and entices him into coming forward by advertising that a captured orangoutan will be returned to the owner if he claims it. The sailor's confession is the empirical evidence proving Dupin's insight and logic to be sound.

Dupin doubtless was a cryptographer by avocation. Legrand of "The Gold Bug" turns to cryptography in a purse sense when he finds the tattered, weather-beaten pirate map. His method of decoding it would be simply another of Poe's examples of how to break codes except that the Legrand uses it very practically to find the treasure hidden long ago by Captain Kidd. One may wonder whether the discovery really could be made in this way, but there is no dispute about "The Gold Bug" being a rattling good story. It deserved the prize it won from the Dollar Newspaper of Philadelphia. One of its offspring is Stevenson's Treasure Island.

Another of Poe's detective stories in which Dupin does not appear deserves mention—"Thou Art the Man." This is not one of his best (it is too melodramatic for that), but it advances the detective story in one cardinal way: It makes the villain of the piece, not some glowering thug or admittedly amoral gentleman, but precisely the jolly, frank, professedly aghast, friend of the victim. From there it was but a step to the sophisticated modern crime novels which conceal the criminal because he is indiscernible among the group of ordinary people.

Crime fiction is now so common that we can hardly imagine the literary scene without it. We naturally assume that every year will bring astronomical sales of Conan Doyle, S. S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Simenon, and the hopeful newcomers who keep invading the mystery field in droves. The fiction writer is rare who has never had the idea cross his mind of doing a detective story. Before Poe, there was none of this. He stands at the head of a genre, a profession, and an industry.

Although the craft has become more sophisticated in many ways, Poe scarcely seems old-fashioned in his methods. The ‘‘fair play’’ doctrine is, fully enunciated, a relatively recent addition to the rules of the game—the idea that the author must set out the clues in such a way as to give the reader as good a chance as the detective to solve the mystery. Entertaining stories have been written without regard to this rule, which is unknown in the best of two old masters, Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) and Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet).

Poe obeyed the fair doctrine in "The Purloined Letter," not deliberately but by a kind of instinct for what was fitting. The reader knows as much as Dupin and can, if mentally alert, reach the solution just as quickly. Poe puts the two necessary clues in their hands at the same time. The first clue is that the best way to hide an object is to leave it in the most obvious place. The second clue is that the missing object is a letter. If the reader joins the two clues as he should, he knows where the letter is.

Numerous i's have been dotted and t's crossed in the past century. Clues are scattered more artfully; criminals have become more cunning than they were; detectives in self-defense have become more acute. Criminals and detectives come from all the human types. Methods of murder include technical scientific discoveries from nuclear radiation to lethal microscopic organisms, and writers play with combinations of countless new factors available to them. A few of the later forms would have been beyond Poe. Not even he could have imagined the hardboiled detective story of which Dashiell Hammett was the master—it is too much a product of twentieth-century, post-World War I America. Most of the other refinements would have been within Poe's range, and he might have introduced many of them if he had been writing detective novels. Being confined to the dimensions of the short story, he had to do what he could with the space at his disposal, where there was no possibility of trailing clues at twenty-page intervals. No one has used that amount of space more effectively. If Poe had written as much detective fiction as Conan Doyle, the world's most famous detective would be, not Sherlock Holmes, but C. Auguste Dupin.

The standards set by Poe are still sound. Today's practitioners are all in his debt. The Mystery Writers of America paid only part of the debt when they founded their Edgar Allan Poe Award for the best detective story of the year.


Critical Overview