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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Type of Work and Publication Year
.......Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold-Bug" is a short story centering on the power of logical thinking, or ratiocination, to solve a secret code made up of numbers, symbols, and punctuation marks. The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper published the story in 1843 in three installments.
.......The time is the early 1840s. The action takes place in South Carolina on Sullivan's Island and on the mainland, near Charleston. At one end of the island is Fort Moultrie, a real-life military outpost constructed to protect Charleston. It was one of four such installations. The other three were Castle Pinckney,
Fort Sumter, and Fort Johnson. Beginning in November 1827, Poe spent a year at Fort Moultrie after enlisting in the U.S. Army the previous May.
William Legrand: Once-wealthy New Orleans resident who moved to South Carolina after becoming impoverished. As an amateur naturalist, he gathers insects and mollusks for his collection. He finds a mysterious golden beetle that precipitates a search for buried treasure.
Narrator: Physician unidentified by name. He is a resident of Charleston who befriends Legrand.
Jupiter: Freed slave and loyal servant and companion of Legrand.
Lieutenant: Army officer at Fort Moultrie whom Legrand allows to keep the beetle overnight.
Old Negro Woman: Woman who helps Legrand locate a site mentioned in the secret code that points the way to the buried
Point of View
.......A physician unidentified by name narrates the story in first-person point of view. However, he quotes the main character, William Legrand, at length when the latter explains how he solved the secret code that discloses the location of buried treasure. Thus, in effect, Legrand becomes a second
.......The story consists of three main sections. The first establishes an air of mystery centering on a golden beetle the narrator finds while searching the area near his hut for specimens of insects and mollusks to add to his collection. The second section centers on a search and discovery of buried treasure. The third
section answers questions posed by the previous sections.
By Michael J. Cummings
.......At Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, the narrator develops a friendship with William Legrand, a once wealthy resident of New Orleans who suffered reversals that impoverished him. To avoid public disgrace, he moved to Sullivan's Island, a desolate strip of sandy land about three miles long and no more than a
quarter-mile wide at any one place. A creek separates it from the mainland. .
.......Vegetation on the island is scant except for dense sweet myrtle that in some places is twenty feet high. At the western end of the island is Fort Moultrie and several
frame buildings. Legrand lives in a hut on the eastern end of the island, where the narrator made his acquaintance.
.......Legrand seems well educated, the narrator says, although he seldom opens the many books in his possession. The narrator observes
that he is “infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy.” Legrand regularly hunts, fishes, and collects mollusks and insects. A freed slave named Jupiter keeps him company as his servant, calling him “Massa Will.” Old Jupiter had chosen to come to Sullivan's Island from New Orleans with Legrand.
.......Autumn weather on the island generally is moderate. However, it becomes cold enough on October 18 one year to make a fire welcome. On that day the narrator, who resides nine miles away in Charleston, decides at sunset to visit Legrand. He is warming himself at the
fireplace just as Legrand and Jupiter return from an outing on which they bagged marsh hens and found an interesting mollusk and, more important, what Legrand believes is a completely new type of beetle “in respect to which he wished to have my opinion on the morrow,” the narrator says. Legrand is in a fit of high spirits at having discovered such a rare specimen. When the narrator asks to see
the beetle immediately, Legrand says he “foolishly lent it” to a lieutenant from the fort. However, he says, he will send Jupiter to fetch it in the morning.
.......Legrand describes the bug as having a bright gold color with three black spots. Jupiter
says he thinks the beetle is actually solid gold except for the wings, for he never felt one half as heavy in his life. Legrand draws a picture of it on a scrap of paper that he withdraws from his pocket. He gives the drawing to the narrator just as Legrand's dog, a friendly Newfoundland, comes into the hut and leaps into the narrator's lap. While examining the drawing by the fire, the narrator
says it resembles the picture of a skull or a “death's-head.” Legrand acknowledges the resemblance, noting that two of the black spots near one extremity look like eyes and the third, at the other extremity, looks like a mouth.
.......“But where are the antennae?
the narrator asks.
.......Legrand insists he drew them, but the narrator says he cannot see them. When Legrand examines the drawing, he becomes agitated and moody. He is about to throw the paper away when something on it catches his eye. He puts it in his wallet and places the wallet in a desk, which he locks.
.......About a month later, Jupiter calls at the narrator's residence to report that Legrand has not been himself lately. He is pale and walks about with his head down. Moreover, he continually works with figures on a slate. In addition, he talks about gold in his sleep.
Jupiter thinks his prize beetle bit him and infected him with a desire for gold. The old man then gives the narrator a note from his master. In it, Legrand says he has not been well lately and asks the narrator to come for a visit in the evening. He has a secret to disclose.
.......The narrator leaves immediately with Jupiter. When they reach the creek for the short trip across the water, the narrator notices a scythe and three spades in the boat. Jupiter says he purchased them at his master's behest but does not know for what purpose.
.......When the narrator and Jupiter arrive at the hut, the narrator asks Legrand whether the lieutenant gave the bug back to him. Legrand assures him that the lieutenant did so. He then says he plans to use the gold bug to restore his fortune, saying, “I have only to use it properly, and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the
Withdrawing the bug from a glass case, he shows it to the narrator.
.......“The scales were exceedingly hard and glossy, with all
the appearance of burnished gold,” the narrator says.
.......Legrand then asks the narrator to accompany him and Jupiter on a trip into hills on the mainland. They will be gone until dawn the next morning. The excursion has something to do with the bug.
As a physician, the narrator is concerned that Legrand's preoccupation with the insect has stirred him into an unhealthful state of excitement. He agrees to accompany Legrand only on condition that he place himself under the care of the doctor when they return at sunrise. Legrand agrees.
.......Off they go at 4 p.m.—the three men, the dog, and the bug. Jupiter totes the spades and scythe. Legrand transports the gold bug on the end of a cord, “twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjurer.” The narrator carries lanterns. After crossing to the mainland on a skiff, they head northwest into “wild and desolate”
country, the narrator says. After two hours of walking, they arrive at a “densely wooded” hill and climb to a tract of level land, where Jupiter uses the scythe to cut through thick brambles. .......When they come to a tall tulip tree, Legrand asks Jupiter whether he can climb it. The old man replies that he can climb any tree, but he balks when his master asks him to
take the bug along. After Legrand assures him that the bug is dead, Jupiter sets to his task, gripping the string to which the bug is attached. When he reaches the seventh branch, which is quite far up, he sees a skull nailed to it. Legrand instructs him to lower the string through the left eye of the skull and drop the gold bug.
.......At the spot where it fell, Legrand drives a peg into the ground. Next, he attaches a tape measure to the tree trunk, unrolls it to the stake, then continues to unroll it until he reaches fifty feet. There, he drives a second peg into the ground and draws a circle around
it. They light the lanterns and begin digging. The narrator believes the whole business is sheer lunacy, but he cooperates so as not to upset Legrand.
.......After they dig for several hours but find nothing, Legrand is deeply disappointed. When they are
about to leave, Legrand stops, questions Jupiter, and discovers that he had dropped the gold bug through the right eye, not the left. They then go back and resume digging after Legrand adjusts his measurements. After about an hour-and-a-half of digging, the dog jumps into the hole and paws at the ground. He uncovers two skeletons. Further digging yields metal buttons, a Spanish knife, four coins
of gold and silver—and finally a wooden chest. It is much too heavy to lift even for three men. So they open it on the spot, sliding back two bolts, and reveal gold and jewels of “incalculable value,” the narrator says. They are overcome with amazement.
.......After removing about two-thirds of the treasure and hiding it in brambles, they are able to lift and carry away the chest and the rest of its jewels. At the hut, they store their find, rest for an hour, eat, and return to the site with three sacks into which they place the remaining treasure. By the time they reach the hut again, it is dawn. After sleeping about four
hours, they spend the rest of the day and part of the night sorting the treasure. They estimate the value of the coins—Spanish, French, German, and English—at $450,000 and count out one hundred ten large diamonds, eighteen rubies, three hundred ten emeralds, twenty-one sapphires, and an opal. Other items—all solid gold—include earrings, crucifixes, censers, a punch bowl, and one hundred ninety
watches. The total value of the treasure exceeds $1.5 million.
