The story begins with a long description of the “analytical mind”. First, the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" describes how the analytical mind delights in untangling a problem as the athlete enjoys physical exertion. The way he uncovers the truth is so perfectly methodical that it often seems like a natural instinct. He goes on to explain that though mathematics is similar to the art of analysis, it is not pure calculation that he’s talking about.
The narrator’s description of the analytical mind is a mysterious departure from the apparent gore that the story’s title advertises and puts the reader on hold, waiting for the owner of this analytical mind to be introduced.
Take chess and draughts. The chess player’s skill lies in the attention he gives the board, and because the movements of the pieces and the possible layout of the game are so numerous and changing, it is often the player that concentrates best that is victorious. Draughts on the other hand is won by the more inventive move, all pieces being equal and the possible moves not evident before the player. He wins by identifying himself with the opposite player and often can tell what moves are about to be made.
The superiority of a kind of emotional, sensitive, observational kind of intelligence is described here. The narrator is claiming that even in two games that are restricted to squares and pieces, the merely attentive player will only succeed to a certain extent. Sensitive observation of human behavior will become important as the story progresses.
This is similar to whist. Whist is known for being a superior game for an analytical brain. Even the best chess player in the land may find that his talents at chess are only helpful when playing chess, but a good whist player will find that the skills that allow him to succeed at whist, allow him to solve many of life’s problems. The superior whist player, the analyst, is able to not only retain information and play by the book but infer hundreds of things from other places, the opponent himself, the exterior conditions, anything. It is this ability to observe beyond the game and be creative that defines the perfect player. He has an intuition for all the physical and emotional changes of the opposite player and therefore is able to tell what is a trick and what is genuine.
After the headline punch of the title The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the narrator’s very long-winded description of the logic of games and the analytic mind is a strange twist. He skillfully explains the differences between terms of intelligence, showing how creativity triumphs over methodical thinking and concentration. By using games to show these intricate mental differences, Poe distances us from the traditional content of the Gothic murder story.
Being ingenious is not the same as being an analyst. An analyst can always be ingenious but an ingenue will sometimes not have the faculty for analysis. The two share a similar character, but creativity shows itself differently in each, as mere fancy or true imagination.
In this story, Poe exaggerates this quality of analysis, making it seem like the most sought-after quality of intelligence, higher even than the flair of an ingenue. This is one of the ways that Poe begins to play with our expectations.
The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" tells us that this discussion will be relevant to the story to follow and now introduces us to Auguste Dupin, his friend, with whom he is spending time in Paris, a man of high class and family but who has lost a lot of his fortune in a series of events. Books are now his highest luxury. This is a love he shares with the narrator and their first meeting was at a library where they bonded over a special volume. The narrator is surprised at how well read Dupin is, and judges that his company during his stay in Paris will be very valuable. So the pair live together, and the romantic but “grotesque” house that they can afford with their combined fortunes seems to suit their mood.
Dupin is a fascinating specimen of a character and the narrator treats him with great curiosity and respect. Dupin is a mass of contradictions, very intelligent and educated but with strange whims and eccentricities at the same time, so we are not quite sure how to take him and neither is the narrator. The description of the house that they set up as their bachelor pad in the city is typical of Gothic atmosphere.
The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" tells us that if you could observe their daily routines, you’d think the pair suffered from madness. They kept completely to themselves. Dupin especially was obsessed with night time, and soon, the narrator feels the same way, and even in the day, they recreate the darkness and atmosphere of the Parisien night, keeping their shutters closed. In this false night, they write and read, and then when real night came, they jaunt around town.
The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" comments that Dupin has a particular analytic ability and enjoys using it while they are out, observing the human specimens around them. He believes he can see right into a man’s soul. The narrator doesn’t want to be misunderstood, this isn’t a mystery story about Dupin’s character, he is just using it an example from their recent strolling to illustrate Dupin’s astuteness.
Though the narrator claims that this is not a story about Dupin’s passions, we are made to be very intrigued by Dupin’s unusual gifts and in light of the exhaustive description we have just heard in favor of the creative, sensitive mind, Dupin’s sensitivity alerts us to his superiority.
Both parties are deep in thought, when suddenly Dupin interrupts with a comment strangely matching the narrator’s, about a “little fellow”, who would do well in a sort of freak show. The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" tests him, and Dupin guesses absolutely correctly that the narrator was thinking about the figure of Chantilly. Dupin then explains how he did it. He says first that it was the fruit-seller they ran into earlier in the street that brought him to the name. The narrator doesn’t believe it, though he starts to remember the fruit-seller, who had nearly knocked him down behind a basket of apples.
