The whole point of a good mystery story is to make you wonder, oh hey, is this detail important? Or is that? That four thousand francs has to be a clue – no? Really? OK. And what better way to encourage that kind of constant curiosity than to model it in the reactions of the narrator? This narrator is constantly saying things like, "Tell me, for Heaven's sake, the method" (16) and "you astonish me" (18) and "How was it possible?" (97). The narrator's constant commentary on Dupin's deductive crazy shenanigans keeps up the reader's interest. After all, since the narrator is so intrigued by the details Dupin lays out, maybe we should be, too. The curious mood of the story maintains the freshness of the central mystery as it continues across numerous pages. After all, there isn't much emotion involved in all of this, so Poe has to find something else to draw in the reader, and that something else is the overall tone of intellectual interest and suspense.
It was tough for us to let go of the genre of "Horror" for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." After all, Poe is the author of " The Cask of Amontillado " (where someone gets buried alive) and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (which features a murder victim under the floorboards), and happens to be the master at writing stories to freeze the blood. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a good candidate for horror because of the real disgustingness of the murders – a lady's head does falls off. Pretty horrifying. But while all of these details make the murders terrifying to the neighborhood, what puts this story in the genre of mystery is the matter-of-fact way that the story lays out its grossest elements like a checklist. The reader doesn't have a lot of emotional investment in what's going on. In fact, the only thing that's important is surveying all the clues the story gives us and trying to solve the matter along with genius detective, Dupin. This story is effectively a puzzle, both for its protagonist and its reader, putting it squarely in the genre of "Mystery."
Well, you're probably not going to be shocked to discover that this story is about a group of horrific murders committed in a house located on the Rue Morgue. Rue means "road" in French, and morgue means, well, morgue (i.e., a place where corpses are stored). So, we get the sense right away that "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" will be pretty ominous.
Actually, here's a cool tidbit: the original meaning of the word "morgue" was a little more particular than what we get now on CSI or Bones. In the early nineteenth century, it was specifically a room for holding bodies awaiting identification. And interestingly enough, it was in Paris (source: The Oxford English Dictionary). So when "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was first published, readers would've known immediately where the story was going to be set. For more on the importance of Paris as a setting, check out our "Setting" section.
Incidentally, there's never been a Rue Morgue in Paris. This makes sense, because we think it'd be bad luck to live on a street named for a room holding unidentified bodies. It'd be kind of like inviting zombies to dinner or something: asking for trouble.
The classical detective story always ends with the dénouement, the moment when the central mystery is finally unraveled – and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is no exception. The last eight paragraphs of the story give themselves over to a nameless sailor, lured to Dupin's home by an advertisement in a local newspaper for a found orangutan (yes, the ape). By the way, the story uses an old-fashioned spelling for our woodland friend that we will try to preserve: "Ourang-Outang."
(Spoiler alert!) It's at this point that we discover that the hideous strength required to kill the victims (Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter) seems inhuman because the culprit isn't human. Here's the story: an escaped ape stumbles into the apartment of the two victims through an open window, tries to play with them, and then gets angry when the scared women struggle to get away. The sailor chasing his ape comes upon this gristly scene, is unable to do anything to save the ladies, and doesn't want to come forward to tell his story for fear of prosecution for murders he didn't commit.
Having told Dupin and the narrator this story, the sailor goes on to catch his lost ape and sell it to the local zoo for lots of money. Dupin and his buddies go to the police and, based on this evidence, get Le Bon, the original suspect, released.
What's key about this ending isn't just whodunit but who solved it: detective work is still new in the world and entirely new in literature (see our "In a Nutshell" for more on this), so Dupin's easy superiority has to be established. We have to know that his way of looking at the world – and that this piece of fiction – is unique.
So we get the last two paragraphs of the story, in which Dupin laughs at the conventional Prefect of Police (i.e., the chief of police). This guy is a "functionary," – a desk-jockey, a pencil-pusher – he doesn't know what it's like outside of the office. And the Prefect doesn't approve of Dupin butting in where he doesn't belong.
But Dupin's all genius-y and superior, and just says, "Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience" (123). In other words, let the Prefect talk, he made a mistake, and feels bad about imprisoning an innocent man. The Prefect has "cunning" and "ingenuity," but what Dupin has is the ability to think outside the box. He knows, as both Star Trek's Spock and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes say so much later, that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. In other words, Dupin has the imagination to speculate, while the Prefect (along with all ordinary policeman and bureaucrats) remains stuck in his own conventional ways of thinking.
The final line of the story is a quote from 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau's novel La Nouvelle Heloise (a.k.a. The New Eloise). Dupin claims that he admires the Prefect for his ability "de nier ce qui est, et d'expliquer ce qui n'est pas." If you get past the French, this is cold. Dupin likes the way that the Prefect can "deny that which is, and explain that which is not."
As we talk about in "What's Up with the Title?," the first detective agency in the world was founded in Paris by a man Poe admires enough to the guy a shout-out in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue": François Vidocq. So setting this story in Paris gives a clear lineage from Vidocq, first real detective, to Dupin, first fake detective.
But here's something that grabbed our attention. Poe probably never actually visited Paris. Nevertheless, in a short story where the narrator won't even tell us when the tale's taking place (18–? What?), it's striking that it's really specific about where everything's happening. Think about it: Dupin and the narrator meet at a library on the Rue Montmartre (remember, "rue" = "street" in French). (See here for more information on this section of Paris, famous for its artist communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.) The place Dupin and the narrator share is a "time-eaten and grotesque mansion" in an unfashionable and out-of-the-way part of the Faubourg St. Germain (an old-fashioned but still relatively aristocratic part of the Left Bank in Paris). And the fictional Rue Morgue is placed in a real section of Paris, the Quartier St. Roch (source). So, what's going on? How come Poe is being so precise about the setting of this otherwise pretty hard to place story?
Well, we can't say for sure, but we have some guesses. First of all, Paris is pretty sexy. No, seriously, we think this is probably a factor. After all, all of the sections of Paris mentioned in the story have old aristocratic connections that make the Paris Poe describes seem exciting to us. There's Montmartre – the fact that the narrator and Dupin meet in this neighborhood would've signaled to anyone who knows Paris that they're both probably sensitive, Bohemian artist types. (Even Dupin's "grotesque mansion" suggests a great past gone to ruin, which is in line with Poe's Goth thing.) And the revolutionary artistic and intellectual activity of Paris probably seemed pretty awesome to someone trying to break into resistant literary circles in Baltimore, New York, and Boston.
But even beyond the fact that Paris probably seemed exotic to our friend Poe, there's also the fact that it was one of the great 19th century cosmopolitan centers, a place where many people of different ethnicities and nationalities lived side by side. This point is surprisingly important to the plot of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue": after all, there wouldn't have been that many European cities in 1841 that could believably have hosted an Ourang-Outang. And think of the testimony we receive – not just from French men and women, but from an Italian, an Englishman, a Dutch man, and a Spaniard. Add to this motley assortment of nationalities, the fact that Madame L'Espanaye's apartment has spoons made of Algiers metal (Algiers being the capital of Algeria, in northern Africa), and our French sailor has just managed to come back from Borneo as a member of a Maltese ship crew.
Part of the appeal of this setting is that Poe can believably squeeze in numerous unfamiliar people into one neighborhood. Since one of Dupin's great gifts is the observation of human faces and behaviors, he needs a city that can give him lots of opportunity for practice. With new populations traveling to the city everyday on its brand new railway lines, Paris in the 1840s (and, actually, still today) would've been one of the best places in the world for people watching – and for playing Dupin's games of creative deduction.
"What songs the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture."
– Sir Thomas Browne, "Urn-Burial"
There are two separate things going on with this epigraph: the first is what it says and the second is what it is. So let's start with what's going on in the passage before we start getting fancy with the larger context.
First off, let's talk about the Sirens (Syrens is an old-fashioned spelling). These creatures make up a threesome of fine mythological ladies (half-bird, half woman) that appears in Book 6 of Homer's Odyssey. The Sirens sing so beautifully that every guy who sails by them gets seduced into following their song. Still, as soon as these guys attempt to navigate their ships over to these fine females, they run aground and die on the rocky coastline of the Sirens' home. Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses), the hero of the Odyssey, manages to sail past this deadly island by stuffing his crew's ears with cotton so they can't hear the Sirens' fatal songs. He then ties himself to the main mast so he can hear (because he wants to know what it's like) but has no power to steer the ship astray.
Next up is Achilles – perhaps best known for being played by Brad Pitt in Troy. He's one of the main Greeks who fought in the Trojan War. The story goes that Achilles's mom, Thetis, heard a prophecy that her son was going to be killed at Troy, so to protect him, she dressed him up as a girl and hid him among the daughters of King Lycomedes (source). The plan didn't work because Achilles reveals his identity by picking up a sword out of a stack of objects meant to tempt him. But props to Thetis for giving it a shot.
So, back to the epigraph. This quote poses two questions that are impossible to answer. Who knows what songs the Sirens sang? After all, none of the men who heard the Sirens sing (aside from Odysseus, who isn't telling) survived to describe it. And as for Achilles's name, we don't even know if there was an Achilles, let alone what he might have been called while he was hiding from his fate. But, the passage is saying, even if we can't know we can still have fun guessing (i.e., conjecturing).
