“The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe. Look at this puzzle piece. It contains so many intricate details but no context as to what the bigger picture may be. Without a reference picture one would not be able to determine where this small piece fits into a larger scene. This is a very similar experience Edgar Allan Poe creates for his readers in The Purloined Letter, a short mystery story in which a letter containing harmful information about an official is taken by Minister D and hidden in a location that the police have been unable to recover even after two extensive searches. Just like all the petite puzzle pieces containing so much detail yet not enough context for the person to fit the pieces together, Poe provides his readers with an abundance of detail that he deceives them into thinking the mystery is insolvable and overlook the obvious solution. Edgar Allan Poe employs an abundance of details and various storytelling techniques to convolute the story and keep the reader in the dark until the answer is masterfully revealed. Before jumping into the details, let’s give some context to the story.
The story begins with the chief police officer consulting with detective Dupin for advice on a case. He is clearly distraught as they have searched the drawers, cabinets, cushions, and the floors and still found nothing. Leaving the reader utterly confused. Where could this letter possibly be? And now onto the details.
“We opened every possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the ne long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops. Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is re- moved by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top re- placed” (1553). With such a detailed account of the investigation, it seems as though the police have searched every inch of the apartment with no luck of finding the letter. The readers are left feeling utterly perplexed as to where the letter could possibly be hidden. Just like a small puzzle piece containing many details, Poe has given the readers small puzzle pieces with lot of details but no idea of how they all fit together. Thus making “The Purloined Letter” a puzzle without a picture.
Yet even when the answer is revealed, Poe still presents it as a mind puzzle. The answer is reveal as a game of sorts where “One party playing requires another to find a given word—the name of town, river, state or empire—any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart” (1560) The players often choose small words that they think will be the most difficult to find because the short length however, it is actually the longest words that are hardest for the opponent to find because these words are often overlooked. The same is true of the discovery of the letter. The police were looking for the letter in the smallest cavasses instead of looking at the room holistically. Thus, they turned a simple case into a much more complex case. At this moment in the story, the readers’ tunnel vision begins to expand and the whole picture comes into focus. By using a small puzzle to explain his mystery, he gives the picture of the puzzle to the reader so they now know how all the pieces come together. Now the final piece of the puzzle has been put into place and the mystery has been solved.
Poe takes a story and makes it extremely complex and complicated by not giving the audience a full view. Edgar Allan Poe is hinting at something much greater than just where a stolen letter was hidden. He is shining light on the fact that as readers, we so often become so wrapped up in the details that we cannot remember what the bigger picture is causing us to miss obvious opportunities and answers that may be right in front of us. During this time of the pandemic, we must remember the bigger picture at hand rather than focusing on the small details and circumstances of our own lives.
Poe, Edgar A. “The Purloined Letter.” 1844. Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, pp. 1550-63. Originally published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1845