The Purloined Letter  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The Purloined Letter" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories. It is the third of the three stories featuring the detective C. Auguste Dupin; these stories are considered to be important early forerunners of the modern detective story. The story was used by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the philosopher Jacques Derrida to present opposing interpretations: Lacan's structuralist, Derrida's mystical, depending on deconstructive chance. The two exchanged a series of letters concerning the nature of desire.


Plot summary

The unnamed narrator is discussing with the famous Parisian amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin some of his most celebrated cases when they are joined by the Prefect of the Police, a man known as G—. The Prefect has a case he would like to discuss with Dupin.

A letter has been stolen from the boudoir of an unnamed female by the unscrupulous Minister D—. It is said to contain compromising information. D— was in the room, saw the letter, and switched it for a letter of no importance. He has been blackmailing his victim.

The Prefect makes two deductions with which Dupin does not disagree:

1.) The contents of the letter have not been revealed, as this would have led to certain circumstances that have not arisen. Therefore Minister D— still has the letter in his possession.
2.) The ability to produce the letter at a moment’s notice is almost as important as possession of the letter itself. Therefore he must have the letter close at hand.

The Prefect says that he and his police detectives have searched the Ministerial hotel where D— stays and have found nothing. They checked behind the wallpaper and under the carpets. His men have examined the tables and chairs with microscopes and then probed the cushions with needles but have found no sign of interference; the letter is not hidden in these places. Dupin asks the Prefect if he knows what he is looking for and the Prefect reads off a minute description of the letter, which Dupin memorizes. The Prefect then bids them good day.

A month later, the Prefect returns, still bewildered in his search for the missing letter. He is motivated to continue his fruitless search by the promise of a large reward, recently doubled, upon the letter's safe return, and he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can help him. Dupin asks him to write that check now and he will give him the letter. The Prefect is astonished but knows that Dupin is not joking. He writes the check and Dupin produces the letter. The Prefect determines that it is genuine and races off to deliver it to the victim.

Alone together, the narrator asks Dupin how he found the letter. Dupin explains the Paris police are competent within their limitations, but have underestimated who they are dealing with. The Prefect mistakes the Minister D— for a fool because he is a poet. For example, Dupin explains how an eight-year old boy made a small fortune from his friends at a game called "Odds and Evens." The boy was able to determine the intelligence of his opponents and play upon that to interpret their next move. He explains that D— knew the police detectives would have assumed that the blackmailer would have concealed the letter in an elaborate hiding place, and thus hid it in plain sight.

Dupin says he had visited the minister at his hotel. Complaining of weak eyes he wore a pair of green spectacles, the true purpose of which was to disguise his eyes as he searched for the letter. In a cheap card rack hanging from a dirty ribbon, he saw a half-torn letter and recognized it as the letter of the story's title. Striking up a conversation with D— about a subject in which the minister is interested, Dupin examined the letter more closely. It did not resemble the letter the Prefect described so minutely; the writing was different and it was sealed not with the "ducal arms" of the S— family, but with D—'s monogram. Dupin noticed that the paper was chafed as if the stiff paper was first rolled one way and then another. Dupin concluded that D— wrote a new address on the reverse of the stolen one, re-folded it the opposite way and sealed it with his own seal.

Dupin left a snuff box behind as an excuse to return the next day. Striking up the same conversation they had begun the previous day, D— was startled by a gunshot in the street. While he went to investigate, Dupin switched D—'s letter for a duplicate.

Dupin explains that he left a duplicate to ensure his ability to leave the hotel without D— suspecting his actions. As a political supporter of the Queen and old enemy of the Minister, Dupin also hopes that D— will try to use the power he no longer has, to his political downfall, and at the end be presented with an insulting note that implies Dupin was the thief: Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atrée, est digne de Thyeste (If such a sinister design isn't worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes). (see Atree et Thyeste on French wikipedia)

Publication history

This story first appeared in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1845, published in December, 1844 in Philadelphia. Poe earned $12 for its first printing.


The epigraph "Template:Lang" (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness) attributed by Poe to Seneca was not found in Seneca's known work. It is from Petrarch's treatise "De Remediis utriusque Fortunae". Poe probably took the reference from Samuel Warren's novel, Ten Thousand A-Year.

Dupin is not a professional detective. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Dupin takes up the case for amusement and refuses a financial reward. In "The Purloined Letter," however, Dupin undertakes the case for financial gain. He is not motivated by pursuing truth, emphasized by the lack of information about the contents of the purloined letter. and their battle of wits is threatened to end in stalemate. Dupin wins because of his moral strength: the Minister is "unprincipled," a blackmailer who obtains power by exploiting the weakness of others.

Poe may have identified with both Dupin and D—. Like Poe, these two characters command both the power of analysis and a strong imagination.

"The Purloined Letter" completes Dupin's tour of different settings. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" he travels through city streets; in "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" he is in the wide outdoors; in "The Purloined Letter" he is in an enclosed private space. French linguist Jean-Claude Milner offered in Détections fictives , Le Seuil, collection « Fictions & Cie », 1985, supporting evidence that Dupin and D— are brothers, based on the final reference to Atreus and his twin brother, Thyestes.

Literary significance and criticism

In May 1844 Poe wrote to James Russell Lowell that he considered it "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination" just before its first publication. Of Poe's three tales of ratiocination, "The Purloined Letter" is generally considered the best.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Purloined Letter" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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