Study Guide

The Purloined Letter

By Edgar Allan Poe

The Purloined Letter Introduction

Move over, Sherlock, because there's a new detective in town: Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, the coldly logical star of three short stories written between 1841 and 1844.

Okay, well, actually Sherlock can probably stay where he is, because (1) the detective, C. Auguste Dupin, lives in Paris, (2) there are only three stories about him, (3) Poe actually influenced Arthur Conan Doyle, and (4) Robert Downey, Jr. is already booked.

Poe may not have outright invented detective fiction, but he certainly left his mark. In "The Purloined Letter" and the two earlier stories, he created a character whose evidence-based detection set the standard for later Sherlockian-style deduction. Poe called it "ratiocination," but we can just call it "thinking like a smart person."

"The Purloined Letter" is the last of the three Dupin stories. It was first published in 1844 in a multi-author collection of stories, poems, and illustrations called The Gift: A Christmas, New Year, and Birthday Present. These kinds of literary annuals topped every gift-giving guide in the nineteenth century, since they were expensive and tasteful—perfect for giving to your girlfriend or putting out to display what great taste you had.

So it makes sense that, while "The Purloined Letter" definitely looks, sounds, and feels like Poe, it's different than his Gothic and Horror stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." Nobody dies, gets buried alive, or tortured. Nobody even goes mad. Instead, we've got a game of wits: no scaredy cats, just smarty-pants.

Speaking of smarty pants, "The Purloined Letter" sparked a famous literary feud between two major players in the literary world: Jacques "Have You Seen My Phallus" Lacan and Jacques "Question Everything" Derrida. (Note that they're both French: While Poe wasn't very popular in America when he was alive, and still has the rep of a third-rate hack, the French were nuts for him.)

In 1957, the psychoanalyst, linguist, literary critic, and very brainy dude Lacan gave a talk on "The Purloined Letter." Almost twenty years later, hugely important literary critic Jacques Derrida fired back an eighty-some-odd-page takedown. The two writers both see the letter as a symbol of different processes of vision, knowing, and desire, so check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more about that.

The point of bringing up these guys is to say that this little story, published in a totally pop-culture format, might have a lot more going on than is immediately apparent. If you get to the end and find yourself wondering what the point of that whole thing was—awesome. You're asking exactly the right question.

What is The Purloined Letter About and Why Should I Care?

A little piece of "The Purloined Letter" is in every detective story you've ever seen, big-screen or small: House, Monk, Psych, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and, oh yeah, Sherlock … well, we could go on, but we suspect you've heard this story. Brainy, depressed detective uses the sheer force of his intellect to put together clues that everyone else overlooks and solve the mystery.

A combination of the stunningly obvious and the mind-blowingly subtle, the facts of the mystery—what disease the patient is dying of; who killed the vic; what's going on with the royal lady—are always less important than the investigation. After all, no one watches House reruns for medical advice. (That's what the Internet is for.) You watch because everyone loves the thrill of discovery, especially when we don't have to do all the hard thinking for ourselves. It's a little about the madness, but a lot more about the method.

That's why what seems like it's going to be a fun romp through the scandalous halls of the French court turns out to be a much headier exploration of power, corruption, logic, reason, math, poetry, reality, and, you know, nothing at all.

Because "The Purloined Letter" of the title? It might as well be blank. Edgar Allan Poe is so uninterested in the letter that we don't even get a hint at the content. Instead, we have to ask ourselves: if the letter (or disease/mystery/national crisis) doesn't matter, then what does?

The Purloined Letter Resources

Websites

Quoth the Raven, "Baltimore"
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore is a spectacular collection of Poe's writings, including lots of tasty biographical nuggets.

Know Your Poe
You can't go wrong with the fabulous Webby Award-winning site Knowing Poe.

Nevermore…Except Right Now.
The Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane, hosted by Cornell University, includes lots of awesome images—including the cover page of a guide to shells that Poe wrote for $50. Oh, the things we do for money.

"Dark Genius"
This museum looks awesome. Seriously, if you're reading this from Richmond, Virginia, you should go check it out right now.

Enkindle Your Mind
Poe probably crammed every word of the English language, plus quite a few from other languages, into his body of work. If you get stumped on a word or phrase, this is a good place to go for help. (Plus, it might kick your SAT score up a notch.)

Haunted Lake Not Included
Okay, so Poe National Park isn't a park so much as a city square, but it's still pretty cool. And possibly haunted.

Movie or TV Productions

Featuring a Bunch of People You've Never Heard of
There aren't too many adaptations of "The Purloined Letter," but they tried in 1952.

We Didn't Know There Were Dogs
Nickelodeon's Wishbone: Bringing you classic literature from 1995 to 1998.

Documents

"The Purloined Letter: Reading Signs and Ciphers"
Check out this nifty hand-out one that smart professor offers students of "The Purloined Letter."

A Poe-bituary!
Don't be sad. It's been about a hundred and fifty years.

Videos

Sherlock Holmes does C. Auguste Dupin
…and worlds collide awesomely. From 1979-80.

The Ghost of Poe
Where the magic happened: a cool glimpse inside of Poe's house.

Audios

He's Lost His Marbles
Silly, but cute dramatization of Dupin's story about the champion eight-year-old.

Reading is Hard
But downloading and listening to the free recording of "The Purloined Letter" is easy. (Just kidding, folks! We love reading!)

Images

Use At Your Own Risk
If you use these stamps, your letters will definitely get purloined.

Purloining!
An image of Dupin purloining the letter from D—.

Poe in Action
You know you want one.