Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of indigent actors. At age three, when his parents died, Poe was taken in by John Allan, a merchant from Richmond, Virginia. He attended a private school in England where he lived with the Allans between 1815 and 1820. After returning to America, he continued private schooling until 1826, when he entered the University of Virginia. However, he was forced to leave after less than a year because of gambling debts which John Allan refused to pay.
Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840s for his creation of a type of story that has grown in popularity ever since-the detective story, or tale of ratiocination, which features an amateur sleuth who, by his superior deductive abilities, outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police. Such stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” created a small sensation in America when they were first published. “The Purloined Letter” the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of a great deal of critical analysis since its publication as a model of ironic and tightly-structured plot.
The story is set in the city of Paris, France, in the mid-nineteenth century. The particularly brutal murders of a woman and her daughter have stumped the police. A young man of noble birth but of diminished financial means, Auguste Dupin decides after reading about the crime in the newspapers that he can solve what the police cannot. As a result, the physical setting of the story is less important than its mental setting-the mind of Dupin. There is little overt action in the story; the details of the crime itself are all derived from newspaper accounts. The solution of the crime requires no overt action, but, as has become the tradition of the detective story, is an armchair process whereby the detective recounts the events of the crime as he has deduced them from the available clues.
The central character, Auguste Dupin, is idiosyncratic, more than a little egocentric, and somewhat of a recluse. He is highly observant and an expert at creating chains of reasoning based on his observations. His companion is a somewhat plain man in comparison to Dupin and primarily exists to serve as Dupin’s foil, as well as functioning as an auditor for Dupin’s explanations and a transmitter of his thoughts.
Although Poe is credited with the creation of the detective story and the character type known as the amateur sleuth, obviously Auguste Dupin and his ratiocinative ability did not spring from nowhere. Probably the two most obvious sources are Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) and Eugene Francois Vidocq’s Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police (1828-29). Poe probably knew the story of Zadig’s being able to deduce the description of the King’s horse and the Queen’s dog by examining tracks left on the ground and hair left on bushes. He also mentions Vidocq, the first real-life detective, in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” as a “good guesser.”
Poe’s fiction is not concerned with social issues. He viewed true reality as a process of the mind, not a fact of physical existence; consequently, for Poe, the human mind rather than the social world is the preferred arena of action. The only aspect of his detective stories that might suggest social relevance is the fact that crime by its very nature is a violation of the social order. It is the task of the detective to restore order once again. However, although this may be the ultimate result of Dupin’s solving of the crimes that confront him, it is obviously not his conscious intention. Dupin wishes to discover order and meaning in the bits and pieces of the mysterious reality that surrounds him. If this results in a restoration of the social order as well, then that is an unsought by-product of his ratiocinative abilities.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Look carefully at the opening pages of the story and discuss the nature of the “analytical” faculty.
William Legrand, the central character in “The Gold Bug,” shares some characteristics with Poe’s famous amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin. Like Dupin, he alternates between gloomy melancholy and excited enthusiasm, which leads the narrator (also similar to the narrator in the Dupin stories) to suspect that he is the victim of a species of madness. The basic premise of “The Gold Bug” is that Legrand is figuratively bitten by the gold bug after discovering a piece of parchment on which he finds a cryptogram with directions to the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Kidd. As with the more influential Dupin stories, “The Gold Bug” focuses less on action than on the explanation of the steps which lead to the solution of the mystery.