Study Guide

The Murders in the Rue Morgue Cunning and Cleverness

By Edgar Allan Poe

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Cunning and Cleverness

The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic. (3)

The narrator often expresses an interest in overcoming the apparent divide between reason and creativity. But one thing missing from this combination is emotion and empathy. What value, if any, do feelings have in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"?

"We must not judge of the means," said Dupin, "by this shell of an examination. The Parisian police, so much extolled for acumen, are cunning, but no more. There is no method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment. They make a vast parade of measures; but, not infrequently, these are so ill-adapted to the objects proposed, as to put us in mind of Monsieur Jourdain's calling for his robe-de-chambre — pour mieux entendre la musique. The results attained by them are not infrequently surprising, but for the most part, are brought about by simple diligence and activity. When these qualities are unavailing, their schemes fail. Vidocq, for example, was a good guesser, and the persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations. He impaired his vision by holding the object too close. He might see, perhaps, one or two points with unusual clearness, but in so doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole. Thus there is such a thing as being too profound." (52)

(The reference to Monsieur Jourdain in the above passage is to a character in the satirist Molière's play The Bourgeois Gentleman. The line is: "Monsieur Jourdain's calling for his dressing gown — in order to better listen to the music.") Dupin gives the police credit for being hard-working and rational, and Vidocq (see "In a Nutshell") credit for being "a good guesser." But it's like Goldilocks and the Three Bears up in here: the police are too rational, Vidocq, too imaginative – and Dupin is just right (if he does say so himself). How are we supposed to take Dupin's arrogance and smugness? Does this influence how you feel about his character?

"You will say that I was puzzled; but, if you think so, you must have misunderstood the nature of the inductions. To use a sporting phrase, I had not been once `at fault.' The scent had never for an instant been lost. There was no flaw in any link in the chain. I had traced the secret to its ultimate result, -- and that result was the nail. […] `There must be something wrong,' I said, `about the nail.' I touched it; and the head, with about a quarter of an inch of the shank, came off in my fingers. The rest of the shank was in the gimlet-hole, where it had been broken off. (72)

We have here a small-scale example of the logic Dupin uses when he thinks "Ourang-Outang" and then interviews the sailor for evidence. Dupin has examined all of the other possible ways of entering and exiting the death room and found them to be impossible. Thus, he is certain that the killer(s) came in via the window. So he looks carefully at the nail to find that there is a broken nail. There's scientific method in this: Dupin presents a hypothesis and then goes out and gets proof.

Coincidences ten times as remarkable as this (the delivery of the money, and murder committed within these days upon the party receiving it), happen to all of us every hour of our lives, without attracting even momentary notice. Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of probabilities -- that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration. In the present instance, had the gold been gone, the fact of its delivery three days before would have formed something more than a coincidence. It would have been corroborative of this idea of motive. But, under the real circumstances of the case, if we are to suppose gold the motive of this outrage, we must also imagine the perpetrator so vacillating an idiot as to have abandoned his gold and his motive altogether. (79)

The gold coins are the great red herrings of this story: they seem like the most obvious clue, they're distracting, and then they go nowhere. The inclusion of this detail signals how different objects are in a detective story than they are in other kinds of narratives. After all, in the classic plot it's supposed to be that a gun in the first act of a play has to be fired in the fifth. But in the detective narrative, it is the nature of the story that some details will wind up mattering and some won't; we won't know which is which until we've solved the case. So in a detective story, a gun in the first act or a bunch of francs on the floor might be key to solving the case, but they might mean nothing at all. This presents a different kind of intellectual challenge to the reader.

"Let him talk," said Dupin, who had not thought it necessary to reply. "Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience. I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it; for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound. In his wisdom is no stamen. It is all head and no body, like the pictures of the Goddess Laverna -- or, at best, all head and shoulders, like a codfish. But he is a good creature after all. I like him especially for one master stroke of cant, by which he has attained his reputation for ingenuity. I mean the way he has `de nier ce qui est, et d'expliquer ce qui n'est pas.'" (123)

Why end this whole story with this last jab at the Prefect of Police's mind? Dupin has proved his point, he's found the killer – so why does he need to underline his own victory? Is this just arrogance for the sake of arrogance, or is there a larger purpose?

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