Help on "The Purloined Letter" : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

Could you please help on finding some critic essay to clear up what if Edgar Allan Poe trying to say through the short-story mentioned above?

Thank you in advance, because I have only a few days to study this author.


Sandra Pereira Brazil

-- Anonymous, May 31, 2000



Thank you for your patience. I have spent considerable effort attempting to locate a literary critique on the internet for the short story in question and with little success, so Im not at all surprised that you had so much difficulty as well. Nevertheless, because I appreciate your interest and your determination, I will attempt a summary of my own. You may choose to use it as you wish. A word of caution, however. I would be less than honest if I failed to inform you that I am no literary scholar nor do I speak as a certified authority on his works of literature or Poe himself. My credentials are merely that I have spent better than 40 years reading and studying his literary genius and his life. What follows are my own opinions and interpretations. You may accept them or dismiss them as you wish.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries once asked, rhetorically, Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it? Strongly influenced by Poes model for a main character, the differences between Poes C. Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyles Sherlock Holmes are minimal. The former, a resident of Paris, the latter in London. While mysteries were not at all unique to Poe, it was he that developed the methods, the characters and the settings that quickly became so popular and remain so today. Since Poes time, the 20th century detective story has really taken several trendy turns, some for the better, others for the worst.

Why did he write detective stories? Well, basically, I tend to agree with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I believe he had found a trend of fiction that was in desperate need of repair. This genre of fiction may not have been invented by Poe, but it was certainly recreated and revitalized by his ideas, ingenuity and originality. I cannot say with any certainty that he wrote mysteries specifically because it was the most popular fiction of the period, but I can say, with little doubt, that his brand of mystery story most assuredly reinvigorated a tired trend of fiction. Additionally, I have no hesitancy in saying that his primary motive was surely driven by financial concerns and his own literary survival. For years, Poe had dreamed of establishing his own literary magazine that would allow him the freedom of publication and control he felt he needed.

Other influences for writing detective mysteries may have had something to do with the period in which he lived. The United States was a young country, struggling to establish itself politically, militarily and most importantly, economically. American literature was in its infancy and American authors were working desperately to establish their own identity as well, and it is my view that Poe wished to participate in this development. Large American cities of the period were often deeply troubled with political/police corruption and crime, particularly murders that routinely filled newspaper accounts and it is presumed that Poe read these accounts as a matter of course. It is surely where he got the idea for his story, The Mystery of Marie Roget.

Ironically, his tale The Purloined Letter had nothing to do with murder at all but more to do with political intrigue. First printed in The Gift in 1845, it first suggested Dupins idea that the best place to hide an object from discovery was not to conceal the object but to place it in a conspicuous or natural setting. In fact, as you must have realized, the bulk of the tale was a detailed discussion between the narrator and Monsieur Dupin on his reasoning and method of secretly discovering and retrieving the letter from Minister D___ . But there was more to the story than merely recovering the letter.

The story begins with a visit from the Prefect of the Parisian Police to Dupins apartment for advice on a matter of extreme urgency and sensitivity. For all practical purposes, the initial crime has been solved and the perpetrator is known to the police. The only remaining task is to recover the letter of a lady of high position (presumably of the royal family), and return it to her. The theft was committed in full view of the Lady by Minister D___ , but she was unable to prevent the documents removal by the Minister without bringing attention to its sensitive contents. Although it is not detailed by Poe in the story, it may be presumed by the reader to be an instrument of blackmail against the Lady. This document, therefore, gives the Minister power over her and the circumstances of her influence upon the French Court.

Desperate to recover the letter, the Lady approaches the Prefect of Police and offers him a substantial reward for its recovery and for his utmost discretion in keeping it secret. Confident in his abilities of investigation and methods of examination and the desire for the reward, the Prefect accepts the challenge and assures her it will remain secret. Months pass and although the Prefect has searched the Ministers home and property repeatedly and in detail, the letter remains undiscovered. The Prefect even admits to Dupin that in his frustrating efforts recover the letter, he has twice had the Minister accosted and searched with no success.

During the long discussion between the narrator and Dupin, Dupin details the errors committed by the Police in their search. That is to say that the police had been searching for an object hidden or secreted away from discovery which is precisely what they were trained to do. Their failure to find the document was the result of inductive as opposed to deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning, by its nature, leads from one probability to the next, where deductive reasoning minimizes or excludes probabilities and limits the efforts of discernment.

Dupin and the Prefect share their knowledge of the Minister and his character and both conclude that for the document to be a real threat to the Lady of the Court, it must be readily available to the Minister at a moments notice. Therefore, the document must be on his person or in his residence. Knowing the Minister to be a careful and astute man, Dupin reasons that the Minister would have anticipated the random attempt to search his person and would not carry the document with him. Therefore, Dupin reasons, the document is not secreted away or concealed from view but merely placed in a conspicuous location that the police would never reason it necessary to search in the first place.

Dupins knowledge of and dislike for Minister D___ results from a past insult or injury by the Minister upon Dupin and he sees this as an opportunity to assist the Prefect, share in the reward and settle an old score with the Minister, all at the same time. Unknown to the narrator or the Prefect f Police, Dupin visits the Minister under false pretences wearing colored spectacles. As he visits Minister D___, his eyes search the apartment and he notices a damaged and soiled letter placed openly on a rack and determines it to be the document in question. He leaves the Ministers apartment indicating he will return at a later date. Once alone, he prepares a fraudulent document and arranges for a disturbance outside the Ministers apartment as a distraction so that he may replace the letter with his fraudulent document unnoticed. This done, he leaves the apartment and Minister D___, stripped of the power of blackmail over the Lady of the Court. He also leaves in the false document, a message for Minister D___ to let him know who had made a fool of him.

Except for the conclusion of the tale where Dupin collects his reward of 50,000 francs from the shocked Prefect before casually handing him the letter, that is about it for the story. This theme has been used by mystery writers time and again for many years and it is always entertaining reading. I hope this has helped you some and if you have any questions, feel free to let me know. Good luck and.

Best regards,

-- Anonymous, June 06, 2000

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