Science and Art in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”

In one of the first detective stories, “The Purloined Letter”, E. A. Poe creates an extraordinary character with a powerful personality, a master of ratiocination, and he lets the reader take part in the intriguing process of finding a missing letter hidden in plain sight. The originality and superiority of Dupin, the sleuth, his ability to solve mysteries which seem inaccessible to others lies in the quality of his mind – of being, at once, that of a poet and that of a man of science, thus being able to challenge opponents with an equally brilliant capacity of reasoning.

At the beginning of the short story, the “mock didactic motto” (Peiu 40) states that “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than too much cleverness,” which immediately gives the reader a hint that a certain character in the story might fail in his actions because of the means he employs. That character turns out to be, in accordance with the layout of detective stories, the Prefect, who, regardless of the countless attempts to find the letter, searching the minister’s house and the “two houses immediately adjoining” (Poe 423), showing a scrupulosity out of the ordinary, found himself having wasted three months and still not having solved the case. The prefect made a show out of this thoroughness, describing all the methods through which he had been able to discover possible secret hiding places in objects that others would have ignored or to observe if even a speck of dust had been moved from its place. His search method is made to seem so scientific and perfected, that one might wonder how it is possible for such an investigation lead to a dead end.

In contrast with Minister D, the Prefect seems to be, at first, the ideal scientist, mocking the former for being “not altogether a fool […] but then he’s a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.” (Poe 421) But what the Prefect fails to realize is that the poet’s mind and the scientist’s mind are complementary – and this might be one of the main reasons for which he is mocked by Dupin. His “too much cleverness” turns him into a caricature, and his science ultimately becomes bluntness, the inability to see anything outside his own frame of mind, which definitely strays away from the wisdom to which any detective should aim at.

While the Prefect boasts with his intelligence and perseverance, Dupin listens – and thinks. His point of view is that the Prefect’s approach is too complicated for a problem which might be “too plain” (Poe 417). But even the simplest of problems cannot be solved when one is narrow-minded. Dupin’s trail of thought, ratiocination (“the game of the mind operating with (literary) abstractions” – Peiu 37), means more than deducing the actions of the suspect through reason and logic, as it also involves “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent” (Poe 427). Dupin’s mind is perfectly rational, he is an undeniably talented logician, mathematician, but at the same time a genius artist, understanding all the hues of the human essence, for he also writes poetry, enjoys literature and very artistically managed to mimic the seal on the letter with a piece of bread. In this way, he is able to understand what other people are thinking and to temporarily shift perspectives, watching the world from behind their eyes.

An answer as to why such a comprehensive view of the world can only be acquired by joining art and literature can be found in Aldous Huxley’s “Science and Literature”, in which he tackles the relation between the two, stating that the scientist deals with matters of quantity, while the artist, with matters of quality. The scientist’s role is to analyze the world, repeat experiments as often as possible and on as many subjects as possible, and draw a universal conclusion, while the artist’s object is a single element which should be analyzed in accordance to what makes it different from the world.

Regardless of the thoroughness of the Prefect’s work, his investigation was, largely, a matter of quantity. The fact that he searched for the letter for as much as three months, using the same mind-set and trying to reach a certain conclusion through mass repetition shows that the inability to find the letter is due to his faulty approach. His error lay in his belief that there is only one way to solve a problem, not that for every problem, there is a different solution. As Huxley pointed out, “[the scientist’s] primary concern is not with the concreteness of some unique event, but with the abstracted generalizations, in terms of which all events of a given class ‘make sense’” (Huxley 6). Nonetheless, given the unpredictability of human nature and the various approaches one might take, quantity is no substitute for quality when resolving a case, and Dupin showed how adopting a different strategy can lead to a successful end.

Thus, he decided to focus on the individual, not the universal – on quality, and not on quantity. Through keen observation and identification with his opponent, he managed to track his trail of thought, which, quite naturally, led to solving the case. And even though Dupin uses logic as his main weapon in his deductions, he is also an artist, for which “outer reality is constantly related to the inner world of private experience, shared logic modulates into unsharable feeling, wild individuality is forever breaking through the crust of cultural custom.” (Huxley 6) The sleuth wonderfully combines art and science, and their combination “reinforce[s] other basic dualisms, such as the organic/mechanical, synthetic/ analytic and emotional/intellectual”. (Deery 24)

Moreover, Dupin focuses on the larger process and not on the result of the search. The Prefect left the room as soon as Dupin gave him the letter, without waiting for an explanation, which shows how utterly uninterested about the process he actually was and how his only goal was to reach the desired result. In contrast, Dupin seems completely unpreoccupied with the fate of the letter – he is more interested in the strategies he used and he is more than willing to share them with anyone who is sensible enough to listen.

