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Bradshaw, E. (2009). The Peculiar Case History: Finding Purloined Meaning in Subjective Texts. Fort Da, 15(2):78-92.

(2009). Fort Da, 15(2):78-92

The Peculiar Case History: Finding Purloined Meaning in Subjective Texts

Elizabeth Bradshaw, MSC

“Let me caution you that this is an affair demanding the greatest secrecy, and that I should most probably lose the position I now hold, were it known that I confided it to anyone the business is very simple indeed, and I make no doubt that we can manage it sufficiently well ourselves; but then I thought Dupin would like to hear the details of it, because it is so excessively odd. “

— Monsieur G., in E.A. Poe (1844), “The Purloined Letter,” p. 3

In 1956, Jacques Lacan made public an interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 short story “The Purloined Letter” that raised questions for both literary theorists and psychoanalysts regarding the nature of expression and truth (Muller and Richardson, 1988). The case history, like Poe's story, challenges the issues of representability and veracity.

“The Purloined Letter” opens as two men — an unnamed narrator and his friend, the investigator, C. Auguste Dupin — are presented by the Parisian Chief of Police with an “exceedingly odd” case: a sensitive letter has been stolen in plain sight from the royal boudoir. Dupin suggests to the Chief of Police that perhaps the trouble in this case is not its complexity, but rather that it is “too plain … a little too self-evident.” Eventually, we discover the solution to the mystery of the purloined letter is indeed ingenious in its simplicity: the original thief had simply changed the outward appearance of the letter and hidden the document in plain sight. Dupin tests this theory, and proves triumphant, by disguising himself in order to find and steal the letter once again. His actions, however, shift the letter's significance: once found, the letter is no longer purloined, and yet Dupin's actions have transformed the letter again into stolen material.

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