And isn't that kind of what the main character, Dupin, is doing in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"? He's looking at an impossible set of clues and then coming, improbably, to the right answer. This epigraph is telling us that even the most obscure, ridiculous stuff isn't necessarily immune to human logic.
Now, as to that context we were talking about earlier – this is a passage from the fifth chapter of Sir Thomas Browne's 1658 extended essay "Hydriotaphia. Urn-Burial; or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk." We don't want to make this into a bigger thing than it really is, because we think the epigraph was probably mostly chosen for its mention of "conjecture," rather than a comparison with Browne's strange "Urn-Burial."
Still, broadly, Browne's work is about antiquarianism (a.k.a. archaeology or the study of old stuff). He's interested in why we keep trying to preserve human remains in urns and graves when what really matters is what we do, not what our bodies are. Aside from the philosophical points Browne's making, it's interesting to note that this epigraph is taken from a long essay about dead bodies. What with the whole "Rue Morgue" theme, we think that it would be fair to say that Poe's got corpses on the brain. This particular reference fits in to Poe's whole Goth-horror thing he's got going on.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is only thirty-odd pages long, but it packs in a lot of detail. As we get to in our "In a Nutshell" section, the point of this story is to give the reader a laundry list of clues so that we can follow along with our detective's thought processes. It's like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in which we have to assume that only half the pieces fit together and the other half can be thrown away – but which half? And sure, Dupin, the protagonist, comes out at the end to show us how everything works, but we still have to look at each piece individually before we get that far.
So there's a lot to keep track of, and not all of it is in terms that contemporary readers necessarily get – the Goddess Laverna, Stereotomy, even the Ourang-Outang are all kind of tough to figure out. So we find this story pretty challenging, but remember: it's supposed to be. It's not just that Dupin is trying to solve a mystery. It's a game for the reader, too, and Poe is intentionally giving us more information than we need to make it harder and, therefore, more fun.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is an interesting mix of styles. When the narrator's just telling the story or when Dupin's talking, it takes on this really grandiose, florid (read: flowery and ornate) style. Check out this sentence, a chunk pulled from Dupin's explanation of how he figured out the narrator's thoughts on the actor, Chantilly:
I knew that you could not say to yourself `stereotomy' without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not very long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly, yet with how little notice, the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion, and I certainly expected that you would do so. (24)
Notice the sheer number of clauses in this sentence, the extra adjectives – "that noble Greek," "the great nebula in Orion," "nebular cosmogony" – and the use of long, unconventional words ("stereotomy," "atomies," "cosmogony.") All of this goes to revealed how educated Dupin is. But it's also in keeping with the rest of the narration of the story, which is quite elaborate. It's as though, in a story full of complex detail, Poe wanted to use a lot of difficult vocabulary and references to make us slow down and read more carefully, so we won't miss anything important.
Yet, at the same time, there are also points when the writing style is sparse. We're thinking specifically of the reports of testimony in the 32nd through 47th paragraphs of the story. These reports from various witnesses aren't even in complete sentences. The language here resembles mimicking newspaper speak, so it's a little more rat-a-tat-tat than Poe's usual style. But it's also a way of marking that this is evidence, as opposed to a chain of reasoning that we have to follow from beginning to end. These eyewitness reports are pure detail, which means that there are details that we can take and those that we can leave behind. This is quite different from the experience of reading, say, Dupin's dialogue, which is all significant.
This section is tough for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and for an interesting reason. There are a lot of things in this story: gold Napoleons, dresses in a bureau, paving stones, bodiless images of the Goddess Laverna. And so you might think that there would be an equal number of symbols, where a symbol is a physical object or character that represents an abstract idea. With so many objects to choose from, one of them has to say something meaningful.
On the other hand, Poe is tricky. He's writing a new kind of story, a "tale of ratiocination" (check out "In a Nutshell" for more), in which he's making a literary text into a puzzle. And we don't usually look at puzzle pieces for their symbolic value. That's not to say that the objects in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" have no meaning, but that significance is not abstract at all. Objects (and even people; the sailor is just more proof, in a sense) constitute evidence.
We think, when we first read this story, that the four thousand francs might represent something, like the motive of the killer. But we learn that this is a red herring, and that they are coincidental. There is no hidden meaning, and we can discard them. Similarly, we might not initially make anything out of the shrill, unequal voice with no words. However, by the end, we realize that this is one of the best bits of proof Dupin has that the murderer is a giant ape. For all of the detail in the story, none of it is abstract: it all comes under the heading of either "important evidence" or "not important – ignore."
