The Purloined Letter
|The Stolen Letter|
The Gift: A Christmas, New Year, and Birthday Present. Carey and Hart, Philadelphia, 1845.
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Publisher||The Gift for 1845|
|Publication date||December 1844|
|Media type||Print (periodical)|
"The Purloined Letter" is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe. It is the third of his three detective stories featuring the fictional C. Auguste Dupin, the other two being "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt". These stories are considered to be important early forerunners of the modern detective story. It first appeared in the literary annual The Gift for 1845 (1844) and was soon reprinted in numerous journals and newspapers.
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The unnamed narrator is discussing with the famous Parisian amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin some of his most celebrated cases when they are joined by the Prefect of the Police, a man known as G—. The Prefect has a case he would like to discuss with Dupin.
A letter has been stolen from the boudoir of an unnamed female by the unscrupulous Minister D—. It is said to contain compromising information. D was in the room, saw the letter, and switched it for a letter of no importance. He has been blackmailing his victim.
The Prefect makes two deductions with which Dupin does not disagree:
- 1.) The contents of the letter have not been revealed, as this would have led to certain circumstances that have not arisen. Therefore Minister D— still has the letter in his possession.
- 2.) The ability to produce the letter at a moment’s notice is almost as important as possession of the letter itself. Therefore he must have the letter close at hand.
The Prefect says that he and his police detectives have searched the Ministerial hotel where D— stays and have found nothing. They checked behind the wallpaper and under the carpets. His men have examined the tables and chairs with microscopes and then probed the cushions with needles but have found no sign of interference; the letter is not hidden in these places. Dupin asks the Prefect if he knows what he is looking for and the Prefect reads off a minute description of the letter, which Dupin memorizes. The Prefect then bids them good day.
A month later, the Prefect returns, still bewildered in his search for the missing letter. He is motivated to continue his fruitless search by the promise of a large reward, recently doubled, upon the letter's safe return, and he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can help him. Dupin asks him to write that check now and he will give him the letter. The Prefect is astonished but knows that Dupin is not joking. He writes the check and Dupin produces the letter. The Prefect determines that it is genuine and races off to deliver it to the victim.
Alone together, the narrator asks Dupin how he found the letter. Dupin explains the Paris police are competent within their limitations, but have underestimated who they are dealing with. The Prefect mistakes the Minister D— for a fool because he is a poet. For example, Dupin explains how an eight-year old boy made a small fortune from his friends at a game called "Odds and Evens." The boy was able to determine the intelligence of his opponents and play upon that to interpret their next move. He explains that D— knew the police detectives would have assumed that the blackmailer would have concealed the letter in an elaborate hiding place, and thus hid it in plain sight.
Dupin says he had visited the minister at his hotel. Complaining of weak eyes he wore a pair of green spectacles, the true purpose of which was to disguise his eyes as he searched for the letter. In a cheap card rack hanging from a dirty ribbon, he saw a half-torn letter and recognized it as the letter of the story's title. Striking up a conversation with D— about a subject in which the minister is interested, Dupin examined the letter more closely. It did not resemble the letter the Prefect described so minutely; the writing was different and it was sealed not with the "ducal arms" of the S— family, but with D—'s monogram. Dupin noticed that the paper was chafed as if the stiff paper was first rolled one way and then another. Dupin concluded that D— wrote a new address on the reverse of the stolen one, re-folded it the opposite way and sealed it with his own seal.
Dupin left a snuff box behind as an excuse to return the next day. Striking up the same conversation they had begun the previous day, D— was startled by a gunshot in the street. While he went to investigate, Dupin switched D—'s letter for a duplicate.
Dupin explains that he left a duplicate to ensure his ability to leave the hotel without D— suspecting his actions. As a political supporter of the Queen and old enemy of the Minister, Dupin also hopes that D— will try to use the power he no longer has, to his political downfall, and at the end be presented with an insulting note that implies Dupin was the thief: Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atrée, est digne de Thyeste (If such a sinister design isn't worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes).
This story first appeared in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1845, published in December, 1844 in Philadelphia. Poe earned $12 for its first printing. It was later included in the 1845 collection Tales By Edgar A. Poe.
The epigraph "Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio" (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness) attributed by Poe to Seneca was not found in Seneca's known work. It is from Petrarch's treatise "De Remediis utriusque Fortunae". Poe probably took the reference from Samuel Warren's novel, Ten Thousand A-Year.
Dupin is not a professional detective. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Dupin takes up the case for amusement and refuses a financial reward. In "The Purloined Letter," however, Dupin undertakes the case for financial gain. He is not motivated by pursuing truth, emphasized by the lack of information about the contents of the purloined letter. Dupin's innovative method to solve the mystery is by trying to identify with the criminal. The Minister and Dupin have equally matched minds, combining skills of mathematician and poet, and their battle of wits is threatened to end in stalemate. Dupin wins because of his moral strength: the Minister is "unprincipled," a blackmailer who obtains power by exploiting the weakness of others.
"The Purloined Letter" completes Dupin's tour of different settings. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" he travels through city streets; in "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" he is in the wide outdoors; in "The Purloined Letter" he is in an enclosed private space. French linguist Jean-Claude Milner offered in Détections fictives , Le Seuil, collection « Fictions & Cie », 1985, supporting evidence that Dupin and D— are brothers, based on the final reference to Atreus and his twin brother, Thyestes.
Literary significance and criticism
In May 1844 Poe wrote to James Russell Lowell that he considered it "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination" just before its first publication. Of Poe's three tales of ratiocination, "The Purloined Letter" is generally considered the best. When it was republished in the 1845 edition of The Gift, the editor called it "one of the aptest illustrations which could well be conceived of that curious play of two minds in one person."
