Narrative Technique in The Purloined Letter

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of the unnamed narrator who is omnipresent and is privy to conversations between Dupin and the Prefect. His recollection of the Rue murders at the beginning of the narrative creates a transitional link between the two stories. The psychological manipulation in “The Purloined Letter” is in stark contrast with the barbaric violence committed in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Poe’s story resembles other detective stories in its disclosure of law enforcement’s inability to decipher the root of the crime. Even in the previous story comprising Rue murders, the Paris police had to rely on the intellect of Dupin to bring the case to its logical conclusion. Poe has premised Dupin’s rationale on his keen sense of observation and composure in the face of dire situations in both the stories.

The plot of “The Purloined Letter” is far from complex. The relay of flashbacks occurs outside the narrative frame. The Prefect’s investigation of the Minister’s hotel has been labeled as unintellectual. This observation can be deduced owing to their failure to retrieve the letter because of their conventional monitoring. Parisian Police’s careful scrutiny overlooks simple details. Dupin makes the assessment that the police cannot think beyond its standard procedures. They cannot comprehend a crime from the criminal’s perspective. Dupin’s reference to the childhood games and his analogy underscores the need to inhabit the consciousness of the criminal. His approach to solving crime replicates the Minister’s methodology of committing the crime. However, the reader should note that the intentions of both are diametrically opposite. While the Minister slyly stole the letter to intimidate and manipulate someone, Dupin employed his skill to rescue their honour. One must appreciate that the story departs from the dominant conventions of detective fiction. While many detective fiction writers are convinced that surveillance is integral to a detective’s investigation of a crime, Poe rejects the idea. Dupin does not subject the Lady (queen) who has lost the letter to any form of supervision. Critic Richard Hull has noted that “Poe’s Prefect of Police is a panoptic detective, but he fails because he lacks Dupin’s poetic understanding.” (Hull 203) ‘Panoptic, h ere, implies the panoramic monitoring for the purpose of retrieving the letter. The Paris police conducts a thorough search without the Minister’s knowledge and keeps a close watch over his movements. However, their archaic surveillance methods are futile in comparison with the novelty of the detective. Indeed, Dupin develops an innovative mechanism to outmaneuver his opponent.

The fulfillment of the promise to seek revenge forms the climax of the story. Dupin’s words inside the phony letter, translated “So baneful a scheme, if not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes,” are translated into action in his final act of re-purloining the purloined letter. French dramatist Crébillon’s early-eighteenth-century tragedy Atrée et Thyeste (or Atreus and Thyestes) encompassed the story of Thyestes who seduced the wife of his brother, Atreus. In response to this betrayal, Atreus murdered the sons of Thyestes and served them to their father at a feast. According to Dupin, Thyestes was worthy of this punishment because he had committed the original crime. Atreus’s revenge was a legitimate retaliation. This comparison is used by Dupin to morally justify his own actions. The readers also note that the purloined letter is only a substitute for an illusion of power which neither the Lady nor the Minister actually possesses.

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