Book Notes The Purloined Letter Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Purloined Letter

A Latin epigraph from Seneca begins this story about a stolen letter, "Nil sapientiae odiosus acumine nimio," meaning "No wisdom is more hated than far ingenuity," no doubt referring to the analytical abilities of C. Auguste Dupin, who stars in this tale along with the same unnamed narrator from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." They are still living together in the dilapidated mansion in Paris, France, even after several years of having first met each other not long before the first mystery that Dupin solved at Rue Morgue; an additional mystery had later followed that, contributing to Dupin's fame, dubbed "The Mystery of Marie Roget." However, business has been fairly slow for Dupin until one day G--, the Prefect of Police in Paris makes a visit to their home. Dupin prepares to light a lamp but aborts this upon hearing that the Prefect is seeking advice about a case he cannot solve, declaring that they can all focus better in the darkness, adding that perhaps the Prefect's error is that he does not see the obvious facts about the case, whatever it may be. G-- bursts into laughter, because this amuses him.

Indeed, he confidently assures Dupin that everything that can be done has been done, but he still hasn't gotten anywhere. It is not a murder or assassination, but merely an important letter has been stolen from a female "royal personage," presumably the Queen, and she is now being blackmailed lest the letter will fall into her enemies' hands. She was initially reading the letter at her palace, when the person who the letter was about entered her room, and she hurriedly put it down; yet Minister D-- also went to visit her, seeing the letter lying out in her room, and decided to casually steal it. He took out a letter of his own, pretended to read it, and laid it down next to her letter, taking her letter away with him instead when he departed from her room. The other person was still in the room, so she couldn't possibly make a scene for fear of this other person discovering the contents of what the letter says. Since then, this royal woman has been blackmailed to do everything that Minister D-- wants, or else he will share this letter to that other individual.

The Prefect's challenge has been in retrieving the letter; his men have searched Minister D--'s living quarters many times during the evenings, when he often is not at home. Every night for the past three months, they have dissembled the furniture, torn up the walls and floorboards, opened books and packages, and even examined every inch of his room and those apartments next to his room with microscopes! Then they did the same with the terrain outside of his room as well. Yet, they have failed to recover this invaluable letter, and the woman continues to be blackmailed mercilessly. The police have even stopped D-- on the street and completely strip searched him on more than one occasion in search of the letter, but to no avail. Dupin adds that he knows Minister D-- personally, and that he is not a fool and wouldn't just carry the letter around with him; the Prefect G-- disagrees, however, boldly insisting that D-- is a poet and all poets are basically fools according to him. Finally, the frustrated Prefect exclaims, "I am not more sure that I breathe than I am that the letter is not at the hotel [of Minister D--]," and in response Dupin merely says that he cannot offer any better advice. Before G-- departs , Auguste requests to hear a full description of the letter and then does not say anything more.

Nothing else is heard from the Prefect until a month later when he appears at their doorstep yet again, inquiring if Dupin has investigated anything about this purloined letter. Sitting together inside of the house, Dupin casually asks how much the reward is for the restoration of this letter, and he replies that there is a large reward but it is confidential. Dupin then tells a little story about a doctor named Abernethy who knew a rich miser that wanted free medical advice for some illness he was having, although the miser asked for advice indirectly, without wanting to directly consult this doctor and pay a fee. Understanding the moral of this story, the Prefect declares that he will happily pay fifty thousand francs to anyone who can help him to solve this mystery. Dupin calmly tells G-- to write out a check for him for fifty thousand francs, and he will then give him the letter that he has sought for so many months! Stunned, the Prefect performs this deed eagerly, hands the check to Dupin, as Dupin then pulls a letter out of his desk, handing it to the Prefect. This man then "grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check" Poe, pg. 253. G-- is too stunned and overjoyed to even thank Dupin or ask how this letter was obtained.

However, the inquisitive narrator is not too shocked, and he asks Dupin to explain exactly how he accomplished this task, after the Prefect and the entire Parisian police force had failed. He replies first that these people were all looking in the wrong places; the letter was not discovered by them because it was never in any of the places where they were looking. Auguste goes into an elaborate psychoanalysis of his the Prefect does not understand what kind of person Minister D-- is, for he chose to search in places that were deeply hidden, which is where the Prefect would have personally hidden the letter. However, Dupin empathized with D--, declaring that he is a smarter man than the "fool" that Prefect G-- had labeled him to be because he is also a poet. Dupin later adds that being an observant person takes practice, but the Prefect is like an object of small mass in science; objects of less mass move faster, quicker, but there is little substance to them. However, objects of larger mass are more contemplative and cautious, slower to get moving right away; of course, the allegory he creates here is that he has a larger mass, i.e. more intelligence, and therefore proceeds more slowly rather than blindly and haphazardly rushing into situations like the Prefect and his police force.

Considering the Prefect to be of small intellect because he failed to empathize and actually understand Minister D-- as an intelligent individual himself, he responds to the narrator's statement that he had always thought that the Minister was a mathematician, not a poet, "You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician." He adds that if he had just been a mathematician, then the Prefect would have easily outsmarted him. The narrator replies that he always thought that mathematicians were brilliant thinkers who possess great analytical abilities. Dupin replies that general public opinion is stupid, for mathematicians do not have good analytical abilities because they are too dependent upon their formulas and facts that are accepted as being automatically given. Often, one who is solely a mathematician cannot explain why a formula is the way it is, for their numbers and equations are accepted as the end all and be all of the universe, although these beliefs are victim to the same public opinion that he had just warned against. He confidently states that "Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation -- of form and quantity -- is often greatly false in regard to morals, for example...But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability -- as the world indeed imagines them to be" Poe, pg. 257. Thus, Dupin advocates forging an individual, free-thinking intellect that is founded upon careful observations and practice, rather than upon common opinions or widely accepted beliefs.

He compares mathematicians to a situation described by Jacob Bryant's A New System, Or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology, in which many Christians do not believe pagan fables at all, but they make inferences from them as existing realities. This is not logical or consistent, even though it is a factual element to human behavior in their culture; people supposedly do not believe pagan tales, but they still show an observance to certain pagan or superstitious beliefs. They blindly accept these things as givens without questioning the inconsistency of it, even as the mathematicians blindly accept their formulas and ideas. Anyway, if D-- was only a mathematician, he surely would have hid the letter in some secret place that would have been easily discovered by the Prefect's thorough searches of his apartment. However, Dupin personally knows D-- to be a witty poet, mathematician, and politician. As such, he would have expected the royal personage to send representatives to steal the letter back from him. Thus, he planned for this carefully with a simple solution, as Dupin recalls how much the Prefect had laughed at the mere suggestion that there was an obvious solution to this mystery, because he was probably just trying too hard to solve it; the narrator shares in this memory.

Abruptly, C. Auguste Dupin then asks the narrator about what street signs are most noticeable? He then explains that there is a game played with a map, where one player names a place and the other must locate that place spelled out on the map; the newer players usually assign tiny place names to their opponents, but experienced players choose names that are written very largely on the map because they are more difficult to mind. The moral of this story is that on maps, street signs or in life, the obvious things are always the hardest ones to notice. Recalling this human behavior, Dupin also recalls how D-- wanted to keep the letter nearby so that he could use it immediately if the "royal personage" dared to disobey him, thus leading him to conclude that it had to be somewhere in his apartment. Having drawn these conclusions, Dupin had then decided to visit the apartment himself, since he knew Minister D-- personally, pretending as if it was a casual visit. He also brought along a pair of green tinted spectacles which hid his eyes from view, allowing him to scan the room unnoticed by D-- ; he had also announced that his eyes were very weak to cast aside any suspicions that he could even actually see what was in the Minister's apartment. Immediately he observed a letter rack with several cards and a single torn and dirty letter resting upon it; it bore the seal of D-- in black.

Although it was different than the letter than the Prefect had originally described, the fact that it was in such an obvious place and so out of place compared to the relative cleanliness of his apartment, made Dupin confident that this was the prize which he had been seeking. He subtly memorized what the letter looked like on the rack while purposely engaging Minister D-- in a vibrant discussion and later went home to create a fake letter exactly identical to that one. Wise as he is, Dupin had intentionally left his snuffbox at the Minister's apartment, using this as an excuse to return there the next day and continued the conversation they had begun the day before. Suddenly, a gunshot exploded outside of the window, and Minister D-- naturally rushed to see what the commotion was about; Dupin quickly switched his own fake letter with the real one of the rack, going to the window with D-- without having been noticed. Dupin had paid a man to fire a loaded gun at that very moment for the sole purpose of creating a distraction for him to switch the letters; outside, the man was acting crazy and the bystanders let him continue on his way uninhibited, since he made no further disturbance and they all assumed him to be a lunatic. Dupin of course knew better.

With his mission accomplished, C. Auguste Dupin finished his conversation with D-- and went home, triumphant and pleased with his recovery of this coveted letter. The narrator asks why he did not merely snatch up the letter during his first visit, and Dupin explains that the Minister would probably have not allowed him to leave that apartment alive if he had done as much. A secretive switch was the only way to assure both his success and his safe exit. He then adds that it is fairly easy to climb up to somewhere, but it is much more difficult to climb down, referring to what fate await D-- in the future recalling that a famous woman named Catalani had made this statement about the art of singing. He foresees the suffering that now lies ahead for D-- but does not feel badly about what he had done, "For eighteen months the Minister has had [the royal personage] in his power. She now has him in hers -- since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his political destruction...I have...no pity...for him who descends. He is that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius" Poe, pg. 262. Dupin asserts that he does not have any sympathy for those whom he has beaten, who fall beneath him and from their current state of splendor, as the Minister had once attained. Now he will fall from this pinnacle of power he has created for himself by using the letter.

Dupin wonders what the Minister's reaction will be once he opens the fake letter, since once upon a time in Vienna, Austria, the Minister had offended him, and he had sworn at that time that he would not forget when D-- crossed paths with him. Now, Dupin has his quiet revenge of sorts, having written into the fake letter some lines that would suggest that it had been Auguste that had outsmarted him. These lines are apparently referenced in Dupin's own writing, saying that the Minister "is well acquainted with my manuscript." The brief message he wrote is an excerpt from the play Atree by Crebillon, "Un dessein si funeste/S'il n'est digne d'Atree, est digne de Thyeste, " or "A plan, if disastrous, if it is not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes." This refers to two brothers, Thyestes and Atreus, who waged a bitter war of revenge against each other. Thyestes had a love affair with Agamemnon's wife; Agamemnon cooked Thyestes' children alive; Thyestes then cursed him, and it was Thyestes' son Aegisthus who would later help to slay Atreus' son Agamemnon. The moral of their story is that the process of revenge is ongoing, referring to this quotation. Even after such a long while since he had been offended by D-- in Vienna, he has now gotten revenge and also earned fifty thousand francs from the Prefect. In spite of his apparent stoicism, Dupin must be in good spirits.

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