The Gold Bug Summary

Edgar Allan Poe

The Gold Bug

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The Gold Bug Summary

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The Gold-Bug is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The story follows William Legrand, the poor descendant of a once-wealthy family, as he goes treasure hunting on a remote island in South Carolina. The story is a classic Poe mystery, with clues scattered throughout the plot and a surprising denouement. The Gold-Bug was first published in 1843 in Philadelphia’s Dollar Newspaper after winning the grand prize in a writing contest sponsored by the paper. The story received great critical acclaim and influenced many later works of literature including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The story is told from the perspective of a nameless narrator, who goes to the remote Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina, to visit his friend, William Legrand. After losing his family’s fortune due to bad luck, Legrand relocates from New Orleans to Sullivan’s Island, where he builds a hut on the far eastern end. The island is marshy with thick myrtle shrubs and a scattering of small residences for summer visitors on the western end. Legrand is moody and misanthropic, and lives an isolated life with only his devoted black servant, Jupiter, for company.

The narrator goes to visit Legrand on a cold October day and lets himself into his friend’s hut with a hidden key. Many hours later, Legrand and Jupiter return to the hut and greet the narrator. Legrand tells him about getting bitten by a peculiar-looking gold bug, which he killed and lent to Lieutenant G., another resident of the island, for the night. The bug was golden in color with three black spots arranged in a triangle. Legrand sketches the bug on a piece of parchment to show the narrator what it looked like. The narrator takes the parchment and pets Legrand’s dog, remarking that the bug Legrand drew looks exactly like a skull and has no antennae. Legrand insisted that he drew antennae, but upon looking closer at the parchment, he frowns and then locks the sketch up in his desk drawer.

A month later, the narrator receives a visit from Jupiter, who tells him that Legrand is behaving strangely, and gives him a note from Legrand urging him to return to the island immediately. The narrator accompanies Jupiter back to Sullivan’s Island to visit Legrand, who is indeed behaving nervously. He keeps writing on a slate and talking about gold in his sleep. He has also asked Jupiter to purchase a scythe and three spades. The narrator is worried that Legrand may have fallen ill as a result of being bitten by the gold bug, but Legrand brushes off his concerns and asks him to accompany him and Jupiter on an expedition.

The three men, accompanied by Legrand’s dog, take the scythe, spades, a lantern, and the dead bug, which Legrand has gotten back from Lieutenant G., and travel across the island to a remote, hilly area. The men use the scythe to clear the brambles that surround a tall tulip tree. Once there, Legrand tells Jupiter to take the bug and climb up onto a rotting limb of the tree from which is fastened a dangling skull. Jupiter does, and Legrand tells him to drop the bug through the left eye of the skull. Legrand then marks the spot on the ground where the beetle landed, and travels fifty feet from the spot in the opposite direction of the tree. There, the three men pick up the spades and start digging.

After a few hours of digging, Legrand realizes that Jupiter must have mistakenly dropped the bug through the right eye of the skull instead of the left. After recalculating the spot where the beetle landed, the men start digging in a different location. Before long, they dig up two skeletons, a Spanish knife, and some gold coins. After a little more digging, they unearth a wooden chest full of gold and jewels, which they take with them back to Legrand’s hut. After looking through the chest, they estimate the total value of the treasure at about one and a half million dollars.

Legrand reveals the steps he took to find the treasure. After the gold bug bit Legrand, Jupiter found a piece of parchment sticking up out of the sand near the remains of a shipwreck. He used the parchment to wrap the dead bug, and stuff its mouth. Legrand later lent the dead bug to Lieutenant G., but kept the parchment in which it was wrapped. When the narrator visited Legrand a month earlier and commented on his sketch, he realized that the parchment had a hidden drawing of a skull on the other side of his sketch, which was revealed by the heat of the fireplace when the narrator placed the parchment in his lap to pet Legrand’s dog.

After the narrator left, Legrand used heat to reveal more hidden images and text on the parchment. He discovered a picture of a kid goat, which he believed was a reference to the pirate known as Captain Kidd. He also found a coded message which he deciphered. The message read, “A good glass in the Bishop’s hostel in the Devil’s seat – forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes – northeast and by north – main branch seventh limb east – shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head – a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.”

Legrand realized that the coded instructions were telling him to go to a rock on the island called Bessop’s Castle, sit on a ledge that resembles a seat, and use a telescope to locate the tulip tree with the skull tied to its branch at the angles specified. He then had to drop something through the skull’s left eye and walk fifty feet from the tree through the spot where the object landed on the ground and dig for the buried treasure there. After Legrand decoded the directions, he pretended to act mad so that the narrator would come visit him and help him with his treasure hunt. When the narrator asks Legrand about the skeletons they dug up, he replies that he believes Captain Kidd killed his two accomplices so that the location of the treasure would stay secret.

The main themes of the story are wealth and fortune, illness, obsession, codes, and concealed objects and meaning. The story is both a mystery in which details are revealed as the plot progresses, and an adventure story revolving around the main characters’ quest to find buried treasure. In particular, the story revealed Poe’s fondness for puzzles and brainteasers, which influenced a popular fascination with cryptography.