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The Murders in the Rue Morgue
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Title Information
Theme
Climax
What Is an Ourang-Outang?
Type of Work
First Detective Story
Author Information
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2006
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.......The unnamed narrator introduces the story with this observation: A man with superior analytical ability enjoys exercising and displaying his talents. When he solves enigmas, he amazes people of ordinary ability. Such a man, whom the narrator terms an "analyst," may be called ingenious, but the typical ingenious man is not necessarily analytical. The narrator then tells his tale.
.......The time is the spring of about 1840. The place is Paris, where the narrator is residing for a time. In a library on the Rue Montmartre, he meets C. Auguste Dupin, a young man from a well-to-do family who became impoverished after encountering financial problems. Books are his only luxuries. Dupin and the narrator become good friends after discovering that they are searching for the same book in the library. After Dupin tells the narrator all about himself, the narrator tells the reader that "I was astonished . . . at the vast extent of his reading and, above all, I felt my soul enkindled within me by the wild fervor, and the vivid freshness of his imagination." 
.......They decide to share quarters in an old mansion on Faubourg St. German. During the day, they keep to themselvesreading, writing, or talking. Later, they go for walks. From their conversations, the narrator learns that Dupin possesses strong analytical abilities and can even tell the narrator things about himself with startling accuracy 
.......One evening, the two men read a newspaper article headlined "Extraordinary Murders." That morning, the article says, shrieks from the fourth story of a house on the Rue Morgue attract neighbors. With two policemen, they break into the house, the residence of Madame L'Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye. While searching, they notice that the door of a back room on the fourth floor has been forced open. The room is in disarray, with furniture broken or thrown about. On a chair is a razor smeared with blood. In the hearth are bloody shocks of gray hair, apparently pulled out by the roots. On the floor they find four gold coins, a topaz earring, other valuable objects, and an opened safe, the key still in the lock, containing only letters and other documents of little importance. 
.......Further searching turns up the corpse of Camille L'Espanaye in the chimney, head downward. Abrasions on her body were apparently caused when it was forced up the chimney. Bruises on the neck indicate she was strangled. In a yard in the rear of the dwelling, the searchers find the body of Madame L’Espanaye. Her throat had been slit from the adam’s apple to the back of the neck, and her body had been mutilated. When they raise the body, the head falls off. The newspaper article says the police have no clues to the identity of the murderer. 
.......The next day’s newspaper says police had questioned many people and learned that the two women got along well, kept to themselves, and seemed to have money. Pauline Dubourg, who did Madame L'Espanaye’s laundry, told police the Madame may have been a fortuneteller. However, Pierre Moreau, who sold tobacco and snuff to Madame L'Espanaye, said he rarely saw anyone entering or leaving the house and therefore doubted that she told fortunes. 
.......The newspaper also reports the account that Isidore Muset, a policeman, gave when he arrived at the house in response to the shrieks. A detail of note was that he heard two voices, one that of a Frenchman and the other that of a foreigner, possibly Spanish, who could have been a man or a woman. Henri Duval, a neighbor attracted to the scene, said he agreed with most of Muset’s account but thought the foreigner was Italian. He was sure, however, that the foreigner’s voice was not Madame L'Espanaye’s or her daughter’s. 
.......The newspaper says that othersneighbors or passersby who entered the housegave police their versions of what they saw and heard, as well as additional information about Madame and her daughter. These witnesses include Odenheimer, a restaurateur and native of Amsterdam; Jules Mignaud, a banker; Adolphe Le Bon, a clerk in Mignaud’s bank; Englishman William Bird, a tailor; Alfonzo Garcio, an undertaker and native of Spain; Alberto Montani, a confectioner and native of Italy. The details they provide are similar, but they disagree on what kind of foreign accent they heardFrench, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, or otherwise. Paul Dumas, a physician, and Alexander Etienne, a surgeon, described for police the condition of the bodies. 
.......A later edition of the newspaper says that Adolphe Le Bon was arrested and imprisoned, but no further information is provided. 
.......Dupin, critical of the way the police are handling the case, does not believe Le Bon, who once did a favor for Dupin, is guilty and tells the narrator that it would be amusing for them to conduct their own “inquiry.” After obtaining authorization from the prefect of police, whom Dupin knows, they spend the afternoon examining the crime scene. The bodies are in the room where Camille was found; the room remains as it was, in disorder. 
.......After the two men return to their residence, Dupin declares that he will solve, or has already solved, the murder and adds, "I am now awaiting a person who, although perhaps not the perpetrator of these butcheries, must have been in some measure implicated in their perpetration . . . Should he come, it will be necessary to detain him. Here are pistols; and we both know how to use them when occasion demands their use." 
