Edgar Allan Poe has been credited as the creator of the detective story—a subtype of one of the four literary genres, fiction. The short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered as Poe’s first detective story. Its format has served as the prototype for some of the greatest detective fiction in history. The main character in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” C. Auguste Dupin is credited as the precursor to the sleuth characters like the popular Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie. Another character in the story that became an inspiration to Poe’s successors is the unnamed narrator and confidante. In Doyle, this character becomes Dr. John Watson, while in Christie, Captain Arthur J.M. Hastings fills in this role. The perspective of the unnamed narrator or the companion-chronicler is a crucial element of detective fiction. In Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the unnamed narrator serves as a foil character to Dupin, as well as a device that allows the readers to maintain an objective distance from Dupin, therefore emphasizing the latter’s quick wit while also maintaining an air of mystery around how he arrived at the solution.
The Murders in The Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” explores the case of two murder victims in the Rue Morgue. The two victims, Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille, are found dead—the former with her head cut off, the latter choked and stuffed up the fireplace—inside their home (Poe, n.p.). The police are stumped since the room was completely secured and the neighbors did not see anyone leave (Poe, n.p.). The mystery appears to be the perfect crime, which Dupin solves with his analytical mind.
The story is told from the point of view (read about other basic literary terms here) of an unnamed narrator, the friend and roommate of Auguste Dupin. The unnamed narrator establishes Dupin’s extraordinary intelligence even before the events transpire (Poe, n.p.). Dupin deduced the unnamed narrator’s thoughts based on their surroundings and the latter’s actions. He uses a process called “ratiocination,” which uses both imagination and reason (Poe, n.p.). Dupin uses the same method to solve the murders in the Rue Morgue with the unnamed narrator on his side, chronicling things as they happen.
Character Analysis of the Unnamed Narrator
The story does not offer much characterization for the unnamed narrator. What little information the reader knows about the unnamed narrator is always related to Dupin. For instance, the unnamed narrator is well-read for the first time he and Dupin met was when they were both looking for a specific book. He also invited Dupin to be his roommate, which is how he became Dupin’s friend and unofficial chronicler. The unnamed narrator is observant and intelligent in his own way as well, as he is often able to fill in the gaps or ask Dupin thought-provoking questions regarding the crime. However, the unnamed narrator remains a flat character. He plays a minor role in the story—merely as the one who tells the story.
Despite being a flat character, however, the unnamed narrator is crucial in Poe’s story. The unnamed character’s first role is as a foil character to Dupin. As aforementioned, the narrator is intelligent and observant in his own right, but not quite of the same level as Dupin. The unnamed narrator can be considered of average intelligence, just like the police and the readers, which then puts Dupin on a pedestal as a man of extraordinary intelligence. While the unnamed narrator lacks characterization on his own, what little Poe reveals of him sheds more light upon Dupin.
By choosing to tell the story in first person from the perspective of a different character from Dupin, Poe manages to maintain a sense of detachment and mystery. The unnamed character sees the same things and hears the same accounts as Dupin, but his conclusions are often no better than that of the police. With that, the reader is kept partly in the dark—knowing just the same as everyone else, while also aware that Dupin will figure out the mystery but not knowing how exactly. By telling the story from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, Poe keeps his readers partly in the dark, and in doing so adds another layer of mystery in the story (Van Leer, p.66). The reader is not only curious about who committed the murders, their motive, and how they escaped but also how Dupin will solve it. Indeed, since the narrator already explained Dupin’s method, it becomes even more interesting how he will apply that method toward solving this seemingly unsolvable crime.
Furthermore, the unnamed narrator serves as a device to allow Poe to explain how Dupin solved the crime without making the character appear too arrogant nor making the story boring—things that would be difficult to achieve had the story been told from Dupin’s perspective. Since the narrator exists outside of Dupin’s mind and is not quite as imaginative and clever as Dupin, he needs the solution explained to him. However, Poe does not reveal the explanation at the end of the story, when the crime has been solved. Instead, he lets Dupin take the unnamed narrator through his mental process right before Dupin gets tangible confirmation of the solution—right before the sailor arrived at his house to inquire about the primate. Through such storytelling, the unnamed narrator (and the reader) witnesses, yet again, Dupin’s intelligence, and gets to marvel at it, but remains engaged waiting for confirmation of Dupin’s theories and for the story’s conclusion. Thus, Poe used the character of the unnamed narrator as a device to add and maintain mystery throughout the story as it allowed him to enlighten and withhold certain information from the reader in a believable manner.
Poe’s narrative is so successful that the friend chronicler or sidekick has become a staple in detective fiction. Despite the fact that the unnamed character is a flat character, this character is an indispensable aspect of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
The character of the unnamed narrator is almost a negligible presence in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” but it plays a significant role in Dupin’s characterization and in the storytelling. As the written literature review above argues, the unnamed narrator is more than a friend and chronicler to Dupin, but also a foil character. He makes Dupin’s extraordinary intelligence more salient to the reader. Furthermore, the unnamed narrator not only pushes the narrative forward but also adds and maintains the mystery in the story—both around the crimes and Dupin’s mental workings. Dupin’s solutions and ratiocination are revealed to the reader through his conversations with the unnamed narrator. Thus, the unnamed narrator—being uniquely positioned as a man of ordinary wits and as Dupin’s confidante—was able to achieve a suspenseful storytelling that is not possible with other perspectives.
Poe, Edgar A. “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The Project Gutenberg. 10 December 2020, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2147/2147-h/2147-h.htm#chap07.
Van Leer, David. “Detecting the Truth: The World of the Dupin Tales.” New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University, 1993.