The biggest symbols in the story take the form of people. Dupin stands as a representative of the whist player's imaginative and rational mind, the Prefect of Police is a model of the chess player's analytic mind, and our friend the Ourang-Outang represents irrational emotion. But we've already gone over this: check out our "Character Analyses" for more on what the characters themselves might symbolize.
The narrator of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is clearly first person in the sense that he tells the story using "I" and only describes what he knows directly or hears in conversation. We don't have access to the main character, Dupin, except as the narrator describes him. On the other hand, "I" is dedicated to telling Dupin's story and not his own. This is what we mean by "peripheral." He stands to the side jacking up the suspense and delaying what we get to know when (i.e., Dupin has clearly decided that the guilty party is an Ourang-Outang before he tells the narrator and, therefore, us). There isn't a lot of meat to the character of the narrator –he's seems as though he's meant to collect and transfer information to the reader. We get into this a lot more in his "Character Analysis," so be sure to check out that section to learn more about the narrator.
Christopher Booker has identified seven forms that plots can take, and we've picked "The Quest" for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" – why? Because what is a detective story except a quest for the truth of a mysterious set of circumstances?
First, there's the call to action, in which something has gone wrong in the City (in this case, Paris). It's tough to get much worse than a set of murders that leave one woman's body stuffed up the chimney and the other so mutilated that she doesn't look human. But even the grotesqueness of the case isn't enough – it takes the arrest of an innocent man, Le Bon, to convince our hero, Dupin, to get personally involved. It's at that point that he pulls strings with the Prefect of Police to start his Journey of deduction.
Next up, the hero sets out with his companion – in this case, his faithful sidekick, the narrator. Together, they go to the scene of the crime, where Dupin examines everything. He's then kind enough to tell the narrator (and, by extension, the readers) what he's up against in trying to solve this case (this might refer to those "monsters" that Booker informs us the quest journey includes). First, no witness can agree on the nationality of the "shrill" voice they all hear as they run upstairs towards the room from which terrible screams suddenly issue at 3am one night. Second, the killer(s) must have come in and out through the window by climbing a lightning rod and swinging across on a particularly broad shutter – so the killers have to be agile. Third, why was the crime unusually brutal? Fourth, there appears to be no motive. After all, the killer(s) didn't steal the four thousand francs just sitting on the floor of the apartment. Fifth, the killer(s) have to be superhumanly strong to do the kind of damage to the L'Espanayes that was done. So, Dupin's solution has to account for all five of these factors: the weird voice, the agility, the brutality, the lack of motive, and the strength of the murderer. The narrator is baffled, but Dupin has his own ideas: an Ourang-Outang.
You know that expression, always darkest before the dawn? That's basically what this stage of the quest is: the point when our hero seems to be right there – at the peak of Mount Doom holding the One Ring, whatever And then a challenge suddenly arises.
Nothing dramatic happens in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but there is this period after Dupin has solved the case when we're stuck waiting for the evidence to come, in the form of this sailor. Dupin spends the time telling the narrator about how he's gotten this far: the rusty nail that proves the killer(s) could've gotten in through the window, the clump of animal hair in Madame L'Espanaye's hand, and the giant finger-shaped bruises on Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's throat, etc. But we're still waiting for proof of how an Ourang-Outang could've gotten from Southeast Asia to central Paris.
The hero usually has to undergo a last test to prove his worth before he gets the prize. This last test is pretty literal in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue": Dupin has set established an elaborate chain of reasoning that seems persuasive to the narrator, at least. But it's not going to get Le Bon off the hook if there's no evidence that anything Dupin's saying is true. So Dupin's deductions have to be put to the test. The person to do that is the sailor who actually saw the murders go down. Dupin manages to draw the sailor out and to get his story, which does support Dupin's points. So Dupin passes his final ordeal.
The goal of any mystery is the solution, so once Dupin gets the sailor to prove his deduction that an escaped Ourang-Outang killed these two women, he's home free. All that's left is the mopping up: Le Bon gets released, the sailor catches and then sells his wayward ape, and Dupin gets to mock the chief of police.
Before we launch into our plot analysis, we just want to say that the layout of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is unconventional. It's more like a mathematical proof than anything else. There's an equation to start out with, where analytical + imaginative mind is greater than analytical mind (A + I > A). And then there are two proofs. There is first a minor one, where Dupin guesses what the narrator is thinking after several minutes of silence. But then there is a major proof, where Dupin solves a horrible double murder that has baffled everybody else. Because "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has those killings in the title, we've decided to focus on that plot line, but check out our "In a Nutshell" section and "Character Analysis" of Dupin for more on the story's long introduction.
