The significance of 'the letter' in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" with regard to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida

Term Paper, 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical basis
2.1. Lacanian theory
2.2. Derridean theory

3. Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio – The significance of `the letter’
3.1. The meaning of Seneca’s quote ‘Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio’
3.1.1. The general meaning in relation to Seneca’s theory
3.1.2. The meaning in relation to The Purloined Letter and the reason for putting it
before the text
3.2. The significance of `the letter’

4. Summary


I Annotations

II Enclosure

III Bibliography / list of books consulted

1. Introduction

Wer die Weisheit sucht, ist ein weiser Mann;

wer glaubt, sie gefunden zu haben, ist ein Narr.1


Only the one, who looks for wisdom, but does not declare to be the one who has already found it can call himself a wise man. – Especially in our present world this quote from Seneca, who lived at the beginning of the first century, is more and more proven to be true. Most of all the field of religion is affected by these words. Long time the church declared to know the absolute and unmistakable truth of our world. But today our science-stamped knowledge more and more disproves many dogmas spread by the church. Yet, religion is not the only field where this quote can be employed. Also in our daily activities and lives, people who overestimate their knowledge and capabilities normally never reach their aims. This does not always has to do with arrogance. Sometimes people simply think that what they know and do has to be right or perfect because it is what ‘the mass’ would think or do. But in most cases it is better to think before acting, to be different from the mass, especially to think different to achieve things, the mass would not be able to achieve. No quote would be more appropriate for Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Purloined Letter, than that from Seneca.. Only the Detective Dupin, who is looking for the truth is able to find it, because he does not underestimate the gifts of his enemy. He does not think of himself to be a wise man but he thinks himself to be clever. And this is a gift which is sometimes more important than being wise. Poe constructs his hard-boiled detective story round just one very crucial object – a letter. A letter that influences the people possessing it, using it. This document can be regarded as the main actor in the story. For this reason this paper ‘s aim is to analyse the role of ‘the letter’ as it is only a sheet of paper, and at the same time more than just a sheet of paper. Its influence an significance in regard to text structure, construction of characters and course of the story will be examined. All this will be looked at with a constant connection to the philosophical and psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Especially Lacan’s interpretations will be discussed, as he was occupied with Poe’s story in his Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’. The final summary shall bundle the gained information to a logical minimum and draw some conclusions from it.

2. Theoretical basis

2.1. Lacanian theory

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst. Being a trained psychiatrist he developed his own psychoanalytic theory starting in the 1950ies. Mostly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, he was a representative of post-structuralism.2 In his theory of the subject, Lacan claims, that human beings are represented by language, or more clearly, by words. His technical term for ‘word’ is ‘signifier’. He argues that ‘‘Subject’ and ‘signifier’ are an important pair of binary opposites’3. This means, that human communication is mediated through signifiers and therefore the only way to represent ourselves for other signifiers. Furthermore Lacan was fascinated by Freud's discovery of unconscious desires, as revealed through four mental phenomena, namely symptoms, errors of everyday life, jokes and dreams. For him the unconscious is structured in the most radical way like a language itself. He called this four categories ‘The Agency of the letter’, because the letter seems to have a life completely of its own. It is for example able to outlive the subject who was spoken by inscriptions on gravestones or in books.4 Lacan picked up on the unconscious as a social being. One often thinks of a language as a lexicon. Each word points to a familiar object, like a dictionary or even a picture book. In a real language, however, words take on meaning only from other words. One has a system, a structure, without a base. Meaning is always ‘deferred’ to the next word in the chain of associations. 5 By 1960 Lacan had a broad theory of the psyche or mind. He found three different categories in it: ‘the imaginary’, ‘the symbolic’ and ‘the real’. The three of them were tied together like a knot.6 The ‘imaginary’ has to do with the so called ‘mirror stage’. Lacan reformulates the psychoanalytic conception of the ego and the imaginary.

