a sober mystification

Poe's "The Gold Bug"

"The Gold Bug," written in 1843, isn't among Edgar Allan Poe's best-known tales. Perhaps the problem is the fact that its species is difficult to pin down. Though it is a kind of detective story, "The Gold Bug" isn't related or similar to the famous trilogy of detective stories in which C. August Dupin is the protagonist. And, unlike Poe's horror stories, "The Gold Bug" has a happy ending. It tells the tale of a Southern gentleman who, much like Poe himself, "had been born wealthy; but a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want." This man, one William Legrand, finds a rare scaraboeus (a "gold bug"). Lergrand believes that, "since fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly, and I shall arrive at the [real] gold of which it is the index." Though both Jupiter (Legrand's manumited negro servant) and his friend (Poe's narrator) fear that he has been bitten by the gold bug, and thus driven insane, Legrand does in fact find a vast fortune, one worth well over $1.5 million.

In a comment on stories about people who hunt for buried treasure, Legrand makes clear Poe's confidence in the eventual success of his own exceptional tale: "You will observe that the stories told are all about money-seekers, not about money-finders." The reference is to stories such as Washington Irving's "The Money-Diggers" (1838) and Seba Smith's "The Gold-Diggers" (1840). A tale about money-finding would be a guaranteed winner: as a matter of fact, "The Gold Bug" won first prize in a contest sponsored by The Dollar Newspaper in 1843. Because of the singular coincidence of the names ("Gold" and Dollar), some readers suspected a "humbug" of some kind, and the reputation of the story was irreparably damaged.

The bulk of the narration is devoted to the many steps by which Legrand traveled from the scaraboeus to real gold (gold coins; gold rings, ornaments and watches; and several kinds of precious stones). He fings the bug on a beach; Jupiter looks about for something to grab it and wrap it up in, and finds a piece of parchment; this parchment is retained after the bug is caught, temporarily loaned out and then returned to Legrand; the parchment becomes wet and is accidentally heated; and a skull, the image of a young goat (a kid) and an encrypted message are revealed to have been written on the parchment in invisible ink. Between, separating and yet connecting, each of these steps is, in Legrand's words, a "singular coincidence," the effect of which is that "the mind struggles to establish a connection -- a sequence of cause and effect -- and, being unable to do so, