26 pages 52 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Purloined Letter

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1844

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Purloined Letter”

“The Purloined Letter,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, was first published in the literary magazine The Gift in 1844. It is the third of his detective stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin, with the first two being “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842).

This study guide refers to the version collected in The Purloined Poe, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1988.

Poe opens with an epigraph in Latin that he attributes to Seneca, although the source of the quote has never been determined: “Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio,” which translates to “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than too much cunning.”

The story begins on a dark evening in Paris sometime in the 19th century. The unnamed narrator and his friend, C. Auguste Dupin, are sitting quietly together smoking pipes when they are interrupted by a visit from Monsieur G——, the prefect of the Parisian police. Dupin rises to turn on a lamp but decides against it once he learns that Monsieur G—— has come to consult with him about a case. After commenting that the case is quite simple yet “so excessively odd” (7), Monsieur G—— explains the details to the narrator and Dupin.

A letter has recently been stolen from the queen that contains information that could severely damage her reputation. The police know that the thief is Minister D——, as he stole the letter from the royal boudoir in her presence, but the presence of other company prevented her from speaking out. They are also certain that he still has the letter in his possession, as this allows him to maintain his power over the queen by threat of exposure. However, the police have thoroughly searched the minister’s residence and have been unable to locate the letter. After having Monsieur G—— explain precisely how the police have searched the residence, Dupin concludes that the letter must be there and advises the police to search again.

A month passes and Monsieur G—— returns for a second visit with the narrator and Dupin. He states that he did a thorough second search of the minister’s residence and still could not recover the stolen document. He is so desperate—besides his professional reputation, there is a large reward on the line—that he claims he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can assist him. Dupin tells the prefect to write him a check, as he has already located and recovered the stolen letter. Both Monsieur G—— and the narrator are stunned at this revelation, and after receiving the letter, Monsieur G—— leaves the residence without saying a word.

Dupin explains to the narrator exactly how he managed to recover the stolen letter. The prefect and the police, he states, investigated the case to the best of their abilities. Their error was that they did not understand Minister D—— well enough to know where to look. To demonstrate his point to the narrator, he relates the story of a young boy who always won at a game called “even and odd” by observing his opponents, determining their intelligence, and basing his guess upon those factors. He also claims that Monsieur G—— made the mistake of assuming that because Minister D—— is a poet, he is therefore a fool. Dupin notes that the minster is also a mathematician and courtier and proceeds to explain at length the importance of taking all of this into consideration while trying to deduce the location of the letter. Minister D——, Dupin argues, must have known that the police were searching his residence and must have known precisely where they would search. Dupin therefore concluded that the minister must have hidden the letter in plain sight; he likens this strategy to a game involving “hiding” a word on a map, which Dupin argues is best achieved by displaying it prominently. Dupin decided to visit the minister, equipped with “green spectacles,” to search for the letter himself.

While at the minister’s residence, Dupin donned the glasses under the guise of having weak eyes and scanned the premises for the stolen letter. He soon discovered a letter that appeared extremely tattered and worn—almost excessively so—which led him to believe that it was intentionally made to look that way. Upon further investigation, this proved to be the purloined letter. Dupin quickly took his leave of the minister, but not before leaving a gold snuffbox on the desk to serve as an excuse to return. He then created a letter that looked almost exactly like the queen’s document and returned the following day, ostensibly to retrieve his snuffbox. Dupin had hired a man to fire a musket containing a blank in the street; the commotion distracted the minister and allowed Dupin to swap the letters.

Dupin confesses to the narrator that Minister D—— once did him an “evil turn,” so he included a brief quotation in his false letter to give the minister a clue as to his identity:

——Un dessein si funeste,
S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste (16).

Translation: “So baleful a plan, if unworthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.”

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 26 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools