Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like many of Poe’s tales, this one is written in a complex idiom that smacks of archaism—and did so even at the moment of his writing. The language tends to be somewhat stilted, and the insertion here of foreign phrases (mostly, although not exclusively, French) puts the situation and the characters at some distance from the average reader. Poe is careful to set the tale in a distant and alien locale, the ambience of which is minutely evoked, with precise references to quarters of Paris, to articles of clothing and furniture, and to the whole unfamiliar business of court intrigue. The net results of these distancing effects are to render the tale more exotic and to make the preternatural powers of observation and ratiocination exhibited by Dupin appear plausible in the context. To the extent that the world of the story is clearly not one familiar to any of Poe’s readers, contemporary with the tale or subsequent, it can be argued that the extraordinary events of the plot seem less fantastic. In such a world, such characters may be said to make sense.

The narrative itself is so constructed as to reinforce the sense of mystery that pervades this world, as the position of the narrator remains entirely obscure from beginning to end. He never reveals anything substantive about himself, and one might surmise that he is merely a formal device for getting the story told, a means for introducing the real protagonist, Dupin, and for giving the latter an...

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The Purloined Letter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As he did in “THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE” and “THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET,” Dupin outshines the police in solving a seemingly insoluble crime.

Unlike the other two tales, which involve gruesome murders of women, “THE PURLOINED LETTER” presents only petty thievery and deception as the crime. The tale’s mock heroic tone is suggested even by the title’s description of the missing letter not as “stolen” but as “purloined.”

The Prefect of the Parisian police, Monsieur G-----, actually knows the identity of the thief, the Minister D-----, but the letter itself must be found in order to protect the honor of a lady being blackmailed. Despite an exhaustive search of the culprit’s apartment over a three-month period, the Prefect has not found the document and appeals to Dupin for assistance in the matter.

As in “THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE,” Dupin’s strategy is to match wits with the culprit. Dupin and the Minister D----- are, in many respects, alike. Both are poets and mathematicians who tend to think in a similar fashion, both find the letter in plain sight, and, significantly, both use the letter for personal gain. The Minister uses it for political advantage, while in the end Dupin extracts a large reward from the Prefect.

Dupin claims the reward by handing the letter in question to the Prefect after a search of the Minister’s apartment that involves some deception and trickery. Dupin then explains to the incredulous narrator the reasoning which led him to discover the letter: His reasoning in the matter was superior to the Prefect’s elaborate search because too much concentration on minute detail can obscure obvious truths.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Mass-Market Publishing Industry in America
In the mid-1820s, Poe was one of many writers on the East Coast...

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Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Detective Story
Many critics agree that with tales of ratiocination like "The Purloined Letter," Poe earned the title...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1840s: Samuel Morse, American portrait painter, invents Morse Code, a code of dots and spaces that the United States...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Research the methods that modern-day criminal psychologists use to create a psychological profile. Using these methods, choose one of...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Purloined Letter’" was adapted into an audiocassette version in 1986 by Spoken Arts.

''The Purloined Letter'' was adapted...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Poe's detective stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin influenced many later mystery writers, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose Sherlock...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Asselineau, Roger, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in American Writers, Vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons,...

(The entire section is 501 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


(The entire section is 158 words.)