The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Cite This Page
The Murders in the Rue Morgue The Murders in the Rue Morgue Summary Page 1
- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" begins with a discussion of different kinds of thought.
- The narrator starts us out with the ironic observation that the brain's ability to analyze, which is the tool that we use to categorize and organize all of the things around us, rarely gets turned on itself.
- In other words, we think about a lot of stuff, but we rarely consider what it is that allows us to think in the first place.
- All we see is the evidence of such thought: anyone with a particularly strong analytical ability likes to exercise it through games and puzzles.
- The narrator then thinks about the difference between chess players and whist or draughts players.
- (Whist, by the way, is a card game kind of like bridge that involves four players playing in partnerships. The game depends on guessing the cards of both your partner and your opponents to win – check out this link for more on how it's played. "Draughts" is just an old name for checkers).
- The chess player has the kind of mind that can find answers only if she's got all of the clues she needs in front of her. There's nothing hidden on a chessboard. So, while it's a tough game, it's still mostly a test of someone's ability to think ahead based on available evidence. This is what the narrator calls the "analytical" mind.
- On the other hand, the whist player uses a different kind of skill. Like the chess player, the whist player has to look ahead and make decisions about how to play based on what she can see. But it's not just that – a good whist player will also have to figure out what cards all the other players are holding. She can't just rely on what she does know; she also has to guess about the stuff she doesn't know. The whist player is both analytical (what the narrator calls the chess player) and creative. She is the "ingeniously analytical" (for "ingenious," think imaginative, and inventive).
- In other words, a chess player (remember, the analytical mind) can work out what to do so long as she has all the information she needs in front of her.
- The whist player (that would be the ingeniously analytical mind) is better because she can figure out what she needs to know using the combined power of imagination and analysis.
- The narrator then assures us that the story to follow will comment on these statements about the nature of human thought.
- The narrator introduces us to his friend, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, whom he meets in Paris in the spring and summer of "18–." In other words, at some point in the 19th century.
- Both the narrator and M. Dupin are bookish types, and they become good friends. They are such good friends, that they wind up as roommates during the narrator's stay in Paris.
- Dupin and the narrator are also both night owls: it's their habit, while they live together, to close up all the blinds during the day to read, write, and talk to each other.
- Once the sun sets, or, as the narrator states grandly, upon "the advent of the true Darkness" (8), they head out onto the streets of Paris, walking and chatting until the early hours of the morning.
- During these nighttime walks, the guys like to look at the people around them to make conclusions about who they are. (These are not people who hesitate about judging books by their covers.)
- Dupin is particularly good at this kind of analysis, and brags that most men's hearts are like open windows to him.
- To give an example of their game of observation: one night when they're out walking, Dupin suddenly busts out with "He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Théâtre des Variétés" (12).
- The "little fellow" in question is Chantilly, a local cobbler (shoemaker) who suddenly gets it into his head to try acting.
- Chantilly acts as character Xerxes (the famous Persian invader of ancient Greece; see: link to http://plato-dialogues.org/tools/char/xerxes.htm) in a tragedy by the 18th century French dramatist, Prosper Jolyot, Lord of Crébillon. (For more on this amazingly-named guy, check out this article.)
- Chantilly has been widely "Pasquinaded," or ridiculed, for his efforts.
- The narrator had been thinking this same thing: that this guy Chantilly is too short to play serious tragic roles, and that he'd do better in the Théâtre des Variétés, i.e., in comedy. In other words, Chantilly's more of a Steve Carrell type.
- The narrator is shocked that Dupin managed to figure out so exactly what the narrator was thinking, and demands to know how he figured it out when the narrator hadn't said anything.
- Dupin explains how he knew what the narrator was thinking:
- The fruiterer: The last thing Dupin and the narrator talked about before Dupin made his remark was horses. So Dupin traces his observations back to that point, when the two cross the street and the narrator runs into a fruiterer (i.e., a guy who sells fruit). The fruit-seller knocks the narrator into a stack of paving stones, which makes the narrator look angry and slightly pained.
- The street stones: Having had this accident, Dupin observes that the narrator begins staring at the ground, watching his step. The road under repair is uneven and full of holes, so when they get to a freshly paved alley called Lamartine, the narrator starts to look more cheerful. He's visibly glad that the street stones underfoot are more even for walking.
- Stereotomy: This is the art of cutting stones, or more generally, of dividing solid objects into smaller shapes. After they start walking up Lamartine, where the city is experimenting with a new pattern for paving stones, Dupin sees the narrator's happiness at the improved road and he watches the narrator mouth the word "stereotomy."
- Epicurus: Having started thinking about the mechanics of cutting things into smaller pieces, Dupin reasons that the narrator must be about to muse on "atomies," i.e., the smallest pieces of creation, an idea that he assigns to Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher. (For more on Epicurus, materialism, and scientific method, check out this site.)
- Dr. Nichol: Dr. John Pringle Nichol (whom Poe incorrectly calls Dr. Nichols) was a popular astronomer in the early 19th century who wrote books on the layout of the solar system and its planets. (Check out this link for more info.) Assuming that the narrator has been thinking about Epicurus and atoms, Dupin reasons that the next logical step in the narrator's train of association would be to think about current science and atoms.
- Orion: Having gotten from ancient to modern science, Dupin supposes that the narrator will look up at the constellation of Orion (Source), home to the Orion nebula (Source), which (Dupin claims) is the subject of both Epicurean and modern astronomical thinking. The narrator does look up, thus proving that, so far, Dupin is right.
- Chantilly: But how do we get from the narrator looking up towards Orion's nebula to this short actor fellow? In a review of Chantilly's performance as Xerxes that appeared in a newspaper the day before, the reviewer discusses Chantilly's change of name in going from a shoemaker to an actor. (The phrase Dupin uses is "assuming the buskin," i.e. putting on buskins, which were a kind of laced-up leather boot worn by actors in Greek and Roman tragedies (citation). This change of name is compared to the following line in Latin: "Perdidit antiquum litera prima sonum."
This line comes from Roman author Ovid's Fasti (see here for the complete work), and it translates to "He has ruined the sound with the first letter." As Dupin himself explains, the sentence refers to the change of the name "Urion" into "Orion." Dupin knows that he and the narrator exchanged certain "pungencies" – in this context, jokes – about the change that the narrator could not have forgotten. So, he decides, if the narrator thinks of the nebula Orion, it's only a quick jump over to Ovid's Orion/Urion, and thus to Chantilly the shoemaker/actor.
Dupin sees the narrator smile, which makes him think that the narrator is laughing over that bad review. He then sees the narrator, who had been kind of hunched over, stand up straight: visual proof that he'd been thinking about how short Chantilly is. And voilà! Nothing could be clearer! Dupin has combined his powers of observation (of the narrator's facial expressions, posture, etc.) with what he knows of the guy's thought processes to make educated guesses about what he's thinking now. And that's when Dupin jumps in with the remark about Chantilly being better suited to comedy that so astonishes the narrator in the first place.
- So, having given us this long example of Dupin's creative genius, the narrator gets us to the meat of the story: one night, the two of them are reading the newspaper when they run across a headline: "EXTRAORDINARY MURDERS."
- Here's how the murder setup goes:
- At around 3am, people living in the Quartier St. Roch, in the neighborhood of a house on the Rue Morgue (i.e., Morgue Road, a fictional Parisian street), are shaken by a series of loud screams.
- The screams are coming from the fourth story apartment of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L'Esplanaye.
- Eight or ten local guys pry open the front door with a crowbar.
- By the time they manage to get the front door open, the screams have stopped.
- What the neighbors do hear is two or more voices that seem to be in angry conversation.
- Even these voices have stopped once the neighbors reach the second landing.
- Once they get inside the fourth story rooms, they see that the apartment has been turned over and destroyed: there's wrecked furniture everywhere.
- There's a bloodstained razor sitting on a chair. (We're thinking one of those old-fashioned straight razors and not a Bic.)
- There are two or three long, thick locks of grey hair on the hearth, also smeared with blood.
- On the floor, the neighbors find: four Napoleons (a minted gold coin issued in various denominations in the early 19th century (so named because, of course, it had Napoleon's face on it); a topaz earring; three larger silver spoons; three smaller spoons of métal d'Alger (a.k.a. Algiers metal, an alloy of tin and antimony that shines up to look like silver); and two sacks of four thousand francs (France's former currency) in gold.
- The drawers of the bureau are open but still contain lots of stuff. An iron safe stored under the bed is also open, with its key in the lock, but holds nothing except a few old letters.
- (Warning: read no further if you're particularly squeamish!)
- They find Madame L'Esplanaye's daughter's body stuffed up the chimney, still warm, and covered with severe scratches and scrapes. There are bruises on the neck that indicate that she's been strangled.
- The neighbors don't find Madame L'Esplanaye's corpse until they go from her apartment to a small yard behind the building.
- There, they discover the Madame's body, her throat so severely cut that her head falls off when they try to pick her up.
- Madame L'Esplanaye's body and head are so badly mutilated that they scarcely look human.
- Further details emerge in the next day's paper. Here's where we get individual testimony:
- Pauline Dubourg (laundress) says that the two victims seemed on excellent terms with each other, and that they lived comfortably. There's a rumor that Madame L'Esplanaye had managed to save some money, but that she still made her living as a fortune-teller. Only the fourth floor of the house was furnished; there were no other tenants or servants living there.
