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

The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Style and Technique

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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 occasion to speak because it would be unlikely, given the discretion of Dupin’s character, that he would readily tell his own story. However, one is led always to speculate on the motivations of this character, on his precise relationship to Dupin, and on the degree of knowledge to which he himself can with justice lay a certain claim. It would be mistaken simply to slot him into the position of the Sherlock Holmes foil, the ingenuous Dr. Watson.

By framing his tale in the discourse of this elusive narrator, Poe inaugurated what would become an important tradition in European and American short fiction, visible, for example, in the works of Henry James, where the relationship between narrator and what is narrated is often problematic and somewhat mysterious. While it is generally thought that the genre of detective or mystery fiction, which Poe with considerable warrant has often been said to have initiated, issues in definite solutions to the crimes or other enigmas that form the basis of the plot, one is left wondering in the case of Poe just what it is that has been revealed. Certainly one would want to know the contents of the purloined letter of the title, but this is precisely what is never revealed. It may be a mark of Poe’s genius that he recognized as an intrinsic property of narratives what Diane Arbus once remarked of photographs: that they are secrets about secrets; the more they tell you, the less you know. Such might be the very motto of Dupin, or even of the narrator, for it is in the relation between their two tellings that the structure of this story resides.

The Purloined Letter

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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...

(This entire section contains 281 words.)

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“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

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The Mass-Market Publishing Industry in America
In the mid-1820s, Poe was one of many writers on the East Coast submitting his works to the growing mass-market publishing industry. Better transportation and improvements in paper production and printing technologies led to the establishment of several newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, and writers and editors clamored to be a part of it.

Copyright Issues for American Authors
In these early years of publishing, American authors were unprotected by any strict copyright legislation, something for which writers like Poe lobbied heavily. Because writers could not protect their works from being plagiarized or reprinted without their permission, they realized that the value of their works would drop after the first printing. As a result, many authors guarded their unpublished works closely, so that they could negotiate higher payments for the initial publication. Poe mocked this trend in his story, "The Purloined Letter," where the narrator notes that it is the "possession, and not any employment of the letter, which bestows the power." Says Terence Whalen, in his essay, "The American Publishing Industry," "Regardless of what it may have meant to the queen, the stolen letter retains its power only so long as its contents remain secret." Whalen further notes that with this treatment of the letter, Poe "develops the tendencies of the capitalist publishing industry to a logical and perverse extreme."

Political Manipulations
The election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828 introduced competitive new methods into presidential elections. Says J. Gerald Kennedy, in his article, "Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849: A Brief Biography," "the contest of 1828 had transformed presidential elections forever by introducing national political tactics" and "fierce partisanship." This partisanship carried over to governing itself, Kennedy notes, as Jackson began to "reward allies and punish enemies."

In the story, Dupin is also a political manipulator, who uses his recovery of the letter as a political move. "You know my political prepossessions," Dupin says to the narrator. "In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned." Besides reclaiming the letter so that the Minister will be forced to stop blackmailing the queen, Dupin also sets it up so that the Minister will "commit himself, at once, to his political destruction."

The Rise of Rationalism
Poe begins his story by saying that it takes place in the "autumn of 18–—." However, since the story was published in 1844, it is likely that this is the general time that he meant for the setting, especially since the story features the type of rational thought that was common in this time.

During the 1830s, when Poe began publishing many of his short stories, several developments took place. In England in 1833, English inventor Charles Babbage discovered the principle of the "analytical engine," a theoretical device for performing calculations. The device, which called for using a system of punched cards to give the machine instructions, eventually helped to lead to the genesis of the modern-day computer.

Two years later, in 1838, a New York Scientist, Charles A. Spencer, introduced the first microscope to America. Although microscopes had been around in some form in various parts of the world since the first crude microscope was built in the Netherlands in 1590, its introduction to America led to many applications.

In 1839, France's Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype, a primitive form of photography, which gave people the ability to produce exact reproductions of life for the first time. Up until this point, reproductions were subject to the interpretation of the individual artist.

Literary Style

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Detective Story
Many critics agree that with tales of ratiocination like "The Purloined Letter," Poe earned the title of father of the modern detective story. Three of C. Auguste Dupin's characteristics in particular—his mysterious nature, his civilian position, and his deductive reasoning—influenced the detectives found in both literature and film.

When Poe introduces Dupin, he provides very little information about his background. He and the narrator sit in the dark, smoking their pipes. When the Prefect visits him to talk about the case, Dupin purposely does not light the lamp, saying that "if it is any point requiring reflection.... we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark." This idea, of the mysterious, silent detective sitting and smoking in the dark while listening to his clients' cases, is one of the hallmarks of future "private-eye" stories.

Like these private eyes, Dupin is also a civilian. Although he is outside of the law, the Prefect still comes to talk with Dupin any time he has "some official business" that gives him "a great deal of trouble." In this case, as in many other detective stories, the Prefect gives Dupin privileged information, such as when he is describing the importance of the letter: "I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its holder a certain power in a certain quarter where such power is immensely valuable." Although the Prefect tries to keep this information vague, he eventually reveals more sensitive information, including the identity of the thief and the specific nature of the stolen item, "the document in question—a letter, to be frank."

Using his deductive reasoning, Dupin is able to solve the case with the same information that the police have. The difference is that he examines all of the factors of the case holistically, not depending only on factors consistent with established systems of thought. "I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical," says Dupin to the narrator. For Dupin, traditional systems of scientific logic, which rely on set rules, do not always help when solving cases about humans, who do not always play by these rules. Therefore, the optimal method of logic that can be used to deduce a solution to a mystery is abstract logic, which takes into account other relevant factors in its analysis.

Although neither the narrator nor the Prefect picks up on it, Dupin gives them the solution to the case of the purloined letter twice before he explains how he does it. In the beginning, after the Prefect has introduced the mystery but before he has given any details, he says about his police force that "we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether." Dupin notes that "perhaps the mystery is a little too plain, a little too self-evident," an idea that the Prefect finds laughable. However, Dupin is giving both the Prefect and the reader a clue as to the solution of this mystery. Dupin does this again at the end of this first visit, after he has heard all of the methods that the Prefect has used to try to find the letter. The Prefect, expecting some good advice, asks Dupin what he should do next, to which Dupin replies, "make a thorough research of the premises." The Prefect does not realize that Dupin is giving another clue to the mystery. Dupin knows that the Prefect has only concentrated on the secret areas of the Minister's home, so he tells the Prefect to check all of the areas, including the obvious ones.

Most fiction writers attempt to expose facts to the reader, a technique known as exposition, as seamlessly as possible, by bringing the reader up to speed slowly through dialogue and narration. In fact, one of the ways in which some critics and readers measure the worth of a story is in its level of mastery of exposition, considered one of the hardest tasks for a writer. In "The Purloined Letter," however, the exposition is very blatant. An unnamed narrator, acting on the reader's behalf, asks very direct questions—which Dupin's character would not be likely to ask—that advance the plot. It is the narrator who asks the Prefect, "And what, after all, is the matter at hand?" thereby prompting the Prefect to start his tale. When the Prefect is being vague, the narrator says, "Be a little more explicit." When Dupin says something that is even slightly confusing, the narrator repeats the confusing part. An example of this is when the narrator repeats the phrase, "Its susceptibility of being produced?" which Dupin stated to indicate that having the letter handy so that it could be destroyed, if necessary, is equally as important as having the letter at all.

This trend continues in the second half of the story, when Dupin is explaining his methods of reasoning to the narrator. "So far as his labors extended?" the narrator repeats, when Dupin is trying to get across the idea that the Prefect and his men have only done everything that they know how to do, and not everything they could do. Once again, the narrator prompts Dupin to explain anything that could possibly be confusing to the reader. However, while many other stories would fail with this type of blatant exposition, which can kill dramatic tension, in Poe's case, it works. The reason it works is that the reader is hooked from the beginning of the story by the mystery: because the reader wishes to know where the letter was hidden, and because Dupin does not reveal until the end where the letter was and how he recovered it, the direct exposition of facts helps to build up the dramatic tension.

Compare and Contrast

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1840s: Samuel Morse, American portrait painter, invents Morse Code, a code of dots and spaces that the United States government uses to keep messages secret from its political enemies.

Today: The United States constructs increasingly more sophisticated methods of keeping messages secret, and employs mathematicians to try to break the codes of other countries.

Early 1840s: Frenchman Louis Daguerre, a scene-painter, invents the daguerreotype, a method that uses a lens and light, along with a chemical reaction, to capture exact images. The first daguerreotypes are used mainly for landscapes—including the first photograph of Paris—and portraits.

Today: Photography comes in many types, including digital, and it is used in many educational, artistic, medical, and scientific applications. Photographs are also used as evidence in many police investigations and criminal trials.

Early 1840s: In the absence of any strictly enforced copyright laws, American authors guard their writings to increase the value of their works on first publication, since they are often reproduced by magazines without the author's permission.

Today: With the advent of the Internet and online publishing, it is easier than ever to gain free access to many copyrighted works. As a result, legal cases and debates involving intellectual property issues increase dramatically.

Media Adaptations

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

''The Purloined Letter'' was adapted into a full-cast audiocassette production in Edgar Allan Poe's Stories & Tales II, published by Monterey Soundworks in 2000. The audio collection also includes Poe's "The Black Cat," "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Asselineau, Roger, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in American Writers, Vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 409-32.

Buranelli, Vincent, "Chapter 3: Return to Reality," in Edgar Allan Poe, in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Buranelli, Vincent, ‘‘Chapter 4: Fiction Themes,’’ in Edgar Allan Poe, in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Carlson, Eric W., ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 74: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 303-22.

Colton, George, ‘‘Poe's Tales,’’ in the American Review, Vol. II, No. III, September 1845, pp. 306-309.

Graham, Kenneth, Introduction, in Selected Tales, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. vii-xxii.

Kennedy, J. Gerald, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849: A Brief Biography,’’ in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 26.

Marlowe, Stephen, Introduction, in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, Signet Classic, 1998, p. xii.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence, "Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in Scribner's Monthly, Vol. XX, May-October 1880, pp.107-24.

Stevenson, Robert Louis, "Literature: 'The Works of Edgar Allan Poe,'’’ in the Academy, Vol. VII, No. 139, January 2, 1879, pp. 1-2.

Thompson, G. R., ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 3: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, edited by Joel Myerson, Gale Research, 1979, pp. 249-97.

Whalen, Terence, ‘‘Poe and the American Publishing Industry,’’ in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 87.

Further Reading
Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1941.
Quinn's massive, 832-page book, reprinted in 1997, is considered by many to be the definitive study in its time of Poe. Quinn, born in 1875, was concerned with defending Poe's reputation, and his examination of Poe's life—unlike many other biographies that relied on guesswork and speculation—was based on thorough research in the Poe family archive.

Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, HarperPerennial Library, 1992. Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer for The Life and Times of Cotton Mather.
Silverman examines Poe's life in light of the fact that Poe was one of the first generation of professional American writers. The book also includes an exhaustive collection of appendices and notes for further study.

Sova, Dawn B., Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work, Literary A to Z Series, Checkmark Books, 2001.
This work is an encyclopedic collection of in-depth entries on all aspects of Poe's life, including the people, places, and publications that influenced the author. It also includes twentieth-century film and musical adaptations, chronologies of Poe's life and works, a list of Poe research collections, and a bibliography.

Walsh, John Evangelist, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Poe's death and the circumstances surrounding it remain a mystery, and various theories have been posed as to what the cause of his demise really was. In this book, Walsh reconstructs Poe's last days, incorporating several of the dominant theories regarding his death.


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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.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.




Critical Essays