Dupin begins to reveal himself to be more than just a set of eccentric habits. He has the ability to see the narrator’s thoughts, even thoughts that appear to be steps removed from the scene at hand. This supernatural sense gives Dupin the upper hand and we see that the story revolves around his analytical sensitivity.
Next, Dupin explains the series of events that lead him to think of Chantilly. The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" says of this trick that it is just as if he himself has retraced his steps and his thoughts. After the fruit-seller, the narrator had tripped on a flagstone and looked down. Dupin knew he was thinking about the stones, and then they reached a newly paved street and the narrator had said to himself “stereonomy” to describe the pattern. Dupin knew then, that the word stereonomy would connote the idea of atomies and theories of Epicurus, and the next logical step would be to think of the most recent space theorist, Dr. Nichol, and look up towards the constellation Orion.
The description of Dupin’s process of detecting the narrator’s thoughts is long and complicated but Dupin doesn’t seem to put any effort into it, it comes naturally to him. This gives him a very special, intellectual power. Poe's stories often put a man of reason into a supernatural situation that overwhelms him. But Dupin seems to have a mind that combines reason and sensitivity in a way that can understand deeper mysteries, because it is itself mysterious.
Now for the final flourish, Dupin knows that the actor Chantilly recently got a review, in which the reviewer discusses his change of name from shoemaker to actor along with a Latin phrase that means “He has ruined the sound with the first letter”. Dupin knows that this refers to the change of Urion to Orion, and also knows that if the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" was to think about Orion, which he did by looking up to it, his mind would have taken him this route, to Chantilly’s stature.
This is one of the only instances in the story that we are given a glimpse into the narrator’s mind. Unlike many other Poe stories, this narrator seems to exist only to relay the story of Dupin. But as we know Dupin’s intelligence to be the kind that perceives and observes character, he illuminates the narrator’s intelligence here, which we can see is also quite developed.
Remember all this was just an example of Dupin’s skill. Now we skip to the evening in question, when they are absorbed by a report in the paper of two “extraordinary” murders of a mother and daughter at a house on the Rue Morgue. After some awful shrieking heard in the property, police and neighbors broke in and as they ascended the stairs to the fourth floor, heard some roughly spoken phrases and found complete disorder in the apartment, lengths of human hair lying bloody on the floor, two bags of money and some jewels on the floor. The mother was nowhere to be seen and the daughter was found lodged in the chimney by extreme force. A little later, the old woman’s body was found outside, with her throat cut so violently that her head was detached.
The way the narrator has introduced us to Dupin sets us up for a story about analysis and riddles. He has lulled us into a slow, methodical rhythm with his explanations of chess and whist. But now the real gore of the story is revealed. This is not just a murder but an unspeakably nightmarish one, with evidence that suggests the kind of evil antagonist to more than rival Dupin’s wit.
In the next day’s paper, the testimonies of various witnesses are described: some agree, such as that the old woman sometimes gave fortunes for a living, and that the pair had quite a bit of money saved, and that they kept very much to themselves and were hardly seen out. But most of the witnesses say slightly different things about the voices that were heard as they were approaching the scene. A policeman describes the shrieks as coming probably from two people, one rough, one much more shrill, and thought the former could have been French. Others believe they hear an Italian voice, others assume a foreign tongue, are unable to translate.
The narrator draws attention to the disparities in the long list of testimonies. Nobody can decide on what happened or even what language was being spoken, leaving the suspects very much elusive. The description of the women is more stable between the testimonies and paints a picture of a quiet pair. Their isolation as well as the lack of other relatives and friends to care about them begs the question of what motivated the murders.
The testimonies paint a picture of the house as being very difficult to get access to. The young woman’s chamber was locked from the inside, and the windows locked too. Everybody is confused, including the police. There does not seem to be a single piece of evidence of the murderer. The follow-up article reports another search, but no further evidence found, and one man called Le Bon arrested but without much reason. Dupin seems very interested in the process of the investigation and asks the narrator for his thoughts, but the narrator can add nothing.
By introducing the idea of an inept police force, Poe introduces the "thorough and well-reasoned" intellect, in contrast to Dupin's sensitive analysis. Such mundane thorough reasoning can do nothing in the face of the inexplicable. Dupin, however, who treats the whole thing like game, seems more confident.
