Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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."
decide to share quarters in an old mansion on Faubourg St. German. During
the day, they keep to themselves—reading,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
newspaper says that others—neighbors or passersby
who entered the house—gave 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 heard—French, Dutch, German,
Italian, Spanish, or otherwise. Paul Dumas, a physician, and Alexander
Etienne, a surgeon, described for police the condition of the bodies.
later edition of the newspaper says that Adolphe Le Bon was arrested and
imprisoned, but no further information is provided.
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.
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."
could Dupin know so much? Here is his explanation:
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.
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.
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.
he concludes that a human could not have caused the bruises on the throat
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.
the killer was an ourang-outang (orangutan) from the East Indian islands!
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 hair—or so it seemed.
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.
Bois de Boulogne is a park in Paris.
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
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.
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.
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."
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 Laverna—or,
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.
sailor, meanwhile, catches the ourang-outang and sells it for a considerable
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.
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
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.
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.
Confectioner attracted to the crime scene.
Paul Dumas: Physician
who examines the bodies.
Surgeon who examines the bodies.
Prefect of the Police
of Work and Publication Date
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
title in plain English is “The Murders on Morgue Street." Rue is
the French word for street. .
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 Murders in the Rue Morgue" the sailor reveals details about
Is an Ourang-Outang?
killer is an ourang-outang—in 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.
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 logic—including
deduction and induction—to solve a problem
or a mystery. However, the central character of the story—the
brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin—relies
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.
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. 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.
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.