“The Purloined Letter” (1844)
“The Purloined Letter”
Of all of Poe's stories of ratiocination (or detective stories), "The Purloined Letter" is considered his finest. This is partially due to the fact that there are no gothic elements, such as the gruesome descriptions of dead bodies, as there was in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." But more important, this is the story that employs most effectively the principle of ratiocination; this story brilliantly illustrates the concept of the intuitive intellect at work as it solves a problem logically. Finally, more than with most of his stories, this one is told with utmost economy.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (born January 19, 1809, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.—died October 7, 1849, Baltimore, Maryland) American short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor who is famous for his cultivation of mystery and the macabre. His tale “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) initiated the modern detective story, and the atmosphere in his tales of horror is unrivaled in American fiction. His “The Raven” (1845) numbers among the best-known poems in the national literature.
“The Purloined Letter” Analysis
Along with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter” establishes a new genre of short fiction in American literature: the detective story. Poe considered “The Purloined Letter” his best detective story, and critics have long identified the ways in which it redefines the mystery genre—it turns away from action toward intellectual analysis, for example. As opposed to the graphic violence of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which features bodily mutilation and near decapitation by a wild animal, “The Purloined Letter” focuses more dryly on the relationship between the Paris police and Dupin, between the ineffectual established order and the savvy private eye. When the narrator opens the story by reflecting upon the gruesome murders in the Rue Morgue that Dupin has helped to solve, Poe makes it clear that the prior story is on his mind. Poe sets up the cool reason of “The Purloined Letter” in opposition to the violence of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The battered and lacerated bodies of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are replaced by the bloodless, inanimate stolen letter. However, just as the Paris police are unable to solve the gory crime of passion in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” they are similarly unable to solve this apparently simple mystery, in which the solution is hidden in plain sight.
“The Purloined Letter” Discussion Questions
Is The Purloined Letter a successful detective story? Why or Why not?
What role does imagination play in the story? At what point do characters appear to be using (or misusing) their imaginations?
What are the Prefect’s strengths and weaknesses as a detective?
What kind of practical advice does the story seem to offer about reason, logic, and emotion? Does it really seem to be recommending the approach of a combined poet and mathematician?
What effect does Poe appear to achieve by telling the story using primarily dialogue instead of action? Why might he choose to tell the story in such a way?
Why are the characters not fully developed? Are they supposed to be real characters, or are they simply talking heads that Poe is using to develop ideas?