The imaginary is the realm of the ego, a pre-linguistic realm of sense perception, identification and an illusory sense of unity. The primary relation in the imaginary is a relation with one’s own body (...) The imaginary, therefore, is not a developmental phase – it is not something that one goes through and grows out of – but remains at the core of our experience.”7

Taking its patterns from the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan formulated that the human world is characterised by the symbolic function. In the unconscious the symbolic is more real than that what they symbolize. For him a signifier does not refer to a signified (as Saussure states), but to another signifier which refers to another and another in an almost endless chain of signification. If we try to define the meaning of a specific word, we can only use other words. This is a continuing process of sign-producing.8 That means that the unconscious consists of signifying material; it initiates a signifying-process that is beyond our control. ‘It is the language that speaks through us rather than the language we speak’9 That is why language is the discourse of the Other (language). At last the ‘real’ is not an account of reality or the ‘objective world’, but a kind of return to the repressed. The real in the Lacanian sense is ‘’the impossible to say’, or ‘the impossible to imagine’’10 at a particular time. The German scientist Werner Heisenberg stated, that the real would, for example, either be the speed of an electron, or its position but never both at the same time.11

Lacan’s theory of the ‘symbolic’ is crucial for the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Purloined Letter, as ‘the letter’ is a pure signifier itself.

2.2. Derridean theory

Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher. He is said to be the founder and main representative of the philosophical movement of deconstruction.12 As poststructuralist he tended to see all knowledge as textual. According to him we have no access to reality except through concepts, codes and categories. The human mind functions by forming conceptual pairs, like man – women, Christian – pagan, nature – culture. Within these binary opposites, one member is privileged and marginalizing the other member of the pair. The privileged term is at the same time the so called central term. Derrida now tries to subvert the central term so that the marginalized term can become the central one. In this case the marginalized term temporarily overthrows the hierarchy. Now, deconstruction is a political practice. He claims that the new hierarchy, if the marginalized term overthrew the privileged, might be instable as well. So he said one must realize the instability” surrender to the complete free play of the binary opposites in a non-hierarchical way”13. According to Derrida all languages and all texts, that are deconstructed, are like this, which means, that there is no central configuration that attempts to freeze the play of this particular system. So there are also no marginal, privileged or repressed ones. A central term of his theory is ‘logocentrism’. Received from the ancient Greek word ‘logos’, which means word, truth, reason and law, logocentrics believe that truth is the voice or expression of a central, original and absolute cause or origin. Derrida favoured the spoken word over the written because he associated writing with the absence of the person who is expressing his or her thought. In contrast to Lacan, Derrida regards the signified, which means the meaning, as more important than the signifier. He believed, that the sound (signifier) only gives access to the meaning (signified). In short: ‘Sound is outer, meaning is inner’.14 A sound defines itself only by determining what it is not. And also concepts are distinguishable from other concepts only because of their difference from other concepts. So Derrida arrives at the point that one can never reach meaning. There is only an endless chain of concepts, sounds or signified. It is just the play of difference that makes the sounds and meaning. Derrida goes even further. He claims that neither speech, nor writing are adequate to describe the more abstract play of differences, which they both are. From this he arrives at the term of arche-writing.

Arche-writing is not a thing. It is the pure possibility of contrast, of difference. Arche-writing makes possible the play of differences. It does not exist as a thing, yet makes all these possible. (...) And grammatology is the science of arche-writing.15

At last he states that there exists nothing outside the text. Our whole life is just like a text – a play of absence and presence. Here he comes up with the image of the ‘always already’. There is a kind of space where dissemination will have been always already taken place. This space includes not only the text but also the reader. So his theory about the text-reader relation is crucial for the interpretation of The Purloined Letter as a text and the text within the purloined letter.

3. Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio – The significance of `the letter’

3.1. The meaning of Seneca’s quote ‘Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio’

3.1.1. The general meaning in relation to Seneca’s theory

Lucius Annaeus Senenca16 was an italian philosopher. He was the private tutor of the emperor Nero. Epiktet, a Greek stoic was his teacher. This is why Seneca also became a stoic himself. Although Seneca was a philosopher, he didn’t want to develop his own theory. He wanted to come up with a practical work to form his life. His speeches, which made him famous, are lost. His style is short and sharp. He wants to surprise the reader and by this gain his curiosity. He likes to play with metaphors. The greatest virtue for him was composure. He said that he himself was an imperfect wise man.17

The latin quote ‘Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio’ can be translated as: ‘Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness’. With this quote Seneca wants to express, that, even wisdom has its limits. Wise man, also called philosophers, always declared that they know everything and that there is no one who can fool them. But Seneca thought, that there is something that is equal to wisdom; and this is cleverness. That is why wisdom, or the wise man, hate it more than anything else. So as a very wise person you can know lots of things. In Seneca’s times, philosophers were looked up to because of their status as wise. He himself was one of them, but he was the only one who recognized the power of cleverness, intelligence and slyness. At that time, his sentence was a rousing for those who were not that wise, but who were clever and at the same time it was a declaration of war on the great thinker of the first century.

3.1.2. The meaning in relation to The Purloined Letter and the reason for putting it before the text

Seneca’s quote ‘Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio’ stands at the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Purloined Letter. For this, there is a direct connection between the Latin words and the detective fiction that can be drawn. Poe’s intention was to make the reader curious; to wake his interest for the text. As most of the readers can not speak Latin, first of all they have to look the words up to know what Poe wanted to express with them: ‘Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness’ – the reader would expect a story about wisdom, wise man, for example philosophers, and how they are fooled or overtrumped by a very clever person they all underestimated. And that is exactly what the story of the purloined letter is about. Wisdom, as a metaphor is represented by the police who think that they are so clever and know the Minister D– so well that it can be no problem to outwit the latter by searching his hotel room every night according to a systematically structured plan, as they had done so many times in so many cases before. So the police think that they are superior to the Minister, because they believe that he does not know anything about the clandestine visits. Nevertheless they are not able to find what they are looking for. For a very simple reason, they did not expect the Minister to be clever, a philosopher. As Dupin puts it: ‘They consider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and, in searching for any thing hidden, advert only to the modes in which they would have hidden it’18 So the Minister D– represents the said cleverness. From the moment of his theft on, he is perfectly aware of the fact that his hotel room will be searched according to the standard proceeding, which means, that every secret hiding would sooner or later be discovered. At this point it is very clear and obvious that it is he, who is superior to the police as he knows that the police believe that he does not know about the searches of his belongings. This knowledge is what drives the Prefect to despair. On the one hand he is sure of the fact that the police searched every inch of the apartment and that the letter in question just can not be there, but on the other hand he perfectly knows that it has to be there, because to actually use the letter it has to be on hand. Dupin, as the detective of the story belongs also to the clever, because all the time he is aware of the fact that the Minister D– is no fool and that he is sly. This is also the reason for Dupin being able to get hold of the letter before the police or even the Minister notice that he has it. Seneca’s quote does not mean that the Parisian police is stupid. It simply says that they should not underestimate the cleverness of their enemies.

So I would say at the beginning of the story the reader is not yet aware of the significance and importance of the quote. It is only when finishing the reading, that Poe’s purpose becomes clear. In a way this sentences takes the function of a kind of dogma.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


The significance of 'the letter' in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" with regard to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar II)
American Mysteries - Detective Fiction in the U.S.
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Sapientiae, Odiosius, Acumine, Nimio, Edgar, Allan, Purloined, Letter, Jacques, Lacan, Jacques, Derrida, American, Mysteries, Detective, Fiction
Quote paper
Claudia Effenberger (Author), 2005, The significance of 'the letter' in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" with regard to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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