The Purloined Letter
Edgar Alan Poe
( E-text  remote;
Local: "The Cask of Amantillado" (vocabulary and E-Text); "Tale-Tale Heart" with websites on Poe)
A structuralist reading
Foucaultian Reading
Lacan's interpretation
Derrida's interpretation


  1. between simplicity of the case and its "oddity"
  2. between revelation and concealment (and concealment+ revealation)
  3. Minister D's being both a poet and a mathmatician
  4. the stories Dupin tells: "take advice!" (tautological) and "the school boy's winning all the marbles" (losing to win, identification with the opponent)
Greimas' semantic rectangle: (two pairs: one of opposition, the other of contradiction)
1. before the story begins: 

The Queen (in Powerlessness) conceals her affair  from the King (power) so that the King's authority is not threatened. 

2.  This delicate balance is broken by Minister D. at  the beginning of the story: 
Minister D's Concealment of the letter and his Disclosure to the Queen of the fact of his holding the letter. 

The Queen is under Minister D's power because she knows (as shown by the Minister) that he holds and hides the letter. 

3. Interestingly, in the middle part, the Prefect is the one with knowledge but without power; the one who reveals without knowing what he reveals (which he calls "odd").  And then as Dupin starts his reasoning, he is the one to hold the knowledge and hide it from the Prefect. 
The prefect
4. At the end, after the letter is retrieved, the Queen's double concealment (of the letter and of her holding the letter) puts her in the position of power.

5. The final revelation is that Dupin (with knowledge and concealment/unconcealment) has Minister D (ignorance and disclosure) as an object of revenge.  --> Against traditional detective fiction, where unconcealment and knowledge leads to power, the story does not focus on disclosing "whodunit," but shows a continuous interaction between and reversal of power/powerlessness. (There are different kinds of knowing and ignorance, mixture of concealment and unconcealment.)

Foucaultian Reading (source: Hull, Richard. "'The Purloined Letter': Poe's detective story vs. panoptic Foucauldian theory. Narration vs. Policing Power."
Style, Summer90, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p201, 14p.)

1. Penoptic critics: narration as a kind of penoticism. (writing as a way of "objectification and subjection.") "For panoptic Foucauldians such as Miller and Mark Seltzer, narration is the police."

2. However, "The Purloined Letter" presents a detective who is against surveillance and protective of the Queen's secrecy.

3. "Like Poe's story, the Foucault of counter-discourse offers hope that the growth of panoptic discipline is not "ineluctable."[3] This early Foucault would have been interested in the counter-discursive tactics of "The Purloined Letter," which expose the weak sides of panoptic surveillance, and suggest a need to narrow the range of panoptic Foucauldian theory. Poe consciously writes counter-discourse, and escapes the Panopticon, even as he founds the detective-story genre. "

Psychobiography: Marie Bonaparte ( 130 Muller, et al.)

1. It "express[es] . . . .regret for the missing maternal penis, with reproach for its loss."

2. the letter, "very symbol of the maternal penis, also 'hangs' over the fireplace, in the same manner as the female penis, if it existed, would be hung over the cloaca which is here represented the general symbol of fireplace or chimney."

3. Minister --John Allan and Poe; the King --David Poe, Elizabeth's husband; Dupin--Poe.

Lacan's interpretation:
  1. The letter as a pure signifier.

  2. The content is irrelevant.
    "[T]he "place" of the signifier is determined by the symbolic system within which it is constantly dis-placed.  It is only
    in terms of a symbolic order, for example, that one may speak of the signifier as "symbol of an absence" the way a slip of paper . .  .may symbolize the absence of a book on a library shelf." (58 Muller, et al.)
  3. The above terms is seen as "subject position."  -->The interchangeability of subject position.
Scene 1
Scene 2 Scene 3
1. [the blind]: sees nothing and thus is blind to the situation;
The King The Queen The Minister
2. [the complacent seer]: sees that the first subject sees nothing . . . is unaware of being seen;  The Queen The Minister Dupin
3. [the robber]: sees that the first two leave what should be hidden exposed. . .  The Minister Dupin Lacan

* A correlation between the real and the first position, the imagniary and the second position and the symbolic and the third position.

* "What correlated the third position with the symbolic is the fact that it discerns the role of structure in the situation and acts accordingly.  The paradox is that, . . . the "acting accordingly" of the third position tends to catch the subject up in the dynamics of repetition that drag him into the second position. . . (63 Muller, et al.)

  1. The unknown content of Desire.
  2. The role of the phallus as a signfier in the sexual differentiation of the subject; its primacy and prevalence.

Derrida's interpretation

1. For Lacan (according to Derrida), "the subject is very divided, but the phallus is not to be cut"(196);
The letter
-- should not be 'truth' or present: it never truly arrives; when it does arrive its capacity not to arrive torments it with an internal drifting.
-- should be divided, but not unified

[According to Barbara Johnson]--> Summary of the article
1. What Lacan puts into the letter:

While asserting that the letter's meaning is lacking, Lacan, according to Derrida, makes this lack into the meaning of the letter.  .  . .Derrida asserts that what Lacan means by that lack is the truth of lack-as-castration-as-truth.  
2. What Lacan leaves out of the text.
Lacan ignores the story's position in "Dupin Trilogy."

The Purloined Poe.  Eds.  John P.Muller and William J. Richardson.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.