The Purloined Letter
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Title Information
Theme
Climax
Type of Work
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First Detective Stories
Author Information
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Plot Summary 
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
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.......It is autumn in Paris in the early 1840's. One evening, the Prefect of Police calls upon the narrator and C. Auguste Dupin at their residence at No. 33 Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain. Dupin is an amateur detective with extraordinary crime-solving abilities, as demonstrated when he solved the famous and baffling case of the murders in the Rue Morgue 
.......Now the prefect needs help on another case. However, proud man that he is, he tells his hosts that he and his men can no doubt manage the case themselves. He simply wants to inform Dupin about it “because it is so excessively odd.” Dupin and the narrator agree to hear him out after the prefect first pledges them to secrecy in regard to the details of the case.  
.......Here is the gist of the case: A government official (referred to as “Minister D ) was seen purloining (stealing) a letter from the royal apartments. The contents of the letter, if made public, would besmirch the honor of a woman of very high station who had received it in the royal boudoir. While she was reading it, a man of very exalted station entered the room–a man whom she did not wish to see the letter.  However, he entered so abruptly that she did not have time to conceal it and left it on a table. A moment later, the minister entered, and with his “lynx eye,” spotted the letter and the address on it and noticed that the lady was acting strangely. He put two and two together, realizing that she wanted to conceal its contents.  
.......After conducting business, he takes out a letter of his own (of minor importance), pretends to read it, places it on the same table, then conducts further business for about 15 minutes.  When he leaves, he takes her letter as if it were his own. In the presence of the other exalted person, the lady dared not protest lest she call attention to the letter and its secret contents.  
.......With the lady’s letter in his possession, the minister now holds power over her. In fact, since taking it, he has already used it for political purposes. The lady then turned to prefect for help with an offer of a reward. The prefect says he has since ransacked the minister’s residence when he was not at home but has failed to find the letter. He and his men took furniture apart, probed chair cushions with needles, and scrutinized everything–mirrors, bedding, curtains and carpets, and even the moss between bricks on the grounds of the residence. When the narrator suggests that the minister may have hidden the letter at another location, Dupin rules out this possibility, saying it had to be readily available–on a moment’s notice–should the minister need to use it against the woman. Therefore, he says, it is somewhere on the minister’s premises.  
.......The minister does not carry the letter with him, either, the Prefect says, for his own men–pretending to be footpads (robbers) thoroughly searched the minister.  
......."You might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "[The minister], I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course." 
......."Not altogether a fool," said the the prefect, "but then he is a poet, which I take to be only one removed from a fool." 
 Dupin advises the minister to search the premises again.  The prefect leaves, depressed. 
.......A month later, he returns, having again searched the premises again to no avail. He says the reward has been doubled but does not specify the amount. However, he says he is willing to give his own paycheck of 50,000 francs to anyone who can retrieve the letter. Dupin opens a drawer and removes a checkbook, saying, “You may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter." 
.......The narrator and the prefect are astonished. Speechless, the prefect stares at Dupin, then takes up the checkbook and writes a check for the amount designated. After he gives it to Dupin, the latter opens an escritoire, takes a letter from it, and gives it to the prefect. The policeman takes it “in a perfect agony of joy, checks the contents, then rushes out. 
.......Dupin says the prefect’s methods in searching for the letter were thorough but ill-suited to the case, saying he attempted to fit his crime-solving schemes to his Procrustean resources. Dupin says the police went wrong when they failed to put themselves in the place of the minister; what they did instead was to ask where they themselves would hide the letter, then proceeded to look in the selected places. Moreover, the police used only logical, methodical reasoning. The minister, on the other hand, used not only logical reasoning but also intuitive and creative thinking. Although he is well known as a proficient mathematician, it is his talent as a poet–a talent that the prefect looks down on–that helps him to outthink logical thinkers. Consequently, he has an advantage over the police–but not Dupin.  
.......Dupin says he suspected that the minister had fooled the police by placing the letter in plain sight. Following up on this suspicion, he visited the minister at his residence and engaged him in a conversation about a topic he knew would interest him. All the while, Dupin’s eyes roved about the room. On a writing table were various routine letters and other papers in disarray. On the same table were books and musical instruments. By and by, Dupin directed his attention to a card rack hanging from a brass knob below the projecting shelf of a mantel. In it were several visiting cards and a crumpled letter torn nearly in half as if to suggest that it was of little importance. The appearance of the letter had been altered in other ways–all giving the impression that it was inconsequential.  
.......Dupin spent a while longer talking with the minister, then left. However, he deliberately left a gold snuff box on the table. The next morning, he returned to pick up the snuff box. After he and the minister resumed their conversation of the previous day, they heard a gunshot and screams outside. The minister went to a window, opened it, and looked out. Meanwhile, Dupin snatched the letter and replaced it with a copy whose outward appearance was made to look like the original.  
.......The narrator asks why Dupin did not take the letter on the first visit and why Dupin replaced it with a copy on the second. If he had taken it on the first visit without replacing it with a copy, Dupin says, the minister or his servants may have noticed it was missing–then killed him. Furthermore, allowing the minister to believe that the letter remains in his possession sets him up for a downfall later. Here’s why: He has been using the letter to blackmail a royal personage. When he next tries to use it to his advantage, she can refuse to cooperate. If he produces the letter to scandalize her in public, he will scandalize only himself. Thus, she now has him in her power.  
I should like very well to know the precise character of his thoughts, when, being defied by her whom the Prefect terms 'a certain personage,' he is reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in the card-rack,” Dupin says.  
.......The narrator asks whether Dupin wrote anything on the copy. Dupin replies, "At Vienna once, [he] did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity not to give him a clew.” 
.......So, inside the letter he wrote a quotation from a French play that, in effect, tells the minister that Dupin has gotten even.

