An Analysis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


The word “purloined,” which is no longer in contemporary use, simply means “stolen.” In this story by Edgar Allan Poe, the letter in question appears to have been stolen by a government official from “the royal apartments,” or in other words from the king or his family.


As the Prefect of Police explains to our sleuth Dupin, the letter, if it fell into the wrong hands, would give the thief tremendous power over a female person we infer to be the queen, but in a sense even that possibility gives the thief tremendous power. The Prefect of Police believes he knows the identity of the thief; as he explains, the royal female in question was reading the letter when she was surprised by some “other exalted personage from whom especially it was her wish to conceal it” -- in other words, the king. She quickly concluded that simply leaving it folded on the table, with only the address exposed, would arouse less suspicion than trying to hide it.


At this moment, a treacherous government official, known as Minister D—, came into the room and clearly seemed to recognize the handwriting on the folded paper. Through a sleight of hand perceived only by the queen, he dropped a similarly folded piece of paper on the table and took the incriminating letter. She could not call attention to his “mistake” for fear the king would ask to see the letter in question. So she came to the Prefect of Police to figure out a way to reclaim her letter without the secret coming out.


The problem is that the police have thoroughly checked the Minister’s apartments and offices, and the letter is simply nowhere to be found. The Prefect of Police therefore concludes that either the Prefect has hidden it somewhere else, which would be a dangerous move as the letter could fall out of his personal control, or it is hidden in some obscure place in the building itself. The lengths to which the police have gone to find the letter are truly obsessive; they have checked the wallpaper, the hardwood floors beneath the carpeting, the construction of every piece of furniture, the binding and pages of every book in the Minister’s library. Dupin tells the Prefect of Police to go back and do it again. The Prefect returns a month later; the second search has turned up nothing. Dupin then offers to sell him the letter for the same amount of money the Queen agreed to pay the Prefect, for Dupin has found it and appropriated it himself.


After the Prefect leaves with the letter in his own trembling hands, Dupin explains how that he could find the missing letter when the Prefect could not. Shallow minds like the Prefect’s “consider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and in searching for anything hidden, advert only to the modes in which they would have hidden it.” Just as the Minister stole a letter which was lying in plain sight, he stored the letter in plain sight also—which is why investigators looking for a hidden letter could not find it. The Minister had the letter literally hanging on the wall, the only sizeable sheet of paper on a rack designed to hold business cards. It was battered and dirty and torn, and sported a black seal with the Minister’s initials; this would immediately convince most searchers that it couldn’t be the letter in question. But that was the idea, after all, wasn’t it?


Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories, like his horror fiction, depict a world in which things are not, in the final analysis, at all like they seem. The detective’s job is to penetrate the world of appearances to arrive at the inner truth.


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