Poe Study Guides
Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
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.
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
unidentified by name. He is a resident of Charleston who befriends Legrand.
Jupiter: Freed slave
and loyal servant and companion of Legrand.
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 treasure.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
where are the antennae? the narrator asks.
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.
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
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.
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 index."
Withdrawing the bug
from a glass case, he shows it to the narrator.
scales were exceedingly hard and glossy, with all the appearance of burnished
gold," the narrator says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
narrator asks Legrand to explain how he learned the whereabouts of the
treasure. Legrand then gives a detailed account of his deductions.
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
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 heat.
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."
goes on to say that the heat from the hut fire did in fact make the second
drawing visible again.
The 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
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."
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
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
Jupiter and the narrator are loyal to Legrand in spite of his moodiness
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 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:
In this example, here is what
the characters represent:
The battle will begin this
8 - t
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
< - h
# - e
y - b
? - a
m - l
: - w
& - i
j - g
} - n
k - s
~ - v
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:
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).
regia: Mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids.
System of weighing based on a pound as equal to sixteen ounces.
Having to do with ancient Roman festivals that included drunken orgies.
Such festivals honored the god of wine, Bacchus.
Secret code. For further information, see The Secret Code.
Thick growth of shrubs or small trees; copse.
Decorated with letters, symbols, designs, or patterns that are slightly
raised above the surrounding surface.
Study of insects.
Moultrie: See Setting.
Freed from slavery.
Hatred of humankind.
Niter, a crystalline salt used in making nitric acid, fertilizers, explosives,
and other products and preparations.
Scarab, a brightly colored beetle with antennae and a body that is unusually
heavy for its size.
Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), a Dutch naturalist who wrote A General History
of Insects and The Bible of Nature.
Mixture of cobalt and impure oxides.
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
suspense with his expressions of fear about the insect.
"Hum! hoo! dat's good! why dey aint no eye lef' at all."
"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 it?"
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?