Dupin says that the crime cannot be judged on the inept way that the investigation has been carried out by the police. He says that the police operate with diligence and thoroughness, but when these qualities don’t suit the situation, then the police miss the point entirely. He compares it with Vidocq, a detective who often looked at things too closely and missed the bigger picture. Dupin says that by viewing a star in one’s peripheral vision, thereby letting its radiance affect you, a far truer picture of the star is gained.
Dupin’s description of the creative technique of looking at a riddle employs a metaphor of a star, which expands the visual scope of the story and compares the crime to a kind of beautiful object. And note that Dupin is not motivated by a need for justice—to him the crime does seem like a beautiful object, a fun puzzle. He stands at a remove from the crime.
Dupin suggests they enter into an investigation of their own, for amusement if nothing else, but also because Dupin knows the suspect Le Bon and owes him a favor. He gets permission from the Prefect of the police and they go directly to the Rue Morgue. Dupin pays careful attention to the environs of the house. They enter and go up to the chamber. Everything original to the crime scene is still in place. Dupin looks over everything, including the gruesome bodies. They examine the scene until nighttime, and then Dupin visited a newspaper headquarters. Afterwards, Dupin is silent until the next afternoon.
Dupin’s involvement in the crime scene is not clear cut or official; he has several different interests. He alludes to a history with Le Bon, even though Le Bon is said to be innocent. He also has enough respect from the police to be allowed to investigate the crime scene and potentially undermine the police’s efforts. The figure of Dupin has a double life, one official and one underground, which are both in play here.
Dupin then asks the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" whether he noticed anything peculiar in the newspaper report. He emphasizes the word ‘peculiar’ in a way that somehow spooks the narrator. Dupin goes on to say that the paper has not presented the extremity, the unusualness of the murders. He believes that the murders seem impossible to solve to the police, because of the lack of motive and their extreme brutality. But these very factors could be used to the advantage of a detective – it is where the situation deviates from the ordinary, that gives reason a way to solve it, he claims. He advises looking at the unique aspects of the crime, rather than what appears before them.
Dupin tells the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" that he expects to be met by someone who is in part responsible for the crime. He says the man is probably largely innocent but he hopes the man will prove to be the key to the riddle. He gives the narrator a pistol to use should the meeting demand it. Next Dupin goes ahead and explains his reasoning.
Poe uses a theatrical technique in planting a gun in the scene, introducing the potential for explosion and death that builds the suspense. Dupin’s manner, which is both focused and unpredictable, also creates a sense of unease that builds the suspense of the scene.
First, the question of the voices heard. Dupin says that the voices couldn’t have been the women and the murders could not have been self-suicide because the old woman would never be strong enough to jam her daughter’s body up the chimney. Also, the voices heard were foreign, but none of the witnesses could confirm the origin of the shrill voice – only one thing is common in all the testimonies, that the voice was foreign to their own language. Having conveniently gathered statements from diverse nationalities, it seems that this voice must be quite exotic indeed, if it seems foreign to everyone. Dupin admits that an Asian or African accent has not been disproved but that adding up all the comments of the testimonies leads him to believe that the language of the “shrill” suspect is something beyond even the far reaches of the world in terms of its foreignness.
Every piece of evidence collected from the scene and the witnesses now seems to point ominously towards something stranger than an average criminal, which gives the investigation an added element of horror. Even Dupin, with his exceptional skills, is only human and his physical strength would be no match for a criminal with superhuman abilities. Also, so much of Dupin’s method depends on talking things through, thinking, contemplating and finding the logic of the puzzle, but the criminal’s unintelligible tongue warns him that communication might be impossible.
Dupin says that this discovery about the voices leads singularly to the suspicion he is now entertaining, but he won’t let on what that suspicion is just yet. He goes on to analyze the exits of the apartment. He knows that neither of them believe in the supernatural, so the material boundaries of the room must have been crossed in a material way. He goes through each means of entry and escape. First, both doors into the apartments were locked, and the chimneys are too narrow for something larger than a cat to pass through, so the only available option left are the windows.
Though the clues seem to point to a superhuman criminal, Dupin insists that it can all be explained solely by looking at the material possibilities of the scene. The narrator’s admiration for Dupin is quite clear. He presents his companion as completely in control of even this mysterious situation, to the point that Dupin creates the suspense himself, keeping the identity of his suspect and suspicion hidden.
