Truth from an Infinite Number of Fictions?

Resolving the Problem of Ratiocination in Edgar Allan Poe's Detective Fiction

In the space of three unusual short stories in the early 1840s, Edgar Allen Poe created the first pieces of detective fiction, with C. Auguste Dupin as their lead character. It is Dupin who first presumed to make a hobby of solving mysteries and who set the detective genre’s foundational characteristics. In Dupin’s concluding monologue in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” he declares, “My ultimate object is only the truth” (19), a remark with a sentiment so natural to detective fiction today that it is easy to miss why it deserves a more thoughtful reading. Dupin's remark comes as an unapologetic defense of an imaginative, unorthodox method of reasoning, which Poe calls ratiocination and which can be best described as leveraging intuition to make sweeping connections between the tiniest of details. Dupin’s ratiocination makes connections that would

seem “to the ordinary apprehension preternatural” (“Rue Morgue” 2). His reasoning is often heavily counterfactual; Dupin thrives on suppositions and probabilities, on what might have happened but didn't; and he extracts information out of sources that he himself derides as unreliable. At one point in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Dupin even says that “My design, so far, has no reference to the facts of the case” (39). His methodology, as he admits, runs contrary to the “proper” practice of “making out a case” as one would in the courtroom (“Rue Morgue” 19, reiterated in “Marie Roget” 39). We might naturally wonder: with such a nonchalant attitude towards “fact,” how can Dupin expect to figure out the truth by looking at an infinite number of possible fictions?

To unravel this puzzle between truth and fiction, we will draw an analogy between Poe’s ratiocination and Georg Simmel's “the stranger.” Such an analogy will serve to focus our attention on the inherent tension in the relationship between the observer and the thing observed, and specifically, between Dupin and the objects of his investigation. The unusual relationship at play depends upon an awareness of distance that Simmel identifies in his description of the stranger. Simmel's social form of “the stranger” is characterized by its “union of closeness and remoteness” (143) with respect to a particular social group. A stranger in this sense is not someone unknown; rather, the stranger must be someone near, so that he can interact with the group, and yet also be remote or otherwise marked by otherness from having once been “outside” the group. Such a mixture of

nearness and remoteness gives the stranger a unique social perspective, which Simmel calls “objectivity” (145). It is “objective” in the sense that the stranger's mind is essentially free from the particular biases and distortions that arise from belonging to the group. Simmel's stranger is acknowledged as having the potential to see clearly into matters that might flummox others in the group. Simmel's observation is that the stranger, having been “outside” the group, has seen a great deal of difference (between people and their personal perspectives). Because of this, the stranger is especially well placed to see into the very heart of things, the things fundamental to the nature of the people concerned. The traits of the stranger, then, are beginning to sound like Dupin's uniquely penetrating methods of investigation.

In other words, there is a certain similarity between Simmel's “stranger” and Dupin's role in solving mysteries by ratiocination. We can glean some hints of this similarity from the narrator's descriptions of Dupin while he is thinking: his manner is “abstract,” as though he were “speaking to some one at a great distance” (“Rue Morgue” 15). It seems as though Dupin is estranged, that he is present and yet absent, near and yet far away. And he delivers original insights with that curious mingling of lucidity and detachment that Simmel's stranger possesses. Now the question arises: if Dupin is a stranger, then from what is he estranged? Dupin wrestles not so much with the workings of any one social structure as with real mysteries. So we are led to wonder whether, by the indirect approach of his

ratiocination, Dupin breaks out not from any social group but from reality itself. In doing so, he would see the world as freely and objectively as Simmel's stranger sees the workings of his social structure. But while Simmel's stranger acquired his “remoteness” from having once been outside the social group, it would seem nonsensical for Dupin to have “come from” someplace outside of his own reality. Dupin even continually asserts his lack of faith in “praeter-natural events” (“Rue Morgue” 16). It is therefore our hypothesis that in ratiocination, Dupin somehow deliberately flings himself out of his reality in order to return to it an estranged man, near and yet remote, bringing the objectivity of the stranger to bear upon the cases he is charged to solve.