Poe's story provoked an important debate among leading literary theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued in Ecrits that the content of the Queen's letter is irrelevant to the story and that the proper "place" of the signifier (the letter itself) is determined by the symbolic structure in which it exists and is dis-placed (first by the Minister and then by Dupin). Jacques Derrida responded to Lacan's reading of Poe in "The Purveyor of Truth" [Le Facteur de la Vérité] to point out what Lacan "missed," suggesting that it is not that the letter lacks meaning as Lacan claimed, but that Lacan made the lack the meaning. The truth, for Derrida, is that the letter is a castration (of the King by the Queen), which Lacan cannot see/abide/is blind to. Lacan's structuralist and Derrida's deconstructive readings provoked a response by Barbara Johnson who mediated the debate by suggesting that the letter belonged all along to the Queen as a substitute for a phallus.
Poe scholar Donald E. Pease suggests that Lacan "equates the possession of a letter — defined as a “lack” of content — with “literal” as opposed to “symbolic” castration, hence the odor of the feminine. In other words the “possession” of the lack otherwise displaced by language identifies the possessor with the lack “she” thinks she possesses. So femininity exists as an “effect” of the delusion of possession of a lack otherwise displaced (as a masculine effect?) by the endless purloining of the letter."  Derrida, for Pease, in order to "get one up on" his rival, Lacan, "reintroduces the role of the queen. And does so at the precise moment Derrida seems to wish to keep the quarrel most personal. Or rather, “castration” introduces the to le of the queen at the very moment Derrida, now speaking in the name not of Poe or literature but feminism, would like to keep her in the role of the figure whose honor he must defend." Barbara Johnson, for Pease, "By taking away their power positions ... manages to “master” Lacan’s and Derrida’s delusions of mastery. But more interestingly, she turns them, as it were, into a pair of queens."
The debates up to the mid-1980s are collected in a helpful (though incomplete) volume: The Purloined Poe. For instance, not included in the volume is Richard Hull's reading based on the work of Michel Foucault, which argues: ""The Purloined Letter" is a good text for questioning the metalinguistic claim that artists can't avoid doing surveillance, because it is a discourse on poetry's superiority over surveillance."  Slavoj Žižek asks "So why does a letter always arrive at its destination? Why could it not--sometimes at least--also fail to reach it?"  Hollis Robbins critiques Derrida for his own blindness to patriotism in prefacing his reading of The Purloined Letter with a reading of The Emperor's New Clothes: "In Derrida's view, both Poe's story and Andersen's feature a king whose manhood is imperiled, who is surrounded by habit-driven and ineffectual civil servants, and who is saved by an individual who sees what is obvious....both save the crown from further embarrassment....there is never a question that a king could or should fall from grace." 
In 1995 the story was adapted for an episode of the children's television program Wishbone. The episode was called 'The Pawloined Paper'.
- Ostram 1987, p. 40
- Butti de Lima 2007, pp. 83–125
- Whalen 2001, p. 86
- Meyers 1992, p. 155
- Quinn 1998, p. 421
- Garner 1990, p. 141
- Rosenheim 1997, p. 69
- Cornelius 2002, p. 33
- Phillips 1926, pp. 930–931
- Jacques Lacan, “Le seminaire sur ‘La Lettre volee,‘” from Ecrits (Paris: editions du Seuil, 1966), pp. 11-61, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman as “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,‘” in French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis, Yale French Studies, No. 48 (1972)
- Jacques Derrida, “Le Facteur de la verite,” Poetics, 21 (1975), 96-147; trans. Willis Domingo, et al., as “The Purveyor of Truth,’ in Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature and Philosophy, Yale French Studies, No. 52 (1975), pp. 31-113
- Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” from Literature and Psychoanalysis / The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Yale French Studies, No. 55-56 (1977)
- D. Pease “Marginal Politics and ‘The Purloined Letter’: A Review Essay,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:18-23
- The Purloined Poe Eds. John P.Muller and William J. Richardson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1988
- "The Purloined Letter": Poe's detective story vs. panoptic Foucauldian theory. Style, Summer90, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p201
- Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Routledge, 1992
- Hollis Robbins, "The Emperor's New Critique," New Literary History Volume 34, Number 4, Autumn 2003
- Butti de Lima, Paolo (2007). Quaderni di Storia (65): 83–125.
- Cornelius, Kay (2002). "Biography of Edgar Allan Poe". In Harold Bloom. Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7910-6173-2.
- Derrida, Jacques (1987). The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (Paperback ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-14322-4.
- Garner, Stanton (1990). "Emerson, Thoreau, and Poe's 'Double Dupin'". In Fisher, Benjamin Franklin IV. Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society. ISBN 978-0-9616449-2-5.
- Meyers, Jeffrey (1992). Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Paperback ed.). New York: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 978-0-8154-1038-6.
- Ostram, John Ward (1987). "Poe's Literary Labors and Rewards". In Fisher, Benjamin Franklin IV. Myths and Reality: The Mysterious Mr. Poe. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society. pp. 37–47.
- Phillips, Mary E. (1926). Edgar Allan Poe: The Man. Volume II. Chicago: The John C. Winston Co.
- Quinn, Arthur Hobson (1998). Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-5730-0. Retrieved 2011-12-31.
- Rosenheim, Shawn James (1997). The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-5332-6.
- Whalen, Terance (2001). "Poe and the American Publishing Industry". In Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512150-6.
- The Purloined Letter, online at Ye Olde Library
- The Purloined Letter at American Literature
- Full text on PoeStories.com with hyperlinked vocabulary words
- Dept. of English, fju.edu analyzes the story with the help of diagrams
- Cliffs Notes on Poe's Short Stories has a page on The Purloined Letter