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Edgar Allen Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Jan 11 2014, 3:17 PM
                                                            MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE

 
     There are three striking images that a reader of what some claim is the first detective mystery written in English, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  One is the mutilated body of Madame L’Espanaye whose throat has been cut so savagely that she    seems almost to have been decapitated. Mme. Espanaye has been strangled, her body shoved up a narrow chimney, but somehow this is not quite as horrific an image as the  throat slashing. The second image is the orangutan, for whom the razor seems an entrée into civilization—which is what this essay will argue. When he fails to make the connection to the human world, he goes on his furious, murdering rampage, and proves to be the sought-after murderer, one intelligent enough to escape a locked room and detection. That is until C. Auguste Dupin arrives on the scene and, using deductive reasoning, realizes that the perpetrator of the murders is not human. 
 
     A third image, is the orangutan, who has lathered his face and, looking in a mirror, is trying to shave. The sailor, who thinks he is being mimicked by the ape, proceeds to beat him mercilessly. By the time Poe wrote his tale, the opposition between nature and civilization had taken a new direction, later described by Freud in his famous essay, “Civilization and its Discontents.” The argument was that civilization, as it had developed in the western world, required too much repression of natural instincts, and that this led to misery (or mental disturbance) for the individual and ultimately the decline of the society that demanded too much repression.  What is the sailor’s whip if not, symbolically, an instrument of repression? Traditionally, moreover, symbols of civilization have been shaving and haircuts.  It is no accident that in imitating its owner, the orangutan tries to shave.
 
      Usually the ape’s attempt to shave is read as the animal trying to mimic his master.  But there is perhaps a deeper meaning to this scene and the ape is really trying to connect to the human world and rise above his status on an evolutionary chain--very close to human, but not quite human and therefore excluded from human society. The images found in the Poe story, are the death and mutilation by a razor of Mme. Espanaye; the ape; shaving; and a straight edged razor used by the orangutan and transformed from a utilitarian object into a murderous weapon.  These images will be followed in further discussion of Murder in the Rue Morgue and in Peter Hoeg’s The Lady and the Ape, Eric Ambler’s A Journey into Fear; Ed McBain’s Ice; and Walter Mosely’s The Devil in a Blue Dress.
 
     Virtually every narrative motif in Poe’s story has been traced by the critic Richard Kopley, to stories Poe read in the Saturday News.  This might suggest a weakness in a piece of fiction with so many borrowings, but as someone said about Coleridge’s use of books on sailing and memoirs by sailors to write the Ancient Mariner, almost every line in the poem traceable to its source, you could put all those books in front of someone else and that person is unlikely to create the Ancient Mariner. This is also true of Murder in the Rue Morgue.  But two stories in the Saturday News are significant for this discussion.  One concerns an ape that tries to escape a zoo. The other is more striking (as will be seen later in the discussion of Mosely’s Devil in a Blue Dress).
 
     The story reports on the murder by a black man of his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity. Edward Coleman, who was later executed for his crime, had slashed his wife’s throat so viciously that her head was nearly severed from her body. Then he left her on the pavement, just as Poe’s orangutan had flung Madame Espanaye from a window onto the pavement below. The comparison of Poe’s orangutan to a black man, admits Kopley, is undeniably racist, although it was not likely to be received by Poe’s audience with quite as much indignation as it would today. But the comparison was not unusual and even today it continues to supply a persistent negative image of a black man as an ape.  Kopley quotes from another critic, who argues that Richard Wright’s Native Son is an ironic inversion of Murder in the Rue Morgue: “Poe’s murderer . . . an ape, is assumed by the authorities to be a man; Wright’s murderer, a man, is assumed to be an ape.”  But Kopley also argues that Poe did not intend to degrade black Americans, for there is no such connection made in the Murders in the Rue Morgue. “Indeed it was the unhumanness of the orangutan is precisely what Poe emphasized.” That is true if the reader considers the shaving scene an act of mimicry; it is not true if Poe intended that his orangutan is trying to be human.     
 
     Poe published his story in 1839 and by then Mary Shelley had published her famous novel about Dr. Frankenstein, who created a seeming human being from dead body parts, including those of a murderer. The strange creature was considered a monster and is  shunned by other humans, including his creator, Dr. Frankenstein (the monster has been generally and mistakenly known by his creator’s name), who worries about what he had unleashed and denies his creation a human mate.  From there on the creature gives into a  murderous rage and later kills Dr. Frankenstein to act out his fury at being denied human status.  Other murders follow.  Interestingly, some call Frankenstein the first science fiction story in English.  But thematic similarities between the first detective story and the first science fiction tale are focused only on the shared influence on both writers of Gothic horror stories.
 