Dupin says that they must not be deterred by how impossible this option looks. Each of the possible windows is locked and stopped with a nail. It seemed impossible to open them. Seeing these details, the police had abandoned the windows, but Dupin knows that one of them must open, and endeavors to find out some auto-locking device of the windows, since the criminal could not have fastened them from the inside, having escaped. He searches, and finds a spring mechanism that explains everything. The nail in the first window is intact and could not be replaced from the outside, so he knows the criminal must have escaped through the other window, where he indeed finds has a broken spring.
Amid the gore of the crime scene, the focus of the narrative turns to a tiny practical detail, a broken nail. Dupin is beginning to convince us that there might be a reasonable explanation for what happened here. This description of the window and the locking mechanism doesn’t sound Gothic or supernatural at all. In fact the ordinariness of the explanation is a little disconcerting.
The next question is how the suspect got down from the window. He sees that there is a way that one could escape onto a lightning rod near the house, if the shutters were open, by climbing out onto the lattice structure – one could also enter this way. But Dupin is eager point out the extreme difficulty of this move. Not only has the suspect got an unintelligible language but also an astonishing physical ability. The narrator feels like he almost understands what Dupin is getting at, but the moment passes.
Between the lines of Dupin’s analysis of the scene is a scary picture of an extraordinary criminal. The criminals gibberish language and superhuman strength, not to mention his seemingly remorseless violence, create a palpable sense of impending danger for the narrator and even Dupin.
Dupin is now concerned with the interior of the apartment. Obviously, the women’s belongings are strewn and drawers looked to have been emptied of certain things, but Dupin is not so sure. We know that the women were reclusive and wouldn’t have need for expensive or many clothes. Also, money that the banker said the old woman had recently withdrawn has been left in the room. The police have looked to this withdrawal because it occurred so close to the time of the murders but it is a complete red herring. There is no motive in this case.
The traditional methods of investigating a murder fall short in this case. Motives, like robbery or revenge, are proven to be irrelevant here – this paints a picture of a criminal who is beyond the law and unmotivated by anything—a cruel-blooded killer.
Now with all this is mind, Dupin draws the attention of the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" to the method of the crime, the extreme force of both the murders. He asks him to imagine the strength of one who can push a body into a chimney. And also, the human hair that was found at the scene, were found with clumps of blood and flesh that also imply that they were taken up with extreme force. He goes on to explain that what had looked on the body of the old woman like an injury from some kind of weapon was in fact sustained from her fall.
Now added to the athletic ability of the murderer, the lack of motive and his unintelligible voice, this superhuman strength completes the impression of a figure that not even Dupin will be able to outwit.
Dupin sums all these details up for the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" and asks him what he thinks now. The narrator can only imagine that the deed was committed by some kind of escaped madman. Dupin admits that his suggestion is not hugely off track, but even madmen have recognizable tones and phrases in their language. To top it off Dupin reveals a tuft of hair found in Madame Esplanaye’s clutches and the narrator can tell that it is not human hair. Dupin then shows the narrator a sketch of the hand mark around the old woman’s neck and the narrator knows that it is the print of no human-sized hand.
Poe effectively keeps the narrator in the dark just as we are being kept in the dark. As Dupin gradually, step by step, makes his case to the narrator, we are put in his shoes, and feel like we are in the midst of the situation. Dupin uses suspense as if he is telling a story too, choosing to tell the narrator that the criminal is non-human before explaining what kind of non-human, so that all the possibilities (paranormal or not) go through our minds.
Dupin shows the narrator of "Rue-Morgue" an excerpt from a Cuvier text about the Ourang-Outang, whose described anatomy and strength match the crime perfectly. He goes on to the question of the voices. The Ourang-Outang certainly fits the description of the shrill, unintelligible voice, but there is one other, thought to have uttered gruff French phrases at the time of the neighbors' intrusion. Dupin decides that there must be a Frenchman involved, who perhaps tried to follow the ape but escaped when he saw the horror. So far, these things seem like profound, educated guesses, but if Dupin is correct, then the Frenchman will be looking for his missing creature. Dupin has put an ad in the paper, saying that the ape will be returned (to the Maltese sailor it belongs to) upon identification.