.......How could Dupin know so much? Here is his explanation: 
.......First, he rules out the possibility that Madame L'Espanaye killed her daughter and then committed suicide; she had not the strength to put Camille’s body into the chimney. 
.......Second, as to the voices the searchers heard upon entering the house, all them were wrong about the accent of one of the voices because none of them heard any distinguishable words. 
.......Third, as to how the perpetrators escaped unseen, Dupin concludes that they left by one of the two windows in the murder room even though the windows were closed and fastened at the sash, with nails driven into the frames to prevent opening them. Dupin explains that each window has a hidden spring that locks the window after it is closed. What about the nails? During his investigation, Dupin noticed that the head of one of the nails comes off when the window is opened. When it is closed, the head settles back into place. 
.......Fourth, he concludes that a human could not have caused the bruises on the throat of Camille. 
.......Fifth, he points out that the gold and other valuables on the floor indicate that robbery was not the motive for the murders. In fact, there was no motive. Why? 
.......Because the killer was an ourang-outang (orangutan) from the East Indian islands! 
.......Dupin had reached this seemingly preposterous conclusion after determining the following: (1) The handprints on the throat matched the size of an ourang-outang’s hands, as described in a book in his possession. (2) A tuft of tawny hair he found in Camille’s hand matched the kind of hair on an ourang-outang. Apparently, she yanked it free while struggling against the beast. (3) A ribbon he found outside the house could belong only to a sailor because the knot in it was the kind that sailors tie. Apparently he used the ribbon to tie back his long hairor so it seemed.
.......Thus, what the searchers heard the night of the murder were the voice of the sailor and the sound of the ourang-outang attempting to vocalize. But the sailor did not command the beast to kill Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter, Dupin believes. To find out more details, he says, he placed the following ad in the newspaper Le Monde
    CAUGHT In the Bois de Boulogne, early in the morning . . .  a very large, tawny Ourang-Outang of the Bornese species. The owner (who is ascertained to be a sailor, belonging to a Maltese vessel) may have the animal. 
.......The Bois de Boulogne is a park in Paris.
.......When a man arrives at their residence moments later in response to the ad, the narrator and Dupin keep their pistols ready, but hidden, should they need them. The man is, in fact, a sailor, and Dupin tells him that the animal is at a livery stable. When the sailor says he will give Dupin a reward for turning him over, Dupin draws his pistol and places it on a table, then says he wants nothing more than information about the murders in the Rue Morgue. The statement surprises the sailor and he breaks down and tells all. 
.......He and a companion had captured the ourang-outang in Borneo. After the companion later died, the sailor brought the animal to France and secluded it in a closet at his Paris residence in hopes of selling him for a handsome sum. Early in the morning on the day of the murder, the sailor had just returned from a party when he discovered the animal had broken out of the closet and was sitting before a mirror with a razor in hand, fully lathered. It was imitating what it had seen through the keyhole of the closet: the sailor shaving. When the sailor attempted to corral the creature, cracking a whip, it escaped, still holding the razor. The sailor chased it. 
.......At about 3 a.m., it ended up at Madame’s residence and climbed to the fourth floor on a lightning rod after being attracted by a light coming through the open window of the bedroom. The sailor followed. Madame and her daughter were occupied with papers they had taken from the safe. The ape entered through the window, probably intending no harm even though it still held the razor. When it waved the razor in front of Madame L'Espanaye in imitation of shaving motions, Camille fainted and Madame screamed. The shrieks apparently provoked the beast and it went crazy. Grabbing Madame L'Espanaye by hair, it slit her throat. During the struggle, it tore away some of her hair. Then it strangled the girl. But a moment later, realizing it had done something wrong, it skipped about in a frenzy, throwing furniture and casting the room in disarray. Then it shoved the girl up to chimney and threw the old woman’s body out the window. In great fear, the sailor slid down the lightning rod. What the searchers heard were the sailor’s shouts of horror and the beasts strange jabberings. The beast apparently closed the window when it left the room. 
.......Dupin and the narrator then give a report to a policeman in the office of the prefect, prompting the immediate release of Le Bon. The policeman "could not altogether conceal his chagrin at the turn which affairs had taken," the narrator says, "and was fain to indulge in a sarcasm or two about the propriety of every person minding his own business."
......."Let him talk," said Dupin, who had not thought it necessary to reply. "Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience. I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle."
Dupin says the police are "all head and no body, like the pictures of the Goddess Lavernaor, at best, all head and shoulders, like a codfish." In other words, they may have ingenuity, but they lack the analytical skill and imagination to do what Dupin did. 
.......The sailor, meanwhile, catches the ourang-outang and sells it for a considerable sum. 