Since this paper focuses on Dupin’s relationship to reality and its inherent discord with “truth,” it is important first to take a closer look at a few key terms. The tension between fact and fiction within Dupin's method of ratiocination indicates a greater underlying tension found in the narratives, especially in “Marie Roget,” which we can pose as the tension between conflicting realities. I say “realities” rather than “conflicting impressions of the same reality” because an important point in the story is how each perspective on the world is so consuming as to become a “real” thing in itself; we each experience what we see with all the force of a particular reality. This, for instance, is the criticism that Dupin levels against the policeman Vidocq: that “he impaired his vision by holding the object too close ... in so

doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the object as a whole” (“Rue Morgue” 13). In a way, all of the witnesses in “Rue Morgue” are similarly caught up in their own realities. These multiple realities give rise to apparently conflicting stories. On the other hand, the “truth” Dupin seeks is quite unlike these differing realities. Dupin refers to “truth” as the “ultimate object,” something transcendental, greater than and independent of what any individual sees. Truth, in this sense, is more like what is held in common by all realities, but with an important proviso: although it is contained within all realities, the truth may not be obvious from within any one such reality. For if we know only one reality, how can we tell the difference between truth and our own particular prejudice? This is difficult; to the ordinary mind, an escape from the confines of one’s own reality would appear “preternatural.” But I believe that this escape is something Dupin deliberately pursues and attains. Like Simmel's stranger, Dupin's understanding of what is close at hand is oblique, being shaped by the lens of the faraway. Yet unlike Simmel's stranger, Dupin's journeys are into the realm of unreality and fiction.

Such claims on Dupin’s ability to escape the confines of his own reality call for a closer analysis of the nature of ratiocination as presented in Poe’s texts. To do so, we can use the distinction between truth and reality to examine the narrations in greater detail. Since ratiocination is a difficult concept, it might be best to begin discussing it in practice; by bypassing the attempt to understand ratiocination analytically, it will be easier

to come to understand it. The question, then, is by what means could Dupin possibly estrange himself (as Simmel might describe it) from the limits of reality? One technique that Dupin visibly demonstrates is his judicious rejection of most factual data. For instance, in “Marie Roget” the Prefect of Police comes to tell him everything known to them about the details of a murder. Perched in his armchair, Dupin seems to be attentive, but glancing behind Dupin's green spectacles, the narrator notices that Dupin sleeps “throughout the seven or eight leaden-footed hours which immediately preceded the departure of the Prefect” (31). Dupin later solves the mystery using a variety of highly opinionated newspaper clippings that he ridicules as being woefully inaccurate. Intuitively, this seems to be an awfully roundabout way of solving a mystery, but under our model of ratiocination, it makes some sense: Dupin rejects the Prefect's data for fear that it will cause him to engage too closely with a single reality, and one that already had fallen short of solving the mystery at that. Instead, Dupin prefers to keep his ratiocination unclouded. The sources that he does end up using reveal more about the truth than any one account could, and it is precisely because they seem to contradict one another that they are able to guide Dupin toward that “ultimate object.” Viewed as realities, the wild differences of the newspaper sources make their implicit commonalities stand out all the more clearly to the ratiocinator.

So as Dupin pieces together truth from a variety of realities, we may ask how he escapes the confines of his own mind. That is, how does Dupin transcend the bias inherent in his own hold on

the world? Our answer is drawn from the introduction to “Rue Morgue,” which counter-intuitively tells us that “analysis” (that is, ratiocination) comes into its own when the analyst is “deprived of ordinary resources” (3). We have just seen an example of this in the solution to “Marie Roget,” when Dupin rejects the Prefect’s evidence and relies on newspaper accounts to solve the murder. However, this principle of depriving oneself of ordinary resources can be seen not only while Dupin is solving mysteries but also in his everyday life with his friend, the narrator of “Rue Morgue.” One might say that their daily life prepares the way for ratiocination to happen, clearing away the superficial elements of normal life to reveal the essential. This is why the friends find “mental excitement” in “seclusion,” “Darkness” and “dreams” (“Rue Morgue” 5): in pursuing these things, the friends are sealing themselves away from society, from light, from ordinary resources that seem to be necessary to keep up the status quo of ordinary reality. In experimenting with different realities, the friends are therefore more likely to figure out the underlying truth that they all share. Still, it is noteworthy that Dupin does not go into seclusion alone. That the two friends go into seclusion together is a necessary move to prevent them from becoming more trapped within their own respective realities. Together, they can avoid the error of engaging too much with one reality while avoiding the error of failing to engage with any reality at all. Doing so prevents them from becoming lost in abstraction. To use Simmel’s words, they can avoid being too near while also avoiding being too remote.