.......The narrator asks Legrand to explain how he learned the whereabouts of the treasure. Legrand then gives a detailed account of his deductions.
.......After Legrand discovered the beetle, Jupiter placed it in a scrap of parchment he found on the beach near the wreckage of a boat. When Legrand encountered the lieutenant from the fort and showed him the beetle, the lieutenant—eager to study it—snatched it away without
taking the parchment. Legrand put the parchment in his pocket. Later, when the narrator visited Legrand's hut and asked him about the beetle, Legrand drew a picture of it on the parchment, the only writing material handy at the time. Parchment, of course, is a highly durable material on which is written information intended to be preserved.
.......When Legrand showed the picture to the narrator, the latter was sitting near the fire. The heat activated chemicals on the back side of the parchment—chemicals that someone had used to hide a drawing on that side. The drawing would reappear when exposed to
.......“You are well aware that chemical preparations exist,” Legrand says, “and have existed time out of mind, by means of which it is possible to write upon either paper or vellum, so that the characters shall become visible only when subjected to the
action of fire.”
.......Legrand goes on to say that the heat from the hut fire did in fact make the second drawing visible again.
narrator did not see this other drawing when he returned the parchment to Legrand. However, when Legrand was about to discard the parchment, he saw this second drawing—an outline of a death's head, the symbol used by pirates on their flags. After the narrator had left for his home, Legrand again held the parchment close to the fire and more information appeared—in the form of a picture of a young
goat, or kid. Legrand interpreted the picture as a kind of signature for Captain Kidd, the colorful seventeenth-century pirate. He then notes that rumors circulating since Kidd's death (1701) suggested that he had left behind buried treasure somewhere along the Atlantic coast. It was never recovered, Legrand speculated, because Kidd may have lost the treasure map (the piece of parchment Jupiter
picked up), pointing the way to its location.
.......Legrand says he applied more heat to the note and discovered a cipher—that is, a secret code. Because solving riddles happened to be a hobby of Legrand, he was able to determine the meaning of the
cipher after several days of working at it and conducting research. In short, to find the treasure, he was to drop a bullet, through the left eye of the skull and then measure off the prescribed distance, in a straight line, from the bullet to the place where the treasure was buried. He used the beetle instead of the bullet, he says, because “I felt somewhat annoyed by your evident suspicions
touching my sanity, and so resolved to punish you quietly, in my own way, by a little bit of sober mystification. For this reason I swung the beetle, and for this reason I let it fall from the tree.”
.......When the narrator asks Legrand his opinion about why the
skeletons were in the hole. Legrand can only speculate, saying he thinks Captain Kidd murdered the men who helped him bury the treasure in order to preserve the secret to its location.
The Power of Reason
.......The narrator describes Legrand's moods as alternating between euphoria and melancholy and worries that “the continued pressure of misfortune had, at length fairly unsettled the reason of my friend.” But Legrand's reason is intact. In fact, so keen is his ability to reason that he solves a difficult cryptogram that
yields clues to the site of buried treasure. He then uses these clues—which are obscure and vague—to find the treasure.
.......Luck, serendipity, coincidence—call it what you will—plays a significant role in the “The Gold-Bug.” For example, Jupiter picks up a scrap of paper from the sand to enclose the gold bug. The paper turns out to be a treasure map in the form of a cryptogram. Legrand then happens to run into the lieutenant from the
fort, allowing him to keep possession of the gold bug overnight. Legrand puts the scrap of paper into his pocket. If he had not encountered the lieutenant, he would have stored the gold bug in the paper scrap after arriving at the hut. Thus, he would not have used it to draw the picture of the beetle. Instead, he would have shown the narrator the beetle itself. After drawing the picture on the
parchment, he gives the parchment to the narrator. The latter just happens to be sitting by the fire, which activates the chemicals hiding the cryptogram on the parchment. The fire was built because the weather just happened to be unusually cold for the day, October 18. There are other examples of lucky occurrences in the story, but they do not necessarily seem contrived. After all, happenstance
is part of life. Many of the greatest discoveries in history occurred purely by accident. For example, Christopher Columbus discovered America by accident in 1492. He was hoping to find a route to the Far East. Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928 while conducting research on influenza.
