Book Notes Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

This tale is the third in a series featuring the astute and observant investigator, C. Auguste Dupin. Overall, this series that began with "The Murders at the Rude Morgue" published in April of 1841 breaks from previously established literary traditions and forges new territory for Poe's own style and theme. "The Mystery of Marie Roget" was published serially in Snowden's Ladies Conpanion 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. All three stories feature Dupin, the fascinated narrator, and the French Prefect of police with his inferior intellectual abilities. Much greater detail is delivered in the "Commentary" for "The Murders at the Rue Morgue" concerning the origins of these characters and their impact upon the literary world in forging a new literary genre, that of the detective story. However, to avoid regurgitation, here we shall focus primarily upon this final story featuring Dupin, "The Purloined Letter."

First, one should notice that it is quite unlike the preceding two stories in that it does not at all involve a murder investigation. Instead, an unnamed royal person of high ranking who is most likely the French Queen is in need of dire assistance, because she is being blackmailed by one of her ministers. This is slightly reminiscent of certain events as related in French author Alexander Dumas' Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) published serially in French in Le Siecle from March 14, 1844-July 14, 1844. Poe did not publish "The Purloined Letter" until September, so it is possible that he was partly influenced in theme by the Musketeers' mission to assist the Queen of France from the corrupt Richlieu. A similar course of events occurs here, where Dupin must also come to the rescue of a female "royal personage," probably the Queen of France as well, from the corrupt Minister D--. Whether Poe had access to the actual text in French, or if he would have heard of the storyline by word of mouth is uncertain, but it is an interesting coincidence that Poe would emerge with a new story about aiding the Queen of France shortly after Dumas published Musketeers in France, especially since both of Poe's prior stories featuring Dupin had dealt with solving murders. As this tale ends he even declares "In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned," showing an unusual glimmer of loyalty to this royal figure, presumably the Queen of France. This change in plot as compared with earlier tales further suggests that news of Dumas' story may have influenced Poe in composing "The Purloined Letter."

The dialogue employed here, in tune with Dupin's constant use of higher reasoning skills and logic, somewhat resembles the exchange that occurs in works of Plato, especially his Republic, featuring an ongoing discussion between a group of men. A problem is presented, in the instance of Plato, "What is justice?" All of the following events in the story involve the exchange of words between individuals seeking to discover this answer in different ways. A similar technique is employed here, principally the question of how exactly C. Auguste Dupin managed to secure the letter from Minister D--. The following discussion centers upon how this discovery came about, supplemented by various allegories and comparisons to other situations in life, such as playing a game with maps or observing street signs. Dupin employs the infamous "Socratic method" in his explanation at times as well, directing questions at the narrator, "have you ever noticed which of the street signs, over the shop doors, are the most attractive of attention?" Constant questioning is a concept upon which this method is based, inspired by the writings of Plato. Dupin's pointed observation that many people, such as the Prefect, fail to connect genuinely with other people in solving mysteries and instead project their own outlook towards others further suggests Socratic teachings, which discourages finite knowledge. The Prefect's flaws focus upon his shallow judgments such as how "artists are fools." The wiser Dupin disregards such baseless labels. Whether or not Dupin's behaviors are merely characteristic of general investigative techniques, there is a close resemblance in dialogue here to the Socratic dialogue described in Plato's Republic. The presence of other classical references -- first an epigraph attributed to the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, and an ending with quotations referring to the ancient Greek mythological figures, Thyestes and Atreus, further assert this idea.

In addition, Dupin's inflated ego becomes forevermore evident here, justifying his superiority to mathematicians, the Parisian police force and its Prefect, as well as Minister D--, whom he shows some respect towards as a worthy adversary. He considers mathematicians to be blindly following rules without establishing individual understandings about the nature of the world, much as he had criticized chess players in "Rue Morgue." He compares the Prefect to an object with little mass, resulting in its faster movement. Rather than a strength, Poe considers this to be a severe character flaw due to his quick reaction to events instead of the more contemplative and wiser Dupin. Finally, Auguste praises the wittiness that the Minister possesses, exceeding that of the Prefect, thus allowing him to leave the coveted letter in plain view but undiscovered in his own apartment after it was ransacked dozens of times. Once, D-- had even managed to catch Dupin off guard in Vienna in the past, which is a tremendously difficult feat considering his acute powers of observation. Over time, Dupin had built up a strong profile of what kind of person D-- is, and this is his key to solving the mystery. In many ways, Minister D-- appears to be a twin of Dupin, bearing his same first initial, as well as commanding his respect as well.

Given Dupin's nature, he surely would not respect someone whom he does not regard as his equal; yet he knows the behaviors of D-- so well, that he describes the tiredness D-- shows when greeting Dupin at his apartment for the first time as merely a ruse. Like Dupin, D-- is always on his guard and has developed his intellectual powers as well through practice and perseverance, like Dupin. It is these skills that have allowed him to steal and regain the letter for an entire year and a half, although it took two days of calculated planning on Dupin's part to steal the letter back from him in much the same way as it was initially stolen, by replacing the genuine letter with a fake that he had composed. When D-- had stolen the Queen's letter, he, too, had left a letter of his own in place of the Queen's letter. Even in the closing lines Dupin regards D-- with a rare sense of admiration dubbing him the "monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius." The Latin translates as "awesome marvel," which along with being a "man of genius" reveals Dupin's feelings towards this man. Like the two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, whom Dupin invokes in his fabricated letter, C. Auguste Dupin maintains a brotherly bond with Minister D-- both as an equal, but also as an vengeful nemesis; hence the development of a sibling rivalry. In mythology, after Thyestes had a love affair with Atreus' wife, Atreus invited Thyestes into his home, only to secretly feed him his own children. In "The Purloined Letter," it is the guest Dupin who cunningly takes advantage of his host's hospitality. The monetary award functions merely as an additional benefit for rescuing the letter, but the real motivation in committing such a deed is his need to reassert the superiority of his intellect over that of Minister D--, who had once outsmarted Dupin. This time, he wins.

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