Setting

.......The action takes place in Paris in about 1840. The bodies of the victims are found in a house on the Rue Morgue, a Paris street. 

Characters

C. August Dupin: Young gentleman with an exceptional ability to solve problems. After reading a newspaper account about murders at a house on the Rue Morgue, he decides to investigate them. 
The Narrator: Unnamed person who befriends Dupin and tells the story of his investigation.
Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye: Victims of the brutal murders.
Sailor: Owner of the ourang-outang.
Pauline Dubourg: Madame L'Espanaye’s laundress.
Pierre Moreau: Tobacconist who sold products to Madame L'Espanaye.
Isidore Muset: Policeman who reports details of the crime.
Henri Duval: Neighbor attracted to the crime scene. 
Odenheimer: Restaurateur attracted to the crime scene.
Jules Mignaud: Banker attracted to the crime scene.
Adolphe Le Bon: Bank clerk attracted to the crime scene.
William Bird: Tailor attracted to the crime scene.
Alfonzo Garcio: Undertaker attracted to the crime scene.
Alberto Montani: Confectioner attracted to the crime scene. 
Paul Dumas: Physician who examines the bodies.
Alexander Etienne: Surgeon who examines the bodies.
Prefect of the Police

Type of Work and Publication Date

.......“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” falls into the general category of short story and the specific category of detective story. It was first published in April 1841. An unnamed narrator tells the story in first-person point of view.

Title

.......The title in plain English is “The Murders on Morgue Street.” Rue is the French word for street
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Theme

.......The theme is straightforward and simple: how a superior thinker solves a baffling puzzle. In this short story, as opposed to Poe’s stories of terror and the supernatural, there are no hidden messages, no allegories. 

Climax

.......The climax of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the sailor reveals details about the killings. 

What Is an Ourang-Outang?

.......The killer is an ourang-outangin modern English, orangutan. An orangutan is a type of ape indigenous to Borneo and Sumatra. It has long arms and shaggy hair (generally reddish-brown). The adult male normally attains a weight of between 170 and 185 pounds. Orangutans spend a great deal of time in trees, swinging from limb to limb to move from one tree to another. When on the ground, they travel on all fours.

First Detective Story

.......“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” set a milestone in literature as the first detective story ever written. It is sometimes referred to as a tale of ratiocination (rash e aw sin A shun), the process of using cold, objective logicincluding deduction and inductionto solve a problem or a mystery. However, the central character of the storythe brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupinrelies as much on intuition as on logic. Later writers used the detective-story ingredients Poe introduced, including a seemingly insoluble mystery, stymied police, and a superior thinker who solves the mystery and explains in detail how he did it.

Author Information

.......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 coupleJohn 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, he 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

  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the personalities of Dupin and the narrator.  
  • Does "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" center primarily on how Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter were killed, on why they were killed, or on how C. Auguste Dupin solved the mystery surrounding their deaths?
  • Why did Poe introduce the possibility that Madame L'Espanaye was a fortuneteller? 
  • Adolphe Le Bon was falsely accused by police of killing Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter. Why did the police accuse him when they lacked evidence to incriminate him? 
  • Can you think of movies or TV series that imitate the way Poe told his tale? Example: Columbo. 
  • Would you describe Dupin's reaction to the crime scene as emotional and disconcerting or as objective and dispassionate? Explain your answer.  
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the importance of intuition vs the importance of logic in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."  
  • Do you believe it is possible for an ourang-outang (orangutan) to do what the ourang-outang did in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"? To answer this question, you will need to read an authoritative encyclopedia article about this animal.  
  • If you directed a movie based on this Poe story, would you alter the plot in any way? For example, would you open the film with a scene showing the ape climbing through the window and killing Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter? Identify actors you would choose to play Dupin and the narrator. Explain your answers. 
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