Judging on Appearances
.......Legrand exhibits symptoms of mental deterioration—or so the narrator, a physician, concludes after observing his friend's behavior. (Note the highlighted words in the following passage.)
Legrand contented himself with the scarabaeus, which he carried attached to the end of a bit of whip-cord; twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjuror, as he went. When I observed this last, plain evidence of my friend's aberration of mind, I could scarcely refrain from tears . . . Could I
have depended, indeed upon Jupiter's aid, I would have had no hesitation in attempting to get the lunatic home by force . . . . I made no doubt that the latter had been infected with some of the innumerable Southern superstitions about money buried, and that his phantasy had received confirmation by the finding of the scarabaeus, or, perhaps, by
Jupiter's obstinacy in maintaining it to be "a bug of real gold." A mind disposed to lunacy would readily be led away by such suggestions—especially if chiming in with favorite preconceived ideas—and then I called to mind the poor fellow's speech about the beetle's being "the index of his fortune." However, though he may be moody and excitable, Legrand maintains control of his emotions well enough to break a difficult code and deduce the meaning of the words it yields. The narrator, a physician, had reached a false conclusion based on appearances.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
.......Early in the story, Legrand, the narrator, Jupiter, and no doubt the readers of “The Gold-Bug” focus their attention on the gleaming gold bug as a mysterious prize. But it is a seemingly worthless scrap of parchment that is the real prize—the key to a vast fortune.
.......Both Jupiter and the narrator are loyal to Legrand in spite of his moodiness and impoverishment.
The unearthing of the treasure chest is the climax of the story.
The denouement, or conclusion, of the story consists of the appraisal of the value of the treasure and Legrand's explanation of how he solved the cryptogram.
The Secret Code
The code on the scrap of parchment that Jupiter finds is a cryptogram, or cipher. A cryptogram is a secret message written in letters, numbers, punctuation marks, etc.
Here is an example:
8<#y?88m#:&mmy#j&}8<&k #~#}&}j In this example, here is what the characters represent:
The battle will begin this evening
8 - t .......One way to solve a cryptogram representing a message written in English is to substitute a letter of the alphabet for the most frequently occurring character (or number, punctuation mark, letter, etc.). For example, if the most frequently occurring character is a plus sign (+), one may proceed toward a
solution by substituting the most frequently occurring letter in the English alphabet, e. He or she may then make other substitutions, based on a character's frequency of occurrence, with frequently occurring alphabet letters.
< - h
# - e
y - b
? - a
m - l
: - w
& - i
j - g
} - n
k - s
~ - v
.......Legrand assumed that
the cryptogram on the parchment did in fact represent English words after determining that it had been written by the notorious British pirate Captain William Kidd (circa 1645-1701). He then began making substitutions, pointing out to the narrator that the most frequently occurring alphabet letters, after e, are a, o, i, d, h, n, r, s, t, u, y, c, f, g, l, m, w, b, k, p, q, x, and
z. The cryptogram in the story is as follows:
53‡‡†305))6*;4826)4‡.)4‡);806*;48†8 .......For further information on how Legrand solved the cipher, see the conclusion of the story. The science of secret messages is cryptography, a term derived from the Greek word kryptos (secret) and graphos (writing).
Glossary of Terms
aqua regia: Mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids.
avoirdupois: System of weighing based on a pound as equal to sixteen ounces.
