Thursday, 4 April 2013

Unlocking the Uncanny in the Rue Morgue

In The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud suggests that the literary qualities of ‘uncanny tales’ give rise to new forms of ‘uncanniness’, noting that this type of fiction ‘is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life’.

In his story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allen Poe presents the reader with a mystery that seems to defy any rational explanation: the murder of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter in a room locked from the inside and on the apparently inaccessible fourth floor of their building. The circumstances of the murders render the crime itself an uncanny act, and the nature of the mystery is further compounded by the inability of the witnesses to make sense of the overheard language used by the killer, as they argue about his nationality. What this seems to highlight is the association of foreign-ness with the uncanny: the fear of the unknown is also extended to the fear of the foreign. All the witnesses claim to know which language the killer was speaking, despite none of them being able to speak the languages they claim to have heard: ‘The shrill voice was that of an Englishman’, and ‘Spoke quick and unevenly […] it is the voice of a Russian’. At the time of the story’s publication France was engaged in various rivalries with Great Britain and Russia, and so this association of foreign-ness with criminal activity is suggestive of the fear of invasion from within by something alien and therefore uncanny.

The notion of invasion from within is crystallised in the idea of the locked room. The locked room symbolises both sanctuary and prison. Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter live apart from the rest of the neighbourhood, rarely conversing with anyone else and are said to be rich; ‘The two lived an exceedingly retired life – were reputed to have money’. Their ‘retirement’ from society is reflected in the sanctuary of the locked apartment: ‘The shutters of the front windows were seldom opened. Those in the rear were always closed, with the exception of the large back room, fourth floor’. However, this disengagement proves to be their undoing, as the locked room fails to provide Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter with an escape route from the killer. Poe thus deprives his characters of the sanctuary they have attempted to create by introducing the uncanny element – the killer.

The revelation that the killer is in fact an escaped orang-utan, who climbed to the fourth floor, and was trying to imitate its owner shaving when it cut the throat of Madame L’Espanaye is arrived at by a process of logical deduction. The central protagonist C. Auguste Dupin works out that the grip of the killer is too broad to be human. In Dupin, Poe applies a methodical, almost scientific, approach to deduction that would prove to have a significant impact on the development of the detective story, particularly influencing Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes series. Dupin’s method of deduction is described by Poe as ‘the extent of information obtained; [lying] not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation’.
Indeed, this is borne out in Holmes’ famous quote that, ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. In the case of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin arrives at his deduction through a combination of observation (when questioning the orang-utan’s owner about the murders he notes that his face ‘flushed up as if he were struggling with suffocation’) and prior knowledge of orang-utans’ behaviour, gained from studying a written account by a zoologist.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the foundation for the modern detective story, in which the emphasis is placed squarely upon analysis and deductive reasoning. The element of excitement derives not from what is unknown, but what is gradually revealed through close analysis. In this respect, the detective functions much like the psychoanalyst: his role is to unravel the mystery – the uncanny element – through a process of reasoning. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the ‘locked room mystery’, which finds its origin in Poe, became so popular with writers of crime fiction: the locked room serving as the ideal tool for the unpicking of the psyche.

In the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a young woman is found dead in her locked room, her dying words, ‘it was the band, the speckled band’ offering an intriguing mystery. The ‘speckled band’ is revealed to be a deadly snake, which the young woman’s stepfather placed in her room through a vent connected to his room, with the intention of claiming her late mother’s inheritance for himself. The symbolism of the snake is obvious – the forced intrusion into the safety of the daughter’s room by a threatening masculinity providing the uncanny element.

The legacy of the ‘locked room mystery’ can be seen in such diverse works as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and perhaps most famously in The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr. Other variations including H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House have SF elements, which is a testament to Poe's wider influence on genre fiction prior to the introduction of labels like crime fiction, science fiction and horror.

N.B. ‘Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction’ (18 January-12 May 2013) at the British Library provided the inspiration for this post in its recognition of the significance of Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the subsequent popularity of the ‘locked room mystery’.  

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