Edgar Allan Poe is a master of the short story form. All the skill and craft required of a short story are evident in The Purloined Letter. This short detective fiction is about displaying the cleverness of the investigator (Auguste Dupin) in solving a case. As is the norm in this genre of fiction, “the criminal is caught and the victim suffers, but the investigator flourishes, acquiring pleasure from the hunt and both egotistical and financial gratification from the solution.” (Thoms 141) In The Purloined Letter, the detective fully exercises his powers of reasoning and deduction to arrive at the solution to the riddle. In his regard, one can equate this work by Poe to those numerous Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Conan Doyle. But there are certain features that distinguish the story from others in the genre. Firstly, Poe has crafted the plot in such a deliberate manner that there is symmetry of thought and action by the characters. Secondly, Poe applies psychological analysis in attributing meaning to, and anticipating actions of, the characters in the story. Thirdly, Poe subtly raises questions of morality through the means of actions of the characters. The rest of this essay will elaborate these points.
An obvious feature of The Purloined Letter is its lack of pronounced mystery or suspense, for the identity of the thief, the manner of the theft and the motivations behind it are all openly disclosed. The only question is the exact place where the letter is hidden. The gravity of this question lies in the fact that the letter is a crucial document, upon whose access the Royal Lady’s illicit affair could be exposed. Indeed, “in the Minister’s and Dupin’s struggle to possess this letter, this hidden story of transgression, brilliantly dramatizes the contest for narrative control that underpins detective fiction.” (Davidson 219) A key passage in the story where Poe applies psychological analysis is when Dupin explains to his friend how he went about calculating the intelligence of the Minister and consequently using this measure to speculate on his likely behaviour. Estimating the Minister’s intelligence to be very high, Dupin infers that the possible methods employed by him to hide the letter will also be clever. In this way, the Minister is a match to Dupin’s own high intelligence, allowing the latter to mirror and predict the former’s thought and behaviour. An illustration of the Minister’s intelligence is his first accidental encounter with the royal lady’s letter, where,
“after discerning the hidden story through a brilliant act of reading in which his lynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret, the Minister conceives the plan of pocketing the letter and then blackmailing the lady.” (Thoms 141)
Another merit of the story is the remarkable symmetry in the plot. The Minister, being a cunning and clever man, scripts the scenario in which he gains possession of the scandalous letter. For example, he manufactures a letter that looks similar to the lady’s secret possession and opens it and pretends to read it. Without raising any suspicion, he places casually places it next to the lady’s letter. After finishing his conversation, as he gestures to part, he nonchalantly picks up the lady’s letter. Even if the lady notices that it is her letter which is being taken, she cannot object to it, for it would give away her secret. Dupin’s masterful counterplot to steal back the letter from the Minister is conceived on similar lines, lending symmetry to the plot. (Thoms 141) The symmetry extends further, for both Dupin and the Minister are poets and authorial figures, who