Edgar Allan Poe was writing at a time when race, social class and diversity were becoming a contentious issue. The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841, and contextually this puts it at a time when slavery was becoming illegal in much of the world - it had been outlawed in the British Empire eight years before the short story's publication in 1833 and many of the Northern American States had also completely outlawed it. These freed slaves, as well as immigration from much Europe, lead to a newer, more diverse urban landscape against which "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is set. This essay will argue that in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" Poe plays upon his audience's fear of urban diversity, and draws upon his own racial fears to create a tale which scares his audience as much as it entertains them with the thrill of the mystery. However,it is not to be expected that Poe would write "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" entirely as an extended metaphor against urban diversity as he was highly critical of allegory, writing that "In defence of allegory... there is scarcely one respectable word to be said." Therefore, it is important not to expect the entirety of the short story to be a metaphor for any kind of view on urban diversity.
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One issue with analysing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in terms of the fears of urban diversity held by Poe's audience is that it is set in Paris whilst Poe was an American writer, meaning it may appear odd that Poe was writing about fears of urban diversity in another country. However, much of Poe's early audience were French rather than American, meaning that it was in his financial interest to write a short story set in Paris, and, furthermore, France and the United States shared a very close relationship centred around similar ideals exemplified by the French gift to the US of the Statue of Liberty. Additionally, the Paris in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" - an imaginary Paris as Poe had never visited France (Poe, 1974, p.245) - is portrayed as a centre of learning and high European culture. It is a place where "books... are easily obtained" and Dupin and the anonymous narrator spend some time discussing the theatre, specifically "Crebillon's tragedy." This paradigm of high culture and learning could quite easily feel a similar threat from the growing urban diversity as the white-dominated slave-owning Virginia where Poe lived for much of his life, and even more so in Philadelphia where the Poes had moved in 1838 and which had been the site of the Philadelphia Race Riots that same year.
Paris in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is portrayed as a diverse city, with people from England, The Netherlands, Spain and Italy amongst the witnesses to the murder, although it is said to be a place where "neither Asiatics nor Africans abound." Whilst all being Europeans, the witnesses all show some subconscious racism towards each other, each being sure that the orang-utan's cries "was not the voice of one of his own countrymen", and it is safe to assume that Poe is trying to say something more here as it is incredibly unrealistic for a person to mistake an orang-utan's shrieks for a person speaking a different language, and even harder for multiple people to mistake an orang-uran's shrieks for multiple other languagess. Instead, on a metaphorical level, it suggests that each of the witnesses to the crime view members of other nations as animals; they are literally unable to distinguish them from (the cries of) an animal. Tellingly, the witness Alfonzo Garcio suspects the shrieks are English, Poe's native language, and the English-speaker amongst the witnesses, William Bird commits a similar error, believing the orang-utan to have been speaking German. Therefore, the short story cannot be seen as fear of, or as condemning, non-English speakers. Furthermore, the same errors are committed both to and by French speakers, so despite the Parisian setting, the novel is not explicitly pro- or anti-French, either. Overall, this aspect of the novel is more critical of inter-European racial tensions than racism as a whole, as with no "Asiatics or Africans" Poe's anti-racial tensions message can only apply to Europeans, and by extension, people of European descent.
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That Poe would be critical of inter-European tensions whilst not being anti-racist as a whole is not surprising, given what is known about him. In fact, Poe was not just not against racism, he was actually quite racist: Rosenthal (1974) writes that no "serious scholar could doubt that Poe supported the institution of slavery." Poe attempted to create "white art" and "white culture" (Erkkila, B, 2001). "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a short story written, in Poe's time, for a white audience, rather than a mixed-race audience.
An orang-utan with a razor blade was frequently used as a caricature of a freed slave in Poe's America (Hartmann, 2008) and it is hardly coincidental that this is what commits the murder, and a murder of two white women no less, fully capitalising upon the horror many white people felt at the possibility of the end of slavery. Further emphasising the relationship between the orang-utan and the slaves is the fact that the orang-utan, like the slaves, was captured and shipped across the sea by the sailor - frequently referred to as the animal's "master" - with the intention of selling it. However, the orang-utan also shares characteristics with "Asiatics", as Poe refers to them, primarily in the sense that it was actually captured in Borneo, rather than Africa, suggesting that the orang-utan is a personification of multiple non-white races, rather than only potential freed black slaves. Race in the short story and Poe's racial politics also appear to be not entirely simplistic in Dupin, the gentleman detective from an "illustrious family" He is intelligent, analytical, and creative, and in short, embodies a lot of positive qualities that Poe would want a white person to possess. However, whilst certain characteristics of the orang-utan are described as being "well-known to all", Dupin's understanding is far deeper than simply knowing about the "gigantic stature" and the "prodigious strength." He possesses the ability to force himself to think like the orang-utan in order to empathise with it and solve the murder, seemingly making the exemplar of what Poe would have considered excellent white characteristics to be closer to the orang-utan (and therefore the black slaves) than first apparent. However, in the opening explanation of 'rationcination', Poe, in the persona of Dupin's friend, the anonymous narrator, describes the process as "calculat(ion)" and the overall impression is that Dupin is able to empathise with the orang-utan not because he shares many mental characteristics with it, or at least no more than any other white human, but simply because he is very highly intelligent, and can study the animal scientifically, in a similar way to which human beings and particularly criminals were studied by phrenologists, a field that was considered a science in Poe's day. (Hungerford, 1990, p.209) However, it is noteworthy that the narrator claims he and Dupin would both be "regarded as madmen", so Dupin is not quite the epitome of white European culture from a pro-white-supremacists point of view.
Kennedy, (2001, p.ix) writes that to Poe, the modern city was associated with the "proliferation of crime" and that this is seen in the Dupin stories. This fear is linked to the fear of diversity and slavery: much as many racist stereotypes about ethnic minorities being criminals still pervade today, in Poe's short story it is the metaphorical non-white person which commits the murder, a murder which is shown to be particularly shocking, and not just for the apparent physical impossibility of it. The newspaper report describes it as "horrible to relate!" and the description is incredibly brutal, with Madame L'Espanaye's head suffering such violence as to be almost unrecognisable as human. Poe's metaphorical meaning is clear: if the black slaves are freed then they will remove the humanity of white society.
The two victims in the story, the mother and daughter L'Espanaye, are both white women, suspected to come from money, and at least rich enough to withdraw the quite considerable sum of 4000 francs. In his essay "The Philosophy of Furniture" Poe reveals that he holds such people in high esteem, but because of their blood, rather than their wealth (and in fact, he is critical of the culture where money rather than aristocratic status is desired which was prevalent in the United States.)
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