Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was first published in the April 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia, where Edgar Allan Poe was living at the time. Because of it was different than many stories that were popular, publishers were at first reluctant to accept this story. Poe had even tried to include it in a second edition printing of his two-volume short story collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, with this being a grotesque tale due to the gory murder scene that C. Auguste Dupin investigates and solves. However, the publisher was not willing to include this story, given that the collection had sold rather slowly and did not want to risk making it even less marketable with such a gruesome tale as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Thus, the story was finally published soon afterwards in Graham's Magazine, where Poe had begun on a job as editor during the same month this story was published, in April 1841. The general reaction from Poe's readers was favorable overall but, as his book published had feared, the gruesome murder scene and vivid imagery that Poe employs in detailing the condition of Madame and Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's bodies (the former having been stuffed into the chimney, and the latter decapitated and tossed out of a fourth story window) tended to disgust some people and led to criticism. This did not prevent the story from being published again several times, with French-translation versions of the story being sold overseas as well.

Overall, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" holds an extremely crucial place in the evolution of literature. it breaks from previously established literary traditions and forges new territory for Poe's own style and theme. Before the word "detective" had even been created, Poe has written the very first detective story. It is from this dynamic created between the observant Auguste Dupin and the awestruck narrator, eluding the Parisian chief of police, that would later lead to the "detective-sidekick" combination that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would employ in his stories of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, outperforming Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard; Agatha Christie does the same in her own stories featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, assistant Hastings, outperforming Inspector Japp. These later characters remain popular in both literature and television today, although few recall that it was Poe's Auguste Dupin who really laid the foundation for these tales that would follow. Unlike many of the earlier tales, which occur in isolation, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the first in a series of three tales; "The Mystery of Marie Roget" was published serially in Snowden's Ladies Companion during November and December of 1842, concluding February 1843, and finally, "The Purloined Letter" was published in the 1845 issue of an annual periodical entitled The Gift, released in September of 1844. These later stories also feature Dupin, the fascinated narrator, and the clueless French Prefect of police.

The sole inspiration for Poe's Dupin appears to be derived not from any fictitious figure, but rather from a real-life Frenchman named Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857); doubtless Poe heard of this man while he was in London as a child, and he followed this man's memoirs detailing the events of his life. Vidocq had been a talented criminal whom the Parisian police had decided to hire as a spy. Pleased with his work, police officials arranged for his release, and soon after Vidocq, once relentlessly pursued by the police, became police chief himself in 1811! As time went on. Vidocq hired his own network of undercover spies to capture criminals, but eventually a series of scandals forced him to resign his position in 1827, due to public suspicion that he was in fact responsible for planning many of the crimes that his police squad appeared to solve, just to make themselves appear to be skilled investigators. The belief was that, if Vidocq was removed from his post, then the crime rate would in fact decrease. Five years later he took this job again, but he resigned after only one month, and he accordingly spent the remainder of his days writing his own fiction and memoirs relating the details of his life, as well as running his own private detective agency called "Reseignements," probably derived from the French "Renseignements," meaning "information."

Edgar Allan Poe evidently knew about Vidocq, because Auguste Dupin makes reference to Vidocq's flaws in "The Murders at the Rue Morgue," stating that Vidocq was an intelligent man, but he was limited nevertheless by his own inability to look at the "big picture," thus leading to his resignation. Although inspired by Vidocq, Poe nevertheless tries to distance his own creation Dupin from Vidocq by criticizing this real-life figure, thus elevating Dupin to levels of epic proportion. In his day, Vidocq was admired for his investigative skills, or else he would not have been police chief in Paris for over fifteen years, nor would his private detective agency have had any business. Yet Poe casts all of this praise into the wind with Dupin's offhanded comment that Vidocq is in fact flawed and limited; the statement is very effective not only in distancing Dupin from his real-life predecessor, but also in elevating Dupin to mythic proportions because he does not give Vidocq much thought at all, for he is better than even the best investigator in Paris.

This same arrogance comes through in his disdainful treatment of the Parisian Prefect as well. Like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Christie's Poirot, it is this forward arrogance that makes these characters so heroic and fascinating; in many ways the reader remains as awestruck as the narrator upon hearing the microscopic scrutiny with which Dupin views the world; the fact that Dupin had followed the narrator's internal thought processes merely by observing his external behaviors clearly evidences this fact. These characters remain arrogant but unflawed, contradicting the age-old ideal of tragic hubris, that one must live life humbly. Like Holmes and Poirot, Dupin knows little humility; he is extremely talented, and he uses these abilities to their furthest extent. Again, it is this perfection that makes these fictional detectives so appealing, unlike the real-life Vidocq whose integrity and virtue remained in question. Interpreting evidence directly as it appears, Dupin is the voice of truth, speaking only what he sees and perceives. Certainly, there is a margin of error in his analysis, but given the many signs observed from the narrator, for example, during their walk through the street at night, Dupin became confident that he was following the narrator's thought processes accurately, and the narrator only confirmed this upon revealing his astonishment.

Although some may find fault in Dupin's conclusions because they may seem to be quite a stretch from reality, or so unusual -- such as how a spring mechanism was installed in the fourth floor of the ladies' house -- it is important to recall that nobody exists who is so perfect and observant as Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot. The observations and the logic that follows them are supposed to be unusual, for that is what makes these figures so interesting for the reader. Would one rather read a tale about a man who just breaks into a house and murders two women, or a tale about an escaped monkey from the East Indies that accidentally hacks a woman apart with a razor that it has been carrying around? Although unusual, the second plot is more interesting, however far from the truth it may seem. Like Edgar Allan Poe's many other short stories, it is this creativity, artistic imagination, and close attention to detail that sets "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" apart from the mainstream literature of his contemporaries, and that is why these tales continue to be popular today.

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