- Pierre Moreau (tobacco seller) claims that he'd been selling tobacco products to Madame L'Esplanaye for four years, and that she and her daughter had lived on the fourth floor of that house for six. The two ladies, he says, were supposed to have money, but this guy doesn't believe that the Madame told fortunes. He'd never seen anyone at the house except the older woman and her daughter, and maybe a doctor or a porter a handful of times. (In fact, everyone interviewed has said that no one else comes to the house, and that the shutters on the front windows are usually shut, and the ones at the back are always closed.)
- Isodore Muset (policeman) says that there were around twenty or thirty men standing in the doorway when he arrived at the house at 3am. As soon as the door was forced open, those screams the earlier article mentioned stop. Then they hear those two arguing voices: one gruff, the other shrill. He thinks that the gruff voice was that of a Frenchman (and that he said the words sacre ["sacred," but can be used as a swear word] and diable ["devil"]. The shrill voice seemed to be that of a foreigner – the language could've been Spanish.
- Henri Duval (neighbor and silversmith) was one of the first guys on the scene, and agrees with the policeman that the shrill voice was that of a foreigner – maybe Italian? Maybe a woman? Definitely not the voice of either of the L'Esplanayes.
- Mr. Odenheimer (restaurant owner) is a Dutch man who gives his testimony through a translator. He was just passing the house when he heard the shrieks and so entered the building with everyone else. He thinks that the shrill voice is actually that of a Frenchman, that it was harsh rather than shrill, and that the gruff voice kept repeating sacré, diable, and once, mon Dieu (my God).
- Jules Mignaud (banker) testifies that Madame L'Esplanaye has been his client for eight years, that she made frequent deposits, and, that on the third day before her murder, she came in person to his bank to withdraw four thousand francs.
- Adolphe de Bon (bank clerk) offers that he accompanied Madame L'Esplanaye home from the bank third day before her death, carrying her two sacks of francs for her.
- William Bird (tailor), an Englishman, says that the gruff voice was that of a Frenchman, and that he distinctly heard sacré and mon Dieu. The shrill voice, he claims, was loud, and that it was not the voice of an Englishman. He thinks it could've been a German woman's voice – but he doesn't understand German.
- Four of these witnesses later add that the room in which they found the daughter was locked from the inside.
- The windows were also shut and locked.
- There is a door between the back and front rooms – closed, but not locked.
- The door leading from the front room to the passage had been locked, with the key still in the door.
- There is also a small room at the front of the house on the fourth floor at the head of the passage but not attached to the other two, with the door slightly open. This room had been filled with old junk – boxes, bed-frames, etc.
- The whole house has been carefully searched, even down to the chimneys, and no trace of another person has been found.
- The length of time between hearing the two voices arguing and the door being forced open has been placed at somewhere between three and five minutes.
- Alfonzo Garcio (undertaker), from Spain, testifies that he did go into the house but not up the stairs (he was too frightened of the sounds of fighting going on). He says that yes, the gruff voice was a Frenchman, but the shrill voice, he claims, must have been an Englishman. He doesn't speak English, but he's sure of the sound of it.
- Alberto Montani (confectioner – i.e., candy-maker), an Italian, agrees that the gruff voice was a Frenchman, and says he could make out several words. He says specifically that the speaker was "expostulating," or attempting to reason with another. The shrill voice was a Russian, he says, but he also admits that he's never talked to a Russian.
- The witnesses all agree that the chimneys were too small for a person to go up or down without getting stuck; there's also no rear staircase on which to escape.
- Paul Dumas (physician) has the unpleasant duty of looking at the bodies. He testifies that the daughter had been strangled to death. Madame L'Esplanaye's corpse had numerous shattered bones: only a really strong man (and definitely no woman) using a large, blunt instrument could have injured her so badly. Her throat had also been slashed with something, probably the razor.
- Alexandre Etienne (surgeon) agrees with Dumas, above.
- The newspaper article concludes that there are no other clues (or "clews," as Poe spells it), and that the murders are completely baffling.
- The next edition of the paper says that, despite fresh interviews with witnesses, no new clues have come out.
- The police have arrested the bank clerk, Adolphe de Bon (note that his last name means "of good"), but without any additional evidence against him.
- Dupin is interested in the case, but he only starts to talk about it when Le Bon (as he's referred to) gets arrested.
- Dupin argues that no one can say the case is impossible yet, because so far, the only people who've investigated are the police.
- Dupin believes that the police get results because they're diligent (read: hard working and earnest), not because they're creative or imaginative.
- Then Dupin starts criticizing François Vidocq, the real-life detective on whom Dupin's character is based. (See our "In a Nutshell" for more on this.)
- Dupin says it's possible to be too deep in your thinking, that sometimes, just looking at the surface of things is enough to understand them. Dupin's saying that he's the perfect medium: not as unimaginative as the police, but not too fanciful and creative, like Vidocq.
- Le Bon once did Dupin a favor, so Dupin feels obliged to help get him off the hook for these murders.
- Dupin knows the Prefect of Police (i.e., chief of police), so he gets them permission to visit the house on the Rue Morgue.
- The house looks ordinary from the outside. Dupin and the narrator walk around the premises, and Dupin examines the neighborhood closely.
- They then visit the room itself, which is just as it was when they discovered the bodies. In fact, the corpses are still there, and Dupin looks at both them and the room with great attention.
- The narrator sees nothing not already reported in the paper.
- After brooding for a bit, at noon the next day, Dupin suddenly asks the narrator if he observed anything weird at the scene of the crime.
- The narrator says he didn't see anything that wasn't already reported in the paper.
- Dupin says that the murders seem beyond solving because: (a) they're so gross (or outré, as Poe puts it); (b) there seems to be no motive; (c) nobody can figure out who the arguing voices could've been when no one was found upstairs and there's no other exit but down the front stairs; (d) the room seems to have been pointlessly thrown around – and why was Mademoiselle L'Esplanaye stuffed in the chimney?
- However, it's these points that Dupin says are most subject to human reason, because they're so extraordinary.
- The narrator is confused. (Don't worry if you are also confused – Dupin is truly a logical genius and has to carefully explain his reasoning in order for others to follow.)
- Dupin says he's waiting for someone now who, while not the killer, is still semi-responsible for what happened.
- Dupin hands the narrator a pistol and keeps one for himself so they can keep this mysterious fellow from leaving.
- The narrator is so shocked that Dupin has apparently solved the case that he feels in a daze. Meanwhile, Dupin keeps talking as though he's addressing the narrator, but seems to be talking to himself.
- Here's Dupin's logic:
- He reasons that it couldn't have been murder-suicide. All the witnesses agreed that the arguing voices were not those of the L'Esplanaye women. Anyway, it's physically impossible. Madame L'Esplanaye could never have been strong enough to stuff her daughter's body up the chimney or to mutilate herself.
- What were those two "voices in contention" – i.e., the arguing voices? Everyone agrees that the gruff voice is a Frenchman. The important point is that the witnesses, who are of various nationalities, all heard the shrill voice as a foreigner, and specifically, as speaking a language with which they are not familiar. And none of the witnesses could hear words in this second voice's speech.
- Next up, "the possible means of egress" – in other words, how did the murderer get out of a locked room?
Doors: The killer(s) must have been still in the apartment where they found the daughter's body when the rescue party broke into the house (because of the sounds of scuffle/argument/etc.). But the doors were locked.
Chimneys: Of "ordinary width" for the first eight to ten feet, they then narrow to the point that nothing bigger than a cat could get through.
Windows: There are two, one visible, the other one partially hidden by a bedstead. The visible one is locked from the inside and blocked from opening by a nail. The second also has a similar nail. But Dupin feels that the murderer(s) must have escaped by the window, no matter how improbable it seems. So the windows must have had some kind of auto-locking system. When Dupin investigates the room in question, he finds that there is a concealed spring that allowed the windows to spring shut and lock when they are closed. That takes care of the locked window problem.
Still, what about the nails? The first, visible window Dupin rules out because the nail is intact and could not have been replaced in the window sash from the outside. Dupin is sure that the second window's nail must have something wrong with it; it's the only possibility that his reasoning allows. So he goes to check, and sure enough – the nail has been broken off inside the window frame. The head of the nail appears to be attached, but the locking mechanism is wrecked by rust and old age.
- How did the murderer(s) get down? The shutters on the fourth floor windows are of an unusually broad kind, with a lattice pattern that would give good handholds for climbing. If opened, they would be wide enough that anyone escaping through the window could just shinny down a handy nearby lightning rod. The reverse is also true: a robber (or murderer) could climb up the rod, swing over to the lattice-patterned shutters, and in through the window, if it were open.
- So, two things stand out in Dupin's story so far. The first is that the shrill voice is unusual, and the second is that the physical agility needed to get into or out of the fourth floor apartment is also amazing. (Pay attention to these two points.)
- The narrator feels like he has an inkling of what Dupin's getting at, but then it passes.
- And now back to Dupin's thought processes:
- Having figured out how the murderer(s) got in and out (the window) – what about the inside of the room?
- The bureau has been all tossed around; the police have decided this is a sign that some valuable clothes were taken. Why should this be so, asks Dupin? These two ladies hardly ever go out – why would they need expensive clothes?
- There's the four thousand francs in cash. But if money were the motive, why would the thief bother to murder these two women so brutally and then leave behind the money?
- Dupin dismisses the cash as coincidence, saying that no one would have blinked an eye at Madame L'Esplanaye's withdrawal if it hadn't happened to come so close to her hideous murder.
- There is, in fact, no motive: only police, accustomed to looking for a motive, would imagine that there could be one in this brutal, senseless act.