Still, Dupin is not the only character whose mind combines art and science – his opponent, Minister D, can be considered a reflection of the sleuth. Detective stories usually culminate with the criminal being exposed, but in The Purloined Letter, the culprit is well known, and not only to the reader, but also to Dupin, who had met Minister D in the past and has a certain history with him regarding the battle of the minds. Therefore, Minister D’s intelligence is no surprise to Dupin and no impediment either, but rather a hint into solving the mystery. The two share a lot of qualities, not just their initial which, according to “certain critic’s approaches”, might point to “the possibility that [they] be actually brothers.” (Peiu 41)

The most striking feature that is common to both of them is, of course, the ability to deduce and to identify with other people. D knew what means would be used by the Prefect in his search and he outsmarted him – but he did not outsmart Dupin, who became his match in slyness and intelligence. The game of identification began when D managed to foresee the actions that the prefect was to undertake – and he could very easily avoid falling in his very predictable and repetitive traps, changing the appearance of the letter and placing it such a way that was certain to be ignored by the narrow-minded policemen. Nonetheless, he failed to predict Dupin, who, by the same means of ratiocination, by reflecting upon the “daring, dashing, and discriminating ingenuity of D” (Poe 433), reached the conclusion that the hiding spot could not possibly be an ordinary one, and that for such an unusual perpetrator, equally unusual means must be employed, even radical ones, such as doing the opposite of hiding the letter: revealing it.

Just as Dupin, Minister D dares things that are at once “unbecoming” and “becoming a man” (Poe 419), and although the reader is not let in into D’s good deeds, his attention is turned to the more dark side of his actions, stealing of the letter which would ultimately lead to blackmail. Dupin also resorts to theft, although for a reason altogether different. They used the same technique when stealing the letter, cunningly replacing it with a similar one. And most importantly, they both write poetry, activity frowned upon by the Prefect, while they are also familiar with the science world. The two characters, Dupin and Minister D, are extraordinary because of their both scientific and artistic minds. Therefore, for the two of them, the game of intellects is not as easy as the one between Minister D and the Prefect. The battling minds are equally shrewd and cunning.

Still, regardless of his genius, Minister D failed in his attempt to keep the letter safe. The reason for this is the impossibility of him seeing the entire picture – he could only predict the Prefect looking for his letter and could not foresee the third variable, Dupin, coming into play. The detective, on the other hand, already had the entire image presented to him, so he had the advantage of being omniscient in the “spatial dimension common to the three characters [D, Dupin and the Prefect]” (Bellei). On the contrary, “the Minister sees a partial context and presently becomes part of a larger context which is apprehended by Dupin only” (Bellei)

Furthermore, the ending places Dupin on the higher ground when he ingeniously replaces the letter with another one, mirroring D’s theft. The epitaph brings a new element into the two characters’ play, which is the final touch of Dupin’s revenge on D, by not only ruining his plans, but writing a personal letter of retaliation. Through his last line, “Un dessin si funestre,/ S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste” (Poe 437), he invites the audience, which is the narrator and, by extension, the reader, to apply the same strategy of identifying with the other person’s mind and imagine what Minister D thought after opening the letter and realizing he had been tricked. Thus, while the reader is astonished by the Dupin’s wit, he can continue the game of ratiocination himself, and this “makes this letter, unlike the one D originally substituted, meaningful and important” (Plochocki 29).

In conclusion, Poe demonstrates that wisdom cannot exist without a larger approach which involves both science and art, and that an “exaggeration of the application of the principle of search” (Poe 428) can only bring failure. Dupin’s capacity of ratiocination and ability to see the world from different perspectives and through different eyes make him the ideal detective.

Works Cited

Bellei, Sergio L. P., “ ‘The Purloined Letter’: A Theory of Perception”, Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol IX, No.2, 9:40-42

Deery, June, Aldous Huxley and the Mysticism of Science, Springer, New York: 1996

Huxley, Aldous, Literature and Science, Harper and Row, New York: 1963

Peiu, Anca, Five Versions of Selfhood in 19th Century American Literature, C.H.Beck, Bucharest: 2013

Plochocki, Maria, Body, Letter, and Voice: Constructing Knowledge in Detective Fiction, Peter Lang, Pieterlen: 2010

Poe, Edgar Allan, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, HarperCollinsPublishers, London: 2011, pp 416-437

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