Edgar Allan Poe is a master of the short story form. All the skill and craft required of a short story are evident in The Purloined Letter. This short detective fiction is about displaying the cleverness of the investigator (Auguste Dupin) in solving a case. As is the norm in this genre of fiction, “the criminal is caught and the victim suffers, but the investigator flourishes, acquiring pleasure from the hunt and both egotistical and financial gratification from the solution.” (Thoms 141) In The Purloined Letter, the detective fully exercises his powers of reasoning and deduction to arrive at the solution to the riddle. In his regard, one can equate this work by Poe to those numerous Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Conan Doyle. But there are certain features that distinguish the story from others in the genre. Firstly, Poe has crafted the plot in such a deliberate manner that there is symmetry of thought and action by the characters. Secondly, Poe applies psychological analysis in attributing meaning to, and anticipating actions of, the characters in the story. Thirdly, Poe subtly raises questions of morality through the means of actions of the characters. The rest of this essay will elaborate these points.
An obvious feature of The Purloined Letter is its lack of pronounced mystery or suspense, for the identity of the thief, the manner of the theft and the motivations behind it are all openly disclosed. The only question is the exact place where the letter is hidden. The gravity of this question lies in the fact that the letter is a crucial document, upon whose access the Royal Lady’s illicit affair could be exposed. Indeed, “in the Minister’s and Dupin’s struggle to possess this letter, this hidden story of transgression, brilliantly dramatizes the contest for narrative control that underpins detective fiction.” (Davidson 219) A key passage in the story where Poe applies psychological analysis is when Dupin explains to his friend how he went about calculating the intelligence of the Minister and consequently using this measure to speculate on his likely behaviour. Estimating the Minister’s intelligence to be very high, Dupin infers that the possible methods employed by him to hide the letter will also be clever. In this way, the Minister is a match to Dupin’s own high intelligence, allowing the latter to mirror and predict the former’s thought and behaviour. An illustration of the Minister’s intelligence is his first accidental encounter with the royal lady’s letter, where,
“after discerning the hidden story through a brilliant act of reading in which his lynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret, the Minister conceives the plan of pocketing the letter and then blackmailing the lady.” (Thoms 141)
Another merit of the story is the remarkable symmetry in the plot. The Minister, being a cunning and clever man, scripts the scenario in which he gains possession of the scandalous letter. For example, he manufactures a letter that looks similar to the lady’s secret possession and opens it and pretends to read it. Without raising any suspicion, he places casually places it next to the lady’s letter. After finishing his conversation, as he gestures to part, he nonchalantly picks up the lady’s letter. Even if the lady notices that it is her letter which is being taken, she cannot object to it, for it would give away her secret. Dupin’s masterful counterplot to steal back the letter from the Minister is conceived on similar lines, lending symmetry to the plot. (Thoms 141) The symmetry extends further, for both Dupin and the Minister are poets and authorial figures, who
“can read circumstances and script the action; they share the initial D; and they both purloin the letter, an action which promises profit and allows us to see more clearly how detection becomes a kind of thievery as the investigator assumes possession of the hidden story and of the characters contained within it.” (Thoms 141)
Poe’s genius is also evident in how he criminalizes the solving of crime itself, thereby raising questions of morality. In other words, far from acting on noble intentions, Dupin undertakes to solve the crime only for personal benefit, namely a check for 50,000 francs. He hardly breaks a sweat for this hefty pay, for the prefect was the one made to pursue standard search and seizure protocols, which prove futile. Having thus eliminated the usual hiding places for the letter through the Prefect’s testimony, Dupin makes his master move like a seasoned chess player. Moreover, the method he employs is not ethically above that of the Minister, for Dupin too resorts to stealing. Here, Poe is highlighting the moral ambiguity of the whole enterprise. The moral ambiguity is further heightened when we take into account how the Royal Lady’s mission to get back the letter is not officially notified to authorities. Instead, she uses her position of power to use state apparatus for personal purposes. So, her actions are ethically dubious as well. Hence, The Purloined Letter is more than a mere detective story, for the detective and his client are not decidedly the righteous lot. In other words,
“Poe proceeds to destabilize what he has wrought by challenging the apparent opposition between good detective and bad criminal. The story critiques the authority of the detective, subverts his solutions, and thus resists closure. From the making of the facsimile and the act of re-stealing the three Dupin stories seem preoccupied with reflection, repetition, and the blurring of boundaries…we glimpse how the imaginative Dupin adopts the character and perspective of the ostensible criminal.” (Thoms 142)
Through a careful reading of The Purloined Letter, one can decipher a broader psychological device that Poe applies to his short stories. The key factor behind Dupin’s successful resolution of the case is his anticipation. This is made possible by being able to understand and rely on the pattern of behaviour of his subject – the Minister. Poe refers to it as ‘simplicity’, the “unitary characteristic of both mind and world” that aids Dupin’s predictions. Here, Poe is trying to approximate human behaviour to a scientific law by setting up a formula by which the several modes of human thought and action could be understood. First,
“there was the action of the commonplace, ordinary mind — the “real” side of man — which conformed to a calculus of probability simple to unmask merely by putting one’s own mind in logical reference and identification with it: Poe’s analogy was the boy who could easily outwit his fellows by guessing in which hand the marble was held. Next, the more complex, original mind was impelled toward simplicity, toward final and ultimate comprehension. It was the character of this mind to conceal itself, as did Minister D behind some other or inverted calculus of relevance.” (Davidson 219)
Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1957.
Hayes, Kevin J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2002.