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The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe: Through a Marxist Lens

Article by Donya' Green II

The basic tenets a Marxist look for when criticizing a piece of literature are dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the theory of surplus value, class struggle, revolution, dictatorship of the proletariat and communism. When analyzing writing through a Marxist lens, you focus on the representation of class conflict and the reinforcement of class distinctions within the work. While using standard analysis techniques, a Marxist theorist looks for social and political meaning. They revere literature that sheds light on working-class struggles and challenges capitalism and the inequalities that come with it. While Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t explicitly a Marxist and arguably more conservative some may argue, he was indeed critical of America in his time. Being one of the first Virginians, Poe wrote of American taste:

“We have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself.” (Merry, Imaginative Conservative)

            When breaking down his quote, Poe is predicting America will revere money the way other countries revere their monarchies. This is primary evidence that Poe was conscious of class and the idolization of the dollar in early America, providing historical context for the literature written in his adult life. When looking at the Purloined letter through a Marxist lens, we can see characters embodying all the archetypes a Marxist would point to.

In The Purloined Letter, Minister D was blackmailing the owner of the letter, a lady he stole it from and replaced with his own. He did so because he realized the letter contained damning information on a powerful individual. He now had power over her in this regard. A Marxist would point out this power structure parallels capitalist society; Minister D is the ruling class, the woman is the proletariat. In capitalism, one has the opportunity to control and exploit others for their benefit, just as he did to her. Another parallel that can be noted is law enforcement's incapability to solve what is coined a simple case, even when they knew Minister D was the one who stole the letter. Minister D hid the letter right under their nose when they searched his apartment the first time. If it weren't for Dupin, the reader could assume Minister D would've gotten away with his scheme. Capitalism is innately corrupt when the elite class can sway politicians and law enforcement with financial compensation (a donation or an under-the- table deal). It's been proven that the ruling class influences policy and law enforcement tends to the elite's interests.

Dupin's character would be evidence a Marxist would point to for the notion that greed is the top motivator in a capitalist society. Dupin is an anti-hero, a common trope in the neo-noir genre. This is evident in the greed he displays. A "hero" would have given the police the letter the moment they got it, but Dupin is not that. He intentionally held onto the letter until a reward was put up for it. As great as he is, even he is still susceptible to greedy nature under capitalism. I think this story is Poe's sumptuous take on a neo-noir. The Purloined Letter is not as morbid as some of the work he is known for but is an excellent demonstration of how a neo-noir could be written.

Citations

9, S. M. K. D. (2021, January 19). The political thought of Edgar Allan Poe ~ the imaginative conservative. The Imaginative Conservative. Retrieved April 3, 2022, from https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/11/political-thought-edgar-allan-poe-robert-e-merry.html

IGNOU. (1970, January 1). Unit-26 marxism. eGyanKosh. Retrieved April 3, 2022, from https://egyankosh.ac.in/handle/123456789/21029?mode=full

Felluga, Dino. "General Introduction to Marxism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 2015

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