The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary, Characters & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Poe and 'The Purloined Letter'
  • 0:32 Story Summary
  • 2:25 Characters
  • 4:08 Analysis
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will study Edgar Allan Poe's short story, 'The Purloined Letter.' After a brief summary of its events, we will examine its characters. An analysis will follow, wrapped up by a short quiz.

Poe and 'The Purloined Letter'

While American author Edgar Allan Poe is most famous for his Gothic and American Romantic poems and short stories, such as 'The Raven,' he also helped invent the modern detective story. His three detective stories, the third of which is 'The Purloined Letter,' feature C. Auguste Dupin. Although his detective stories are not as widely discussed as his Gothic stories and poems, they remain a formative example of detective stories to this day. It was first published in 1845 and made Poe twelve dollars.

Story Summary

Since 'The Purloined Letter' is the third story in which detective C. Auguste Dupin stars, his character has already been introduced, and Edgar Allan Poe leaps right into the action. C. Auguste Dupin is discussing his closed cases with the narrator when they are interrupted by the arrival of the Paris Prefect of the Police, G. Unsurprisingly, the Prefect has a case for Dupin.

As the title of the story suggests, a letter has been stolen. The letter belongs to an unnamed female. The letter's contents are being used by Minister D to blackmail the woman.

The Prefect tells Dupin that he believes that the letter's contents are still a secret because it is being used to exploit the woman and not destroy the woman's reputation. He also believes that Minister D has the letter on his person because it is the only way to protect the letter and utilize it as blackmail.

Unfortunately, a thorough search of Minister D's hotel has turned up nothing. Prefect describes the letter, and Dupin commits both the letter's description and all the other pertinent information to memory.

The story skips ahead a month. The Prefect is still searching for the letter. He offers Dupin 50,000 francs (part of the reward money for the letter's return) if he can assist him. Dupin accepts the award money, then produces the letter, which he has already found.

Dupin explains to the narrator how he tracked down the letter. He says that the police underestimated Minister D because he writes poetry. Dupin visited Minister D in his hotel room. Instead of having hid the letter, Minister D left it out in the open. He did take some pains to disguise it, though. He wrote a different address on the opposite side of the letter. Dupin stole the letter, after swapping it out with a fake that included the following note: 'If such a sinister design isn't worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes.'


Let's take a look now at the characters in the story:

C. Auguste Dupin

A famous detective from Paris, C. Auguste Dupin is not a professional detective. He is very smart and solves his cases by trying to empathize with the criminal. Thus when the Prefect assumed that Minister D would hide the letter inside of something like a pillow, Dupin knew he was more clever than that, and Minister D would hide the letter in plain sight. That is why he found the letter and the Prefect did not. Normally, Dupin has taken cases just for the sake of solving them, but this time he did not reveal he had found the letter until he had gotten a sizable reward for it.

Prefect of the Police, G

G is the Prefect of the Police in Paris. He is not very smart. He has to write down clues, such as the letter's description, while Dupin only has to hear the description once before he can commit it to memory. He asks for Dupin's help to find the letter because he is unable to find it on his own.

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