Setting 

The action takes place in Paris in the early 1840's.  

Characters

C. August Dupin: Young gentleman with an exceptional ability to solve problems. He is especially adept at solving mysteries that baffle the police.  
Unnamed Narrator: Dupin's friend, who tells the story of one of Dupin's investigations. 
Prefect of Police: Policeman who failed to solve a crime involving a stolen letter.  
Government Minister: Clever official who stole the letter and is using its contents to blackmail a woman of royal status. 
Unnamed Woman of Royal Status: She needs to retrieve the stolen letter because its contents, if made public, would deal a severe blow to her reputation. 
Unnamed Man of Royal Status: He is unaware of the contents of the letter. The woman needs to make sure he never sees the letter. 

Type of Work and Publication Date 

“The Purloined Letter” falls into the general category of short story and the specific category of detective story. It was first published in The Gift in January 1845.  

Title  

Purloined means stolen. Hence, the story could have been entitled "The Stolen Letter." However, purloin has a connotation that steal does not have–that is, to take something by a breach of trust.  

Theme  
 
The theme is straightforward and simple: how a superior thinker solves a baffling puzzle. In this short story, as opposed to Poe’s stories of terror and the supernatural, there are no hidden messages, no allegories.   

Climax 

The climax of “The Purloined Letter” occurs when Dupin announces that he has retrieved the stolen letter. 
 
First Three Detective Stories  

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined letter set a milestone in literature as the first three detective stories ever written. They are sometimes referred to as tales of ratiocination (rash e aw sin A shun), the process of using cold, objective logic–including deduction and induction–to solve a problem or a mystery. However, the central character of the stories–the brilliant amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin–relies as much on intuition as on logic. As Richard Wilbur observes, “Dupin, although Poe describes his mental operations as ‘analytic’ and as based on a psychological calculus of probabilities, is actually representative of a pure poetic intuition bordering on omniscience.” Later writers used the detective-story ingredients Poe introduced, including a seemingly insoluble mystery, stymied police, and a superior thinker who solves the mystery and explains in detail how he did it. 

Author Information 

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.  

Study Questions and Writing Topics 

  • Do you agree with Dupin that a police investigator should rely as much on intuition and imagination as on logic and science?
  • What do you think was the secret message in the letter?
  • Read both "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The write profile about Dupin, focusing primarily on his dominant personality trait. 
  • Minister D "hid" the letter in plain sight. Does this ploy sound plausible?
  • Can you think of movies or TV series that imitate the way Poe told his tale? Example: Columbo. 
  • Write a short detective story that imitates the writing methods Poe uses.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the importance of intuition vs the importance of logic in "The Purloined Letter."  
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