“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1841.
It is considered the first detective fiction story ever written and introduces the character C. Auguste Dupin, who would later appear in two other stories. The plot is intricate and involves a combination of mystery, horror, and the application of rational thinking to solve a seemingly impossible crime.
The story is set in Paris in the early 19th century, focusing on a brutal double murder in the Rue Morgue, a fictional street.
The narrator, whose name is never given, meets C. Auguste Dupin in Paris, and they become close friends due to their shared interest in analysis and enigmas.
Dupin is portrayed as a highly analytical and observant individual, with a unique ability to understand the human mind and to deduce truths from seemingly unrelated facts.
The story’s central event is the violent killing of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in their apartment on the fourth floor of a building in the Rue Morgue. The authorities are baffled by the evidence, which includes the women’s bodies being found in gruesome conditions—one strangled to death and stuffed up the chimney, the other decapitated and thrown into the courtyard.
The apartment is locked from the inside, and there are several witnesses who heard voices speaking in a foreign language, though they disagree on which language it was.
Intrigued by the mystery and the apparent impossibility of the crime, Dupin decides to investigate.
The Paris police have arrested a bank clerk named Adolphe Le Bon, who had been the one to take the bank’s money to Madame L’Espanaye and was the last known person to see them alive, but Dupin believes him to be innocent.
Dupin examines the crime scene, notices clues overlooked by the police, and uses his analytical skills to deduce what happened.
He observes details such as the seemingly inexplicable presence of hair that doesn’t appear human, a ribbon used to strangle one of the victims that could not have been applied with human strength, and the peculiar condition of the room and the bodies.
Dupin concludes that the murderer could not have been human.
He places an advertisement in the newspaper asking if anyone has lost an “Ourang-Outang.”
A sailor responds, revealing that the animal had escaped from his possession. The sailor recounts how the Ourang-Outang, wielding a razor, had killed the women in a frenzy after trying to mimic the act of shaving, as it had seen the sailor do.
The voices heard by the neighbors were the animal’s grunts and the sailor’s shouts in various languages trying to stop the creature. The sailor and the animal had fled the scene, leaving behind the locked room mystery.
Finally, Dupin explains his deductions to the police, leading to the release of Le Bon.
The story concludes with Dupin’s demonstration of the power of analytical reasoning and the resolution of a case that had seemed utterly beyond human comprehension.
C. Auguste Dupin
Dupin is the protagonist and the quintessential detective, a precursor to later figures like Sherlock Holmes. Highly intelligent and with a keen eye for detail, he uses his deductive reasoning skills to solve a crime that baffles the police.
Dupin is portrayed as calm, analytical, and somewhat aloof, embodying the ideal of the armchair detective who can unravel mysteries through thought and observation rather than action.
His ability to step into the minds of others, including the criminal, and to understand the deeper truths of a situation, is central to his character.
The narrator, whose name is never revealed, serves as Dupin’s friend and confidant, and through his eyes, we experience the story.
He is fascinated by Dupin’s intellect and methods and acts as a conduit between Dupin and the reader, explaining Dupin’s thoughts and actions.
The narrator’s admiration for Dupin mirrors the audience’s amazement at the detective’s analytical abilities. He plays a passive role in the investigation, primarily observing and reporting on events.
Madame L’Espanaye and Her Daughter
Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter are the victims of the brutal murders that set the story’s plot in motion.
They are largely characterised by their roles in the mystery— as the unfortunate subjects of a violent crime. Little is revealed about their personalities or lives, except for the circumstances of their deaths and their financial dealings before the murder, which initially lead the police to suspect robbery as a motive.
The sailor is a crucial secondary character who provides the final piece of the puzzle. His account of how the Ourang-Outang came into his possession and subsequently committed the murders unwittingly solves the mystery.
He is depicted as remorseful and scared, concerned more about the repercussions of his actions (or inactions) that led to the tragedy than about his own welfare.
His character introduces the theme of unintended consequences, showing how actions taken without malice can still result in horror.
Though not a human character, the Ourang-Outang plays a pivotal role in the story.
It is the actual perpetrator of the murders, acting not out of malice but rather mimicking behaviors it observed, specifically shaving, which leads to the tragic events.
The Ourang-Outang embodies the themes of misinterpretation and the unpredictable nature of violence. Its actions, driven by curiosity and imitation, contrast with human actions driven by reason, underscoring the story’s exploration of reason versus instinct.
The Paris Police
The Paris police represent the conventional approach to crime solving, which is depicted as ineffectual compared to Dupin’s analytical method. They are quick to arrest Adolphe Le Bon, the bank clerk, based on circumstantial evidence, showcasing their reliance on assumptions and the pressure to find a culprit.
Their failure to solve the case highlights the story’s critique of traditional investigative methods and serves to elevate Dupin’s superior deductive reasoning.
1. The Power and Limitations of Human Intellect
One of the most prominent themes in the story is the celebration of analytical reasoning and intellectual prowess. C. Auguste Dupin serves as Poe’s embodiment of the ultimate analytical mind, using his exceptional observational skills and deductive reasoning to unravel a mystery that baffles the police and the public alike.
Through Dupin, Poe illustrates the power of the human intellect to penetrate the surface of appearances and reach the underlying truth of a situation.
This theme is not just a testament to the capabilities of the mind but also subtly comments on the limitations of conventional thinking and the methodologies employed by the police.
Dupin’s success where others fail highlights the need for a deeper, more nuanced approach to problem-solving, suggesting that true understanding requires creativity, insight, and an ability to think outside the conventional bounds of logic.
2. The Elusive Nature of Truth and Justice
Poe’s narrative also delves into the theme of the elusive nature of truth and justice, reflecting on how appearances can be deceiving and the truth can be far more complex than it seems.
The initial investigation into the murders is marred by confusion, contradictions, and the incompetence of the police, leading to the wrongful arrest of an innocent man.
This situation underscores the difficulty of achieving justice in a world where evidence can be misleading and witnesses unreliable.
Dupin’s intervention becomes a quest not just for the truth behind the murders but also for justice in a broader sense—correcting the mistakes of the legal system and ensuring that innocence is recognized and protected.
This theme resonates with the reader’s sense of fairness and the understanding that truth is often buried under layers of misconception, requiring discernment and wisdom to uncover.
3. The Duality of the Human Condition
Finally, the story explores the duality of the human condition through its depiction of reason versus instinct, civilization versus savagery, and the human versus the animalistic.
The juxtaposition of the rational, analytical Dupin against the primal violence of the Ourang-Outang serves as a metaphor for the dual nature of humanity. This duality suggests that beneath the veneer of civilization and rationality, there exists a primal, instinctual nature that can surface under certain circumstances.
Furthermore, the misunderstanding of the animal’s actions as those of a human murderer reflects the fear and suspicion with which society regards its own darker aspects.
Through this theme, Poe invites readers to reflect on the complexity of human nature and the thin line that separates the civilized from the savage, the rational from the irrational.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a groundbreaking work that laid the foundation for the detective fiction genre.
Edgar Allan Poe masterfully combines elements of mystery, horror, and logical deduction to craft a story that is both captivating and intellectually stimulating. The introduction of C. Auguste Dupin as the archetypal detective, using his acute observational skills and analytical mind to solve a crime that baffles the police, has influenced countless detective stories that followed.