Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
is autumn in Paris in the early 1840's. One evening, the Prefect of Police
calls upon the narrator and C. Auguste Dupin at their residence at No.
33 Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain. Dupin is an amateur detective
with extraordinary crime-solving abilities, as demonstrated when he solved
the famous and baffling case of the murders in the
the prefect needs help on another case. However, proud man that he is,
he tells his hosts that he and his men can no doubt manage the case themselves.
He simply wants to inform Dupin about it “because it is so excessively
odd." Dupin and the narrator agree to hear him out after the prefect first
pledges them to secrecy in regard to the details of the case.
is the gist of the case: A government official (referred to as “Minister
was seen purloining (stealing) a letter from the royal apartments. The
contents of the letter, if made public, would besmirch the honor of a woman
of very high station who had received it in the royal boudoir. While she
was reading it, a man of very exalted station entered the room—a
man whom she did not wish to see the letter. However, he entered so abruptly
that she did not have time to conceal it and left it on a table. A moment
later, the minister entered, and with his “lynx eye," spotted the letter
and the address on it and noticed that the lady was acting strangely. He
put two and two together, realizing that she wanted to conceal its contents.
conducting business, he took out a letter of his own (of minor importance),
pretended to read it, placed it on the same table, then conducted further
business for about fifteen minutes. When he left, he took her letter as
if it were his own. In the presence of the other exalted person, the lady
dared not protest lest she call attention to the letter and its secret
the lady’s letter in his possession, the minister now holds power over
her. In fact, he has already used it for political purposes. The prefect
says the lady turned to him for help, offering a reward.
the minister was not at home, the prefect ransacked the minister’s residence
but failed to find the letter. He and his men took furniture apart, probed
chair cushions with needles, and scrutinized everything—mirrors,
bedding, curtains and carpets, and even the moss between bricks on the
grounds of the residence. When the narrator suggests that the minister
may have hidden the letter at another location, Dupin rules out this possibility,
saying it had to be readily available—on
a moment’s notice—should
the minister need to use it against the woman. Therefore, he says, it is
somewhere on the minister’s premises.
minister does not carry the letter with him, either, the prefect says,
for his own men—pretending
to be footpads (robbers)—thoroughly
searched the minister.
might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "[The minister],
I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated
these waylayings, as a matter of course."
altogether a fool," said the the prefect, "but then he is a poet, which
I take to be only one removed from a fool."
Dupin advises the
minister to search the premises again. The prefect leaves, depressed.
month later, he returns to the residence of the narrator and Dupin after
again searching the premises of the minister to no avail. He says the reward
has been doubled but does not specify the amount. However, he says he is
willing to give his own paycheck of 50,000 francs to anyone who can retrieve
the letter. Dupin opens a drawer and removes a checkbook, saying, “You
may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have
signed it, I will hand you the letter."
narrator and the prefect are astonished. Speechless, the prefect stares
at Dupin, then writes a check for the amount designated. After he gives
it to Dupin, the latter opens an escritoire, takes a letter from it, and
gives it to the prefect. The policeman takes it “in a perfect agony of
joy," checks the contents, then rushes out.
says the prefect’s methods in searching for the letter were thorough but
ill-suited to the case. The police went wrong, he says, when they failed
to put themselves in the place of the minister. What they did instead was
to ask where they themselves would hide the letter, then proceeded to look
in the selected places. Moreover, the police used only logical, methodical
reasoning. The minister, on the other hand, used not only logical reasoning
but also intuitive and creative thinking. Although the minister is well
known as a proficient mathematician, it was his talent as a poet—a
talent that the prefect looks down on—that
helped him to outthink the police.
says he suspected that the minister had fooled the police by placing the
letter in plain sight. Following up on this suspicion, he visited the minister
at his residence and engaged him in a conversation about a topic he knew
would interest him. All the while, Dupin’s eyes roved about the room. On
a writing table were various routine letters and other papers in disarray.
On the same table were books and musical instruments. By and by, Dupin
directed his attention to a card rack hanging from a brass knob below the
projecting shelf of a mantel. In it were several visiting cards and a crumpled
letter torn nearly in half as if to suggest that it was of little importance.
The appearance of the letter had been altered in other ways, all giving
the impression that the letter was inconsequential.
spent a while longer talking with the minister. Before going out, he deliberately
left a gold snuff box on the table. The next morning, he returned to pick
up the snuff box. After he and the minister resumed their conversation
of the previous day, they heard a gunshot and screams outside. The minister
went to a window, opened it, and looked out. Meanwhile, Dupin snatched
the letter and replaced it with a copy whose outward appearance was made
to look like the original.
narrator asks why Dupin did not take the letter on the first visit. If
he had taken it on the first visit without replacing it with a copy, Dupin
says, the minister or his servants might have noticed it was missing—then
killed him. Furthermore, allowing the minister to believe that the letter
remains in his possession sets him up for a downfall. Here’s why: He has
been using the letter to blackmail a royal personage. When he next tries
to use it against her, she can refuse to cooperate. If he produces the
letter to scandalize her in public, he will scandalize only himself. Thus,
she now has him in her power.
should like very well to know the precise character of his thoughts, when,
being defied by her whom the prefect terms 'a certain personage,' he is
reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in the card-rack," Dupin
narrator asks whether Dupin wrote anything on the copy. Dupin replies,
"At Vienna once, [he] did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly,
that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard
to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity
not to give him a clew."
inside the letter he wrote a quotation from a French play that, in effect,
tells the minister that Dupin has gotten even.
action takes place in Paris in the early 1840's.
C. August Dupin: Young
gentleman with an exceptional ability to solve problems. He is especially
adept at solving mysteries that baffle the police.
Dupin's friend, who tells the story of one of Dupin's investigations.
Prefect of Police:
Policeman who failed to solve a crime involving a stolen letter.
Clever official who stole the letter and is using its contents to blackmail
a woman of royal status.
Unnamed Woman of Royal
Status: She needs to retrieve the stolen letter because its contents,
if made public, would deal a severe blow to her reputation.
Unnamed Man of Royal
Status: He is unaware of the contents of the letter. The woman needs
to make sure he never sees the letter.
of Work and Publication Date
Purloined Letter" falls into the general category of short story and the
specific category of detective story. It was first published in The
Gift in January 1845.
means stolen. Hence, the story could have been entitled "The Stolen
purloin has a connotation that steal does
is, to take something by a breach of trust. .
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 of “The Purloined Letter" occurs when Dupin announces that he has
retrieved the stolen letter.
First Three Detective
Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined
Letter" set a milestone in literature as the first three detective stories
ever written. They are sometimes referred to as tales of ratiocination
(rash e aw sin A shun), the process of using cold, objective logic—including
deduction and induction—to
solve a problem or a mystery. However, the central character of the stories—the
brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin—relies
as much on intuition as on logic. As Richard Wilbur observes, “Dupin, although
Poe describes his mental operations as ‘analytic’ and as based on a psychological
calculus of probabilities, is actually representative of a pure poetic
intuition bordering on omniscience."
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.
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.
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.
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 Writing
Do you agree with Dupin that
a police investigator should rely as much on intuition and imagination
as on logic and science?
What do you think was the secret
message in the letter?
Read both "The Purloined Letter"
and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The write profile
about Dupin, focusing primarily on his dominant personality trait.
"hid" the letter in plain sight. Does this ploy sound plausible?
Can you think of movies or TV
series that imitate the way Poe told his tale? Example: Columbo.
Write a short detective story
that imitates the writing methods Poe uses.
Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the importance of intuition vs the importance of logic in "The