We might now have enough hold on ratiocination to consider how Poe presents the concept in his own words. It may seem as though we should have begun with Poe's own account of ratiocination, given that “Rue Morgue” begins with two and a half pages of philosophical musings intended to introduce us to the idea. However, although these pages offer us a wealth of analytical material, it takes a bit of work to figure out what that material is saying, as seen in the very first sentence: “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis” (2). The entirety of the philosophical introduction falls into figurative language, a compilation of analogies and discussions varying from mathematics and chess to the eighteenth century card game “whist.” But what is the point of it all? We start to see the bigger picture later on in “Rue Morgue,” when Dupin makes an astronomical analogy that hearkens back to the language of the introduction, saying that one beholds a star more distinctly when it is viewed “in a sidelong way” (13), during the same monologue in which he says that Vidocq “impaired his vision by holding the object too close” (13). If we consider more generally the purpose of all this figurative language, a deeper pattern emerges. The figurative language is describing ratiocination in an oblique, “sidelong” way; that is, the figurative language is acting out ratiocination itself. This interesting parallel suggests that obliqueness is so central to the nature of ratiocination that even Poe cannot describe it directly. In this sense, the opening sentence is in fact misleading: the narrator's analysis of

ratiocination is exactly a walkthrough of what ratiocination ought to look like.

We can test the strength of these ideas by pitting them against an even more complicated textual problem: the inconsistent narration of “Marie Roget.” Over the course of “Marie Roget” we are made increasingly and uncomfortably aware that the narrator’s own perspective on reality seems to be breaking up, bursting in and out of the diegesis. The narration in “Rue Morgue” was clearly being delivered by Dupin's friend, and it seems to be his voice that carries over as the narrator of “Marie Roget.” The friend continues to interact with Dupin as he did in the first story. However, in a note claiming to be from the “editors” that later interrupts the main text of “Marie Roget,” we are told that we have been reading “Mr Poe’s article,” and not the article of Dupin’s friend (62). Furthermore, in a footnote to “Marie Roget” it is stated that the entire story is a “pretence” and a “fiction,” with the real intention that “all argument founded upon the fiction is applicable to the truth: and the investigation of the truth was the object” (27). This last claim is especially noteworthy. Not only are we perplexed as to whose story this is, but the entire diegetic world has been openly called a “fiction.” Yet under our suggested explanation of Dupin's method of ratiocination, it is natural that reality should be subjective by nature; one man’s reality, in other words, is another man’s fiction. One might argue that Poe has made the narration deliberately complicated in order to put us in the same position as Dupin and his friend, in which they are forced to regard the

truth obliquely because a direct experience of reality cannot be trusted. As evidence of this, we can read this footnote of “Marie Roget” as the most accurate description of what ratiocination is really about. It is precisely because it is a mere footnote, and not part of the main narrative, that we can perhaps trust what it has to say and what it means for our understanding of ratiocination. Poe’s choice of structure here reinforces our idea that it is what seems most “remote” (as Simmel might say) that, in union with what is near at hand, ultimately bears fruit in investigating the truth.

What we have seen is that ratiocination affords its practitioner the same curious advantage of objectivity that Simmel’s stranger gains from his travels, and none can doubt its efficacy at helping Dupin solve mysteries. Still, there is a certain lingering discord. Perhaps the greatest unanswered questions are who the narrator of “Marie Roget” really is and how Mr Poe gets into it. Perhaps the diegesis of “Marie Roget” never really ends, with the implication that any absolute truth must carry over from any one reality and apply to all others, including ours. This might justify Dupin seeking truth in fiction. Then again, perhaps the real message of “Marie Roget” is that in trying to overstep the bounds of one’s own reality, the ratiocinator must make the sacrifice of seeing his whole world reduced to a mere “pretence” or “fiction” (“Marie Roget” 27). It would seem that Dupin and his friend tread a dangerous boundary, one defined by its inexorable contradiction of wishing

to be close and yet also reaching for the benefits of being far away. Fitting, then, that the images emphasized again and again in the introduction to “Rue Morgue,” and the introduction and conclusion of “Marie Roget,” are those of games and probability. They are profitable if played rightly, but they are also exceedingly perilous.

Works Cited

  1. Poe, Edgar Allan; Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. New York: Doubleday, 1984. Print.
  2. Simmel, Georg; On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1972. Print.


For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.

The annotations found throughout this essay were prepared by Donna Mumme, Ph.D., a preceptor in the Harvard Writing Program and a developmental psychologist researching early childhood behavior and how children read social and emotional cues.