Bacchanalian: Having to do with ancient Roman festivals that included drunken orgies. Such festivals honored the god of wine, Bacchus.
cipher: Secret code. For further information, see The Secret Code.
coppice: Thick growth of shrubs or small trees; copse.
embossed: Decorated with letters, symbols, designs, or patterns that are slightly raised above the surrounding surface.
entomology: Study of insects.
Fort Moultrie: See Setting.
manumitted: Freed from slavery.
misanthropy: Hatred of humankind.
nitre: Niter, a crystalline salt used in making nitric acid, fertilizers, explosives, and other
products and preparations.
scarabaeus: Scarab, a brightly colored beetle with antennae and a body that is unusually heavy for its size.
Swammerdam: Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), a Dutch naturalist who wrote A General History of Insects and The Bible of Nature.
zaffre: Mixture of cobalt and impure oxides.
.......Jupiter is an important character who enhances the appeal of "The Gold-Bug" by doing the following:
1. Providing humor in the form of malapropismssuch as syphon (for cipher) and soldiers (for shoulders) and in the form of replies that test Legrand's patience, as in the following conversation:
"Pay attention, then—find the left eye of the skull." 2. Heightening suspense with his expressions of fear about the insect.
"Hum! hoo! dat's good! why dey aint no eye lef' at
"Curse your stupidity! do you know your right hand from your left?"
"Yes, I knows
dat—know all bout dat—'tis my lef' hand what I chops de wood wid."
"To be sure! you are left-handed; and your left eye is on the same side as your left hand. Now, I suppose, you can
find the left eye of the skull, or the place where the left eye has been. Have you found it?"
Here was a long pause. At length the negro asked:
"Is de lef' eye ob de skull 'pon de same side as de lef' hand ob de skull too?—cause de skull aint got not a bit ob a hand at all—nebber mind! I got de lef' eye now—here de lef' eye! what mus' do wid
3. Helping to define Legrand's character. Jupiter, remember, had the choice of going his own way after gaining his freedom.
But he remained with Legrand as a loyal servant and companion, suggesting Legrand had always treated Jupiter well in spite of his quick temper and changeable moods.
Piquing Reader Interest
.......To maintain reader interest, Poe presents plot developments from time to time that arouse curiosity and leave questions unanswered—temporarily, at least. Following are examples of passages that keep the reader turning pages.
He received the paper very peevishly, and was about to crumple it, apparently to throw it in the fire, when a casual glance at the design seemed suddenly to rivet his attention. In an instant his face grew violently red—in another as excessively pale. For some minutes he continued to scrutinize the drawing minutely where he sat. At length
he arose, took a candle from the table, and proceeded to seat himself upon a sea-chest in the farthest corner of the room. Here again he made an anxious examination of the paper; turning it all directions. He said nothing, however, and his conduct greatly astonished me; yet I thought it prudent not to exacerbate the growing moodiness of his temper by any comment.
"Since I saw you I have had great cause for anxiety. I have something to tell you, yet scarcely know how to tell it, or whether I should tell it at all.
"But what, in the name of all that is mysterious, is your 'Massa Will' going to do with scythes and spades?"
"Dat's more dan I know, and debbil take me if I don't b'lieve 'tis more dan he know too. But
it's all cum ob de bug."
"This bug is to make my fortune," he continued, with a triumphant smile; "to reinstate me in my family possessions. Is it any wonder, then, that I prize it? Since Fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly, and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the index.
.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple—John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with
the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school.
.......After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic.
.......Despite the acclaim he received, Poe was never really happy because of
his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Jupiter tells the narrator, "De bug—I'm berry sartain dat Massa Will bin bit somewhere 'bout de head by dat goole-bug." Is this Poe's way of saying that Legrand is infected with an inordinate desire for gold—that is, treasure that can be converted into money? Write an essay that presents your opinion. Support your position with quotations from the
story and research from a library and the Internet.
- Write an informative essay about Captain William Kidd, the Scottish-born British privateer and pirate. Use library research and the Internet.
- Is Poe's depiction of Jupiter as a bumbling comic character deliberately racist?
- To what extent did Poe base "The Gold-Bug" on experiences in his own life?