The Puloined Letter Analysis

Submitted By amurphy823
Words: 1993
Pages: 8

By the mid-nineteenth century, the novel had become a popular art form, with books being read by all literate members of society. However, for a story to sell well, it often strays away from literary perfection in order to appease the maximum amount of the market possible. The tension which this fact creates is clearly visible in the writing of many of the era’s prominent authors, such as Edgar Allen Poe, who is considered responsible for the creation of the mystery genre of fiction- one of the most common and widely read forms of popular literature. Indeed, despite the fact that it is among the very first detective stories, Poe successfully attacks the notion of the casual reader through his story, “The Purloined Letter,” specifically this mass-market audience’s inclination to disregard close examination of the text in favor of simply turning the page to find out what happens next. He accomplishes this by disrupting the flow of the story through means of embedding it with quotes from other sources; by choosing to undermine action in the story through both a conversationally-based narration and a general trivialization of the few events which do take place; and by omitting key facts wherever possible so as to strip the text of dramatic appeal. One way in which Poe flouts the design of the popular novel is by punctuating “The Purloined Letter” with quotations from other sources, practically forcing the reader to stop and research the source of the statement if they wish to comprehend the entire story. The first of these quotes is also epigraph which opens the story, being the Latin phrase “Nil sapientae odiosius acumine nimio,” which is attributed to the Roman poet Seneca (Poe 1). It is first worth noting that Poe is here choosing to open his work with a quote given in a dead language and to not provide a translation, thus testing how well read his readers are and encouraging them to look up or translate the passage themselves if they do not know what it means already. In essence, this breaks up the casual page-turning quality of popular literature before the story even begins.

Furthermore, and puzzlingly so, the above-mentioned passage has not been found in any of Seneca’s works: Neil Cornwell, in a footnote to his book The Absurd in Literature, sums this mystery up by describing the quote as “unidentified [in Seneca’s writing] and possibly unidentifiable” (Cornwell 278). While one might speculate any number of reasons for this oddity, it might be worthwhile to consider it as a kind of prank in order to reward close reading in a slightly different way. The passage itself translates roughly to: “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than too much cunning,” which at a basic level may be taken to represent the triumph of the tale’s villain, Minister D—, in hiding the letter from the proven methods of the Parisian police by way of putting it outside “the range of their search” (Poe 7). Poe’s fabricated attribution of the quote to Seneca essentially does the same thing to the readers by placing it outside of the capabilities of those who would search for it in its alleged context. In this case, therefore, those who close read the text would be more likely to understand this hint and avoid a futile search among the numerous works of Seneca for a passage which does not really exist. Thus, through the epigraph, Poe both discourages cursory reading and encourages close reading.

Similar instances of Poe using quotes from foreign sources in order to slow down the reading of his audience occur throughout “The Purloined Letter,” notably during the musings of the detective C. Auguste Dupin, who occasionally cites other writings or sayings in French, again without ever providing a translation. Though this makes sense within the context of the story due to the fact that it is set in France, Poe was largely writing for an American audience that may or may not have had a sufficient knowledge of the French language to understand these