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The Purloined Letter

The Purloined Letter

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Purloined Letter "The Purloined Letter" Summary

  • Our story begins in Paris, in the fall, in an unspecified year of the 1800s.
  • Paris in the fall. This is off to a good start.
  • It's just after dusk. We're in the library of C. Auguste Dupin's fourth-story apartment.
  • We'd like to know how much you have to pay to get an apartment in Paris that has room for a library.
  • The narrator and his friend Dupin are smoking pipes and thinking. You know they're good friends because they've been sitting together in silence for an hour.
  • Their frenemy Monsieur G—, the prefect (chief) of the Paris police, stops by.
  • G— wants Dupin's help solving a little mystery that's got him and his men stumped.
  • Before he even hears the puzzle, Dupin suggests that maybe they are missing the solution because it's too obvious.
  • That's funny, G— says. Actually, he says, "Ha! ha! ha!—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho! […] Oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!" (15).
  • Since this is a Poe short story, we're kind of wondering if we should take this seriously.
  • The narrator asks him to explain the situation.
  • G— sits back with his pipe to explain, but not before really piquing their interest by announcing that he could lose his job just for talking about the situation.
  • Shmoopers awake: this next bit (paragraphs 3-30) is kind of a brain-melt, because the players use a lot of double-speak and innuendo. Once you get through the vagueness, the situation is actually pretty straightforward: D— stole a letter and is blackmailing the royal lady.
  • So, here's the case:
  • An important "document […] has been purloined [stolen] from the royal apartments " (20).
  • G— knows who took the document, because the royal lady actually saw the theft take place.
  • G— also knows that the thief still has it, because if he'd sold it or given it away, there would have been obvious consequences. And, so far, there haven't been.
  • Translation: the letter contains some kind of scandalous gossip that would have caused a sensation if D— had let it out of his hands.
  • Dupin asks G— to give further details.
  • G— says that whoever has the letter has lots of power.
  • Apparently, the document has information that would make its owner look bad in front of a certain other person whom Dupin doesn't want to name.
  • So, the person who has the document has power over the person he stole it from.
  • (This is all a really roundabout way of saying that the royal lady is being blackmailed.)
  • The narrator says that the thief's power over the person who got robbed depends on that person knowing the identity of the thief, and he can't imagine that anyone would dare.
  • G— says that the thief is none other than the Minister D—, a man "who dares all things" (28).
  • Now he fills in the details:
  • The female royal person (let's just cut to the chase and call her the queen) got a letter when she was alone in her private rooms.
  • So, she was reading it, when in walked "the other exalted person from whom it was her especial wish to conceal it" (28).
  • In other words, in walks the king. Oops.
  • She can't shove it in the drawer without drawing attention to herself, so she ended up leaving the letter on the table in plain view. (Keep this in mind for later.)
  • The king didn't notice it.
  • Don't relax yet. In walked Minister D—, a man known for being sharp-eyed.
  • When he saw the address on the letter, and saw that the queen was a little flustered, he guessed what was going on.
  • (We aren't told what that is—ever—but most people assume that the queen is cheating on the king and the letter is from her lover. Still, it could be something else.)
  • (Also, notice that letters during the 1840s, when Poe was writing, didn't have separate envelopes, but were folded so the contents were on the inside and the address was on the outside.)
  • D— just happened to have a similar looking letter in his pocket.
  • He whipped it out and read it over. When he was done, he oh-so-casually put it on the table next to the queen's.
  • Right before he left, he picked up the queen's letter and left his behind. You know, accidentally-on-purpose, except really just on purpose.
  • The queen couldn't do a thing about it, because the king was right next to her. If she'd stopped D—, he would have shown the letter to the king.
  • For months now, D— has been using the letter "for political purposes, to a dangerous extent" (30). Unclear, but basically he's making the queen grant him political favors.
  • Obviously, the queen wants to put a stop to this. So, she called on G—.
  • But, so far, G— is stumped.
  • Dupin takes over. Yep, he says, it's clear D— still has the letter, because having the letter gives D— power. If D— showed it to the king, he wouldn't be able to control the queen anymore. (That's the thing about blackmail.)
  • G— agrees and says that his first step was to search D—'s apartment.
  • Apparently, D— hardly ever sleeps at home. The few servants he has live far from his apartment and are always drunk, due to the fact (obviously) that they're from Naples, Italy.
  • Yes, this is an ugly stereotype. Welcome to the nineteenth century.
  • G— has keys that, creepily and somewhat unbelievably, open any lock on any door in Paris, so getting in was no problem.
  • Every night for the past three months, G— and his men have searched D—'s apartment, thoroughly.
  • He's really got his reputation staked on finding the letter.
  • Oh yeah, and there's an "enormous" reward (36).
  • At this point, we have to ask: if the queen is so bent on keeping the letter a secret, why is she calling in the entire Paris police force?
  • Anyway, Dupin asks if D— could have hidden the letter somewhere else.
  • G— says that, considering the way things are going "at court" right now, including some "intrigues" that D— is involved in, he'd need to be able to access the letter "at a moment's notice" so he could destroy it if necessary (38).
  • This is confusing and more than a little implausible, but we'll let it slide for narrative effect.
  • Dupin asks if they've made sure that D— isn't carrying the letter around with him.
  • G— replies that the police, with G— watching, have posed as muggers to rough D— up and search him. No letter.
  • That was a silly search, Dupin says. D— is no "fool" and would have anticipated being searched.
  • Not a fool? G— scoffs. D— is a known poet, which is basically the same thing as being a fool.
  • Dupin says he's "guilty of certain doggerel" (44) as well.
  • (Doggerel is bad poetry.)
  • Now Dupin asks G— to describe the search of the apartments.
  • Apparently, he and his men searched every single place a letter could possibly be hidden. They investigated the legs of tables and chairs in the hotel. They looked through all the books in the apartment, scoured every cabinet, and peaked behind every mirror.
  • D— and his men even divided the place up, and literally searched "each individual square inch" (and the square inches of the two neighboring houses).
  • Dupin asks if they looked outside, in the basement, under the carpet, and behind the wallpaper.
  • Yep.
  • Ergo, the letter must be somewhere else.
  • G— agrees.
  • Dupin suggests he search again, but G— says he's convinced the letter isn't there.
  • Dupin says he's stumped. He asks if they "have […] an accurate description of the letter" (72).
  • G— sure does. He gets out his notebook and reads a description of the inside and outside of the letter.
  • Not that we get to hear it, of course.
  • G— finally leaves, looking really bummed out.
  • A month passes.
  • One evening, the narrator and Dupin are doing pretty much the same thing they were last time (smoking silently in a dark room, presumably), when G— shows up again.
  • The narrator asks G— about the letter.
  • Still no luck.
  • Dupin asks him the amount of the reward.
  • G— beats around the bush, but doesn't come out with the amount, other than to say it's BIG. He declares that he would give "fifty thousand francs" (78) of his own money literally right now to whoever could give him the letter.
  • Dupin suggests that G— asks someone else's "advice" (86).
  • G— says he'd be happy to take advice, but did he mention that he'd give fifty thousand to anybody who could help him?
  • Dupin whips out his checkbook and writes a check for the amount. He tells G— to sign the check and prepare to be amazed.
  • (In those days, checks weren't personalized. G—'s signature makes the check personal to him.)
  • Shock! Surprise! Confusion!
  • G— is willing to try anything at this point, so he signs the check and gives it to Dupin.
  • Dupin stashes the check and oh-so-casually produces the letter.
  • G— examines it, looks extremely happy, and then takes off without even waiting to hear how Dupin found it.
  • Wait, but we want to know!
  • And Dupin is going to tell us via the narrator.
  • He says that if the letter had been in any of the places G— had looked, he would have found it.
  • G—'s problem is that he tries to make the same technique—exhaustive but not very inventive searching—fit every situation. It's the old "Procrustean bed" trick (94).
  • He says that "a schoolboy is a better reasoner" (94) than G—.
  • Now we get a little anecdote:
  • Dupin used to know an eight-year-old schoolboy who beat everyone at "even and odd" (94), a game of marbles where one player holds a number of marbles in hand, and another player guesses whether the amount of marbles is odd or even. If you're right, you get to keep the marbles.
  • This is what passed for a "game" in the early nineteenth century.
  • Dupin asked the boy the secret of his success.
  • We have a sneaking suspicion that maybe Dupin was the eight-year-old boy.
  • Simple, the boy said. All you had to do is make yourself think like the guy you were up against. Is he the type to switch it up on you, or to try to outsmart you by not switching it up?
  • In other words: say he went with "even" the first time. Is going to do "odd" the next time, or is he going to try to outsmart you by sticking with "even"? Or is he going to be really tricky and figure that you're going to expect him to do that, and so go to the obvious "odd"?
  • What the boy does is mirror the other person's facial expression and see what thoughts and feelings pop up when he does.
  • Apparently this technique worked, and he ended up owning the marbles of basically the entire school.
  • (In other words, you can guess how someone thinks just by performing the actions that he does.)
  • G— couldn't find the letter, because he couldn't get into D—'s head. Instead, he looked where he would have hidden it.
  • But D— is smarter than G— and therefore didn't hide the letter in the same way that G— would have.
  • G— looked where most people would have hidden the letter, but failed to look where an unusually smart person would hide it.
  • Most people would try to hide something in some hidden place. So, by that line of reasoning, G— wouldn't have to be smart to find the letter, only very thorough. If he were to look in all the places the letter could be hidden, he would surely find it eventually
  • Criminals get away with things when the police underestimate their intelligence, and fail to vary their techniques for individual criminals.
  • The root of G—'s miscalculation is his belief "that the Minister is a fool because he has acquired renown as a poet" (98).
  • He continues, "All fools are poets, this the Prefect feels, and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools."
  • ("Non distributio medii" is a logical fallacy. It means "the undistributed middle." Go here for some examples and discussion. Dupin is saying that even if all fools are poets, it doesn't follow that all poets are fools. Get it? It's like the square/rectangle thing: all squares are rectangles, but that doesn't mean that all rectangles are squares. Because, you know, they aren't.)
  • The narrator asks if D— is, in fact, a poet, because he's pretty sure that D— is a mathematician, not a poet.
  • Dupin says that he knows D—, and D—is a "poet and a mathematician."
  • According to Dupin, "as mere mathematician he could not have reasoned at all," but because he is both, he reasons "well" (100).
  • The narrator can't believe that Dupin is contradicting "the voice of the world" (101) by talking trash about mathematicians. He says mathematical reasoning is considered the best reasoning of all.
  • Dupin says something in French that basically means "Popular ideas are usually stupid" (377).
  • That may be true, but Hollywood would like to point out that they're also extremely lucrative.
  • The problem is that math looks at "form and quantity" (shapes and amounts), but that's not really applicable when it comes to people.
  • Like, in math, the total of all the parts of something is equal to the whole.
  • Not so much when it comes to motive.
  • See, mathematicians actually operate from faith, not reason. If a person doubts that a particular mathematic formula is true in every case, the mathematician gets angry instead of proving it.
  • (Translation: If D— had just used math to figure out the best place to hide the letter, G— would have found it, no problem. But D— is a poet, so he understands people.)
  • Since D— is a high-ranking politician, he'd definitely know all about G—'s usual methods of investigation.
  • Actually, he probably stayed away from home at night just to bait G— and convince him that the letter wasn't in the apartment.
  • Knowing where most people hide things, and therefore where G— would be looking, D— would have to hide the letter somewhere that most people wouldn't.
  • Hey, remember how G— laughed when Dupin suggested that he might be overlooking the obvious in his investigation?
  • That's because he couldn't imagine that D— had hidden the letter in plain sight of "the whole word" (110).
  • Dupin says he thought a lot about how smart D— is, and the fact that he needed to have the letter in an easily accessible place, and the fact that G— had searched all the hidden places.
  • The only logical conclusion is that D— had decided not to hide the letter at all.
  • So, "one fine morning," (111) Dupin put on a pair of "green spectacles" and went to visit D— at his hotel. (His cover story for the weird glasses is that his eyes are injured.)
  • Here's what happens:
  • D— and Dupin are hanging out and having a little chat, but Dupin is simultaneously checking the whole place out.
  • Suddenly, he notices a little rack hanging from the mantle of the fireplace.
  • In it, Dupin sees a few business cards and……
  • (Insert suspense)
  • …a letter!
  • Oh, but it's crumbled, ripped, and addressed to D—, totally unlike the one that G— described.
  • Wait a minute. Wouldn't that be the perfect disguise for a super important blackmail letter?
  • Why, yes it would.
  • Dupin memorizes the appearance of the letter. He figures out that it's been turned inside out, and then resealed and readdressed.
  • Soon, Dupin says goodbye, and accidentally-on-purpose leaves his "gold snuff-box" behind (116). But really just on purpose.
  • Hm, are you seeing any parallels between Dupin and D— here?
  • Anyway, the next morning Dupin uses the box as his excuse to return. (Oldest trick in the book.)
  • While D— and Dupin are chatting, a man in the street shoots off a gun and causes a ruckus.
  • D— rushes to the window to check out the scene, allowing Dupin to snag the letter.
  • When D— comes back from the window, Dupin splits with the letter.
  • He tells the narrator that he paid the guy to make the ruckus.
  • The narrator asks why Dupin didn't just take the letter when he first saw it.
  • Well, for one thing, D— might have murdered him if he'd done that.
  • For another thing, Dupin likes the queen, whom D— "had in his power" for the past year and a half.
  • Now, tables are turned. If he doesn't know the letter is missing, he'll continue to act as if he still has it, destroying himself politically in the process.
  • When he figures out that his blackmail isn't working, D— will inevitably go for the letter.
  • Instead of the letter, he'll find a fake, left for him by Dupin.
  • The narrator asks if Dupin wrote anything in the letter.
  • Why yes, yes he did.
  • Apparently, Dupin owes D— from some long-ago unspecific offense, so he wanted to leave D— a clue to let him know that Dupin is totally onto him.
  • And the clue is a quotation: "Un dessein si funeste/ S'il n'est digne d'Atrée, est digne de Thyeste." They are to be found in Crébillon's 'Atrée' (123).
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