     It is also interesting to contemplate a common source for both Mary Shelley and Poe: Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Caliban, who occupies a liminal space between beast and human, has glimpsed from people shipwrecked on his island his connection to them.  His desire for acceptance is intensified when he learns to speak as they do. But like Poe’s ape and Shelley’s monster, Caliban is rejected. His lines about this rejection are among the most striking in the play because they define humanity and differentiate humans from beasts:
 
            You taught me language; and my profit on’t
            Is, I know how to curse.  The red plague rid you
            For learning me your language.
 
It is noteworthy that language itself provides Dupin with a significant clue to solving the murder that language therefore figures prominently in Murders in the Rue Morgue.  Each witness to the murders describes a seemingly different language spoken by the murderer and from this Dupin deduces that the perpetrator of the killings is no human.  
 
 
    The connection between human and animal is hardly new, but the specific linking of man to ape occurred in the eighteenth century.  A pre-Darwinian botanist, Carl Linnaeus, made several trips through Sweden, gathering plants, animals, and inorganic minerals and classifying them.  He placed in a single category human beings and simian animals, what would later be called primates.  Linnaius’s groupings caused great consternation,   especially among the clergy.  For he was removing human beings from a divine realm and assigning them a place restricted to nature, in effect denying their image in God. By the times Poe wrote Murders in the Rue Morgue, two competing models for humans’  place in the universe could be said to have existed, both of them capable of being described in terms of a chain. The naturalist chain placed humans above apes, but only to the extent that the human species could be differentiated from those animals from which they ascended or descended (depending on one’s point of view). Later there would be talk of a missing link, but only when Linnaeus’s and then Darwin’s views gained currency—although the views of the creationists and the evolutionists involve a still ongoing controversy—did a precise differentiation of human from ape appear necessary.
 
     Today the opposition between creationists and evolutionists has arisen again if in a different form. Some are arguing that chimpanzees should be given the same rights as humans. While the thrust of the argument has to do with animal experimentation, the basis for this position is that both humans and chimpanzees share with humans 90% of their genes, that they evidence behavior toward each other characteristic of humans, such as compassion. They perhaps even possess language. The other side in the controversy points out that humans share even more of their genes with rats, but, perhaps more significant for discussing the orangutan’s murder of the L’Espanaye women, that chimpanzees show no awareness of the difference between right and wrong.  That is, they lack a moral sense.
 
     The other chain is popularly known as the Great Chain of Being, which was described by Alexander Pope, also in the eighteenth century.  This chain begins in the divine realm and descends to inorganic matter.  Man’s place on it—to employ Pope’s use of “Man” to mean human, although in his time and persisting today, woman would be assigned a lower link in the chain of being, more often irrational than reasoning, more driven by feelings than logic. Alexander Pope linked the natural to the supernatural, spiritual world, where even angels were arranged hierarchically. God had created the links of the chain but was not part of it. The situating of humans as lynch pin that joined two realms of being had a double consequence and created a significant ambiguity. In one sense, humans were privileged, made in the image of God, closest to Him of any being, and possessed an immortal soul given to no other being. In another sense, humans inhabit the only link that divides the natural from the supernatural. On one side, he could rise to the divine, and, on the other, descend to the animal. In short, humans lived in a constant state of conflict. This was a familiar idea for anyone familiar with the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit against the flesh.” Much later, Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man would develop this idea, in a poem that on one hand chastises human beings for their Pride, and on the other relates as a human being to their predicament.
 
          What would this Man? Now upward will he soar,
          And little less than Angel, would be more;
          Now looking downwards, just as grieved appears
          To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.
          ……………………………………………………
          Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
          A being darkly wise, and rudely great.
          ……………………………………………………
          He hangs between, in doubt to act, or rest;
          In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast.    
 
     The great Chain of Being, as described in Pope, is a fixed entity. Evolution, by definition, involves change and the development of one thing into another.  Edward Coleman, who killed his wife because she might have been unfaithful to him, has acted on instinct and feeling, not reason.  His was what is known as a crime of passion, although it seems to also have been premeditated.  But although his wife probably was unfaithful, he was not absolutely sure.  In St. Paul’s sense, her desires of the flesh and his irrational desires to respond in kind revealed that both have sunk to his or her lower self. In a similar sense, the orangutan in the Murders in the Rue Morgue reverts to sheer beast when he is thwarted by his attempts to be human, to rise to a higher being.  Its  murder of Madame Espanaye and her daughter, in the end, might not be so different from Coleman’s murder of his wife.  Murders in the Rue Morgue indicates that when Poe read the story of Coleman’s crime, he had made such a connection. 
 
     When Poe wrote his story, it was generally understood that there was a beast inside every human.  The more disquieting idea was that there might be a latent human inside every beast.  Only the most committed romanticist would have been comfortable with such a belief.  In one of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote, “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran, / And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of man.”   What the protagonist of Eric Ambler’s A Journey into Fear concludes after the harrowing experience of trying to evade the people out to murder him is not that the link to nature imbues in humans a higher ethical sense than animals, but that in reality, humans are merely apes in velvet.
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