The initial situation of the plot is the status quo, before we start getting into the mix of things. As the narrator and Dupin read about the deaths of Madame and Mademoiselle L'Espanaye, they collect a bunch of intriguing information (unusually brutal deaths, windows and doors locked from the inside, police baffled), but they don't start trying to put two and two together yet.
The guys were already interested in the Rue Morgue case, but it's not until the Le Bon arrest (based on the fact that he brought four thousand francs from Madame L'Espanaye's bank to her apartment three days before) that Dupin feels personally obliged to help solve it. He owes Le Bon some unspecified favor that tips his interest in the case, and the narrator comes along for the ride. Meanwhile, the narrator is baffled: he has no idea, based on what has been reported so far, how these two women could have been killed.
The complication stage is the part of the story where the conflict gets more intense. If the conflict in this story is that the narrator thinks the case is unsolvable and Dupin is trying anyway to solve it, then the complication must be the point when the narrator is at his most confused, and Dupin seems furthest from solving the case. This moment comes when the narrator and Dupin visit the death rooms, examining the corpses themselves, the rooms, the premises, and the neighborhood. The narrator expresses total confusion: he doesn't see anything that hasn't already been reported to the newspapers and logged by the police. And Dupin isn't talking at all. How is this all going to be resolved?
At noon the next day after visiting the scene of the crime, Dupin tells the narrator that a man is coming to the apartment who, while not actually the killer, has material evidence that will prove who the murderer is. Dupin has solved the case, and we're just waiting for the proof. The man is a French sailor from a Maltese ship, says Dupin. What's more, the murderer is an Ourang-Outang. The narrator is all astonishment.
Now that the climax has come and we know that Dupin has solved the case, we still have to wait on the edges of our seats for proof of how he has come to his conclusions. Dupin tells the story of what he saw at the scene of the crime, which led him to the conclusion that the killer is an Ourang-Outang. He's got proof of that bit through a comparison of the bruising on Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's neck to an account of the finger size of the Southeast Asian ape. What he's guessed about is that the Ourang-Outang's actions were observed by this famous sailor. So we have Dupin's solution (that's the climax) and the suspense is all in waiting for someone to support his claims.
The dénouement is the part of the plot where everything is resolved. It's here that we find out the proof of Dupin's final speculations. Yes, the Ourang-Outang belongs to a French sailor from a Maltese ship. The sailor explains that he brought the ape back to Paris to try to sell it, but that it escaped the night of the killings and, attracted by the light on in the open window of the L'Espanaye apartment, swung inside and killed both women. The sailor saw the murders, but has been reluctant to say anything for fear of getting blamed for them. So here we have outside confirmation of Dupin's deductions.
We've cleared up the mystery. All that's left are the loose ends, which the narrator resolves in a couple of paragraphs right at the end. The chief of police releases Le Bon once Dupin tells him the sailor's story. The sailor manages to find his ape and sell it. Dupin feels self-satisfied about having scored a solution to a case that has had the police at standstill. Everybody wins. (Except maybe the Prefect of Police, and, unfortunately, the two L'Espanaye women.)
Act I is the beginning of the plot proper, when the characters commit to some course of action that's going to make up the story itself. When the narrator and Dupin come across the headline "Extraordinary Murders" in their evening newspaper, we see the first spark of interest that's going to drive Dupin to investigate the murders further. We also see the narrator's complete absence of a clue about who could have killed the L'Espanayes, a further sign that the case is difficult enough to be worth investigating for a marvel like Dupin. This first identification of the title mystery is when "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" really starts to lift off the runway.
The second act is traditionally the point when the plot is furthest from its solution. It comes at the moment when the newspaper reports that Le Bon has been arrested and Dupin decides to visit the crime scene. It's all an abstract intellectual problem until Le Bon, who Dupin apparently owes for some reason or another, gets arrested. Then, the whole murder thing gets personal, and Dupin starts examining the evidence directly. This up-close look at the crime scene leaves the narrator hopelessly lost – he doesn't see anything there that clarifies the problem at all – and Dupin is being unusually silent about the whole thing.
This act is the point where everything gets solved, so it makes sense that the third act begins at noon the day following their visit to the scene of the crime, when Dupin says he's solved the case. Dupin reveals to the Narrator that the killer's an Ourang-Outang (we were pretty surprised at this revelation, too). And it ends with the sailor's testimony, when he explains how the ape gets up to a fourth-floor apartment in the Rue Morgue. Dupin has told us what happened, his deduction has gotten independent proof, and all that's left is to sell the ape and laugh at the police.