“The Purloined Letter” has been the subject of considerable commentary, most interestingly as the bone of contention between two of the more prominent contemporary French thinkers, the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who have argued about the story’s pertinence to the themes and significance of psychoanalysis. It would require considerable space to lay out the complicated arguments that each of these thinkers mounts in reading Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, but one could characterize this debate briefly as signifying the difference between a reading of the story as presenting readers with a definite and finitely circumscribed set of meanings (roughly Lacan’s position) and one that denies categorically, on behalf of Poe’s story, the possibility that any definitive interpretation of the elements in this or any narrative can ever be produced. One could say, perhaps too schematically, that Derrida’s claim rests primarily on the fact that the precise contents of the letter are never revealed, and that therefore the letter itself becomes an emblem of the indeterminacy in meaning that the tale enacts. Certainly the central tension in the story between the calculating and rationally motivated Dupin and the more shadowy narrator—whose relation to Dupin is established in prior stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—as well as the difficulty of knowing precisely how to apply the closing citation to the case of the minister and his actions, suggests that Lacan’s more or less straightforward symbolic interpretation of the tale as an allegory of sexuality misses many of the subtlest discriminations that the narrative establishes.
Once one has opened up the possibility that all is not as it seems—and this is the very possibility on which the plot turns because it is the appearance of the letter itself that is crucial to its concealment by the minister—it is not simple to begin to pin down the meaning of individual elements. Nor is it absolutely certain at the end that Dupin has in fact delivered the original letter to the prefect because he might, with the knowledge of the original’s contents, have prepared a facsimile and retained the original for purposes that he does not here reveal. In truth, readers know little more about the facts of the matter at the end than they did at the beginning, although they have been initiated into an astonishingly intricate web of stratagems.
Logic The hallmark of "The Purloined Letter" is its use of abstract logic by C. Auguste Dupin. The story is one of what Poe called his "tales of ratiocination," which employed reason—rather than horror, as in many other Poe stories—as a narrative tool. Dupin, who also solves the cases in some of Poe's other tales of ratiocination, is a detective who uses deductive reasoning to solve the case of the stolen letter.
In the story, Dupin relies on what he knows of the situation to deduce the correct hiding spot of the letter. Dupin's reasoning is based on three factors: what he knows of the Prefect's behavior and thought processes; what he knows of the Minister's behavior and thought processes; and what he knows of human nature in general.
As Dupin explains to the narrator, he knows, both from recent conversations with the Prefect and from past knowledge, that the Prefect follows "principles of search, which are based upon the one set of notions regarding human ingenuity" to which the Prefect was accustomed. Dupin notes that the Prefect has "taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter.... in some
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some out-of-the-way hole." In the Prefect's experience, when somebody wants to hide something, they go to great pains to hide it in a secret compartment or some other hidden area, thinking they are clever. In the past, the Prefect has found many of these compartments, so he assumes that he will do so again. When Dupin tells the Prefect "to make a thorough research of the premises," the Prefect does not understand that Dupin is referring to the obvious ones, and once again looks for the letter in a secret compartment in which a letter might be hidden.
Dupin also knows, given his knowledge of the Minister and his habits, that the Minister is a very clever person. Dupin correctly deduces that the Minister must have known about "the secret investigations of his premises," and that if he left his home every night and made it easier for them to search, they would eventually come to "the conviction that the letter was not upon the premises." Furthermore, as Dupin deduces, the Minister has seen that the police would rely on tried-and-true search methods, and that the Minister "would be driven, as a matter of course, to simplicity, if not deliberately induced to it as a matter of choice."
The final clue that Dupin uses to figure out where the letter is hidden is his knowledge of human nature, something in which he knows the Minister is also well versed. As Dupin explains to the narrator, some items can "escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious." In his example, Dupin relates a game that is played with a map. The object of the game is to have one's opponent find a specific word somewhere within the map. As Dupin notes, "a novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names." Like the Prefect, these novices think they can beat their opponent by focusing on obscurity. However, as Dupin says, "the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other." When someone is specifically looking for something obscure, that person will miss obvious items that do not fit the profile of the search.
Scientific Investigations Although it is Dupin's form of deductive logic—which is bound only by the factors in the particular case--that solves the case, the Prefect also uses logic. However, the Prefect's brand of logic is bound by his past experience—in this case, the investigative methods that normally bring him success.
The Prefect gives an exhaustive inventory of these methods, many of which rely on rational, scientific methods of thought. When speaking of the Minister's home, he says, "we divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed." Within each of these precise areas of searching, they used a "powerful microscope" on such items as chairs and tables, in an attempt to find any hidden compartments. "There is a certain amount of bulk—of space—to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us." In other words, by comparing an object's exterior dimensions to the actual interior space that can be seen, the Prefect and the police can determine whether there is any extra space—a hidden compartment.
The Prefect's methods are so scientific and precise that he claims that even small signs would tip them off. "A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple." Of course, as Dupin suggests at the beginning, "it is the very simplicity of the thing" that thwarts the Prefect, who thinks he has "investigated every nook and corner of the premises in which it is possible that the paper can be concealed." However, in this instance the Prefect's methods are useless, because they only take into account "secret" areas, and ignore the obvious areas.
Politics The reason for the letter's theft is political in nature. The Minister, a political opponent of the Queen's, steals the letter, and holds it hostage. As the Prefect notes, "the power thus attained has, for some months, been wielded, for political purposes, to a very dangerous extent." Although the contents of the letter are never explained, it is noted that it could be particularly damaging to the royal family. Dupin, who is an acquaintance of the Minister, is also a political ally of the Queen. As he tells the narrator, "You know my political prepossessions. In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned." This is one of the main reasons why Dupin is willing to get involved with the case and help find the letter.
A savvy political player himself, Dupin knows that if he can take the letter without the Minister realizing it—replacing it with a fake—he can spin the situation to his advantage and bring about the Minister's political downfall. As Dupin notes, the Minister, "being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, will proceed with his exactions as if it was." In other words, by trying to blackmail the Queen with the fake letter, the Minister will assume that the Queen will do his bidding, and will undertake the same kinds of daring schemes he has been doing for the past eighteen months, which he would not do without protection of the letter. This action will lead, as Dupin notes, "to his political destruction." Dupin says of this downfall, that, "in the present instance I have no sympathy—at least no pity—for him who descends." In Dupin's mind, the Minister is an "unprincipled man of genius," who deserves harsh punishment for his political transgressions.