The revelation of the Ourang-Outan as the long-awaited answer to the riddle is a bit of an anti-climax, having been lead to believe by Dupin’s suspenseful storytelling that the criminal was a paranormal figure. Yet seeing all Dupin’s puzzle pieces fit together flawlessly makes him look even more impressive and unusual himself. In the absence of a superhuman threat, Dupin becomes the exotic specimen. The wide range of his expertise is shown here. We are reminded that he reads voraciously and has many areas of knowledge to draw upon when making his analysis.
The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" wonders how Dupin knows already that the sailor is from a Maltese vessel. Again, Dupin has made a series of educated guesses, having found a ribbon on the lightning rod outside that he recognizes as being used by Maltese sailors and knotted in a Maltese fashion. He thinks that no harm can come of placing the ad – either the sailor will assume that the writer has made an error about the Maltese vessel or he will see himself described perfectly. And he will be sure to answer the ad, in order to protect his innocence.
Dupin’s often reclusive existence in Paris, secretly policing the streets, is paired with a broad, worldly knowledge, but we know very little about Dupin’s past and the origins of his insights are mysteries. Though the focus of the investigation is this sailor, the focus of the narrative again turns to Dupin and the enigma that surrounds his unusual qualities.
They hear someone enter, and they ready the pistols. They hear the sailor come hesitantly up the stairs and knock on the door of the chamber. The man has a sailor’s appearance, muscular and hardy, and greets them in a French accent. Dupin pleasantly invites him in and compliments him on the species that has brought him here.
The placement of pistols in the scene, and the gradual approach of the sailor, heightens the suspense, but Dupin’s cordial tone and the strange release of this pent-up tension when he reaches the room is a disconcerting twist.
The sailor seems worried when Dupin asks how old the animal is. He says he can’t be sure. Dupin pretends to have stored the animal nearby and to be sorry to say goodbye to it, but the sailor, eager to get the animal back, says he is prepared to offer a handsome reward. Dupin chooses for his reward to know everything possible about the murders. He has begun pleasantly, but these words come as a threat, and he produces his pistol. The sailor is suitably terrified but Dupin calmly assures him that he trusts he is almost entirely innocent of the murders, but that he surely knows a great deal more than the police and it is his responsibility to tell all he knows – there is more sense in honesty than concealment.
Dupin’s abilities to be both poetic and mathematical also correspond to a contrasting set of manners. Dupin can easily switch between kindness and menace in a way that makes us distrust both postures. He has sympathy for the young sailor and knows how badly he wants to be absolved of the crime but in order to get the truth from the sailor he needs to judge the conversation perfectly and use just the right amount of cruelty in his tone.
The sailor tells his story, how he voyaged to Borneo, and with a shipmate, captured an Ourang-Outang, but the shipmate died and left him alone with the ape. With much care, he lodged it with him in Paris, but one night, after the sailor had been out drinking, he returned home to find the beast out of its cage and imitating his shaving routine. He tries to whip the Ourang-Outang, but this only frightens the animal and it escapes. A chase ensues for hours, until, very late, the sailor comes to the Madames’ apartment and sees just what Dupin foretold – the ape entered the room using the lightning rod. The sailor followed but got stuck on the rod and could only peer into the room at the catastrophe inside. He witnessed the whole event, each scream of the mother and daughter frightening and enraging the animal more, until it spotted its master and guiltily concealed the bodies, one in the fireplace and one out of the window.
The sailor’s version of events and Dupin’s analysis of what happened line up perfectly. A vivid image of the secret lodgings of the Ourang-Outan are conjured in the sailor’s story and continue the idea of the furtive Paris streets after dark enjoyed by Dupin and the narrator. It is a world away from the police’s daytime scrutiny of the crime scene, which yielded nothing and brings a disturbing excitement to the gruesome story.
The narrator of "Rue-Morgue" adds a few closing remarks. The sailor later recaptures the Ourang-Outang and sells it for a good price, and Le Bon is released from prison. The Prefect of the police knows he’s been beaten, but he’s obviously quite annoyed at Dupin’s skill. Dupin knows that the Prefect’s wisdom is shallow but that he is a “good creature”, and ends with a condescending quote about the Prefect’s main skill, “to deny what is, and to explain what is not.”
The final passage of the story brings back the narrator as the storyteller. He has been displaced by the persuasive voice of Dupin, but it has been the narrator’s eyes through which we have seen the events. The story ends with a summing up of the lessons learned which makes it sound retrospectively like a moral tale, but Dupin’s light touch and cutting humor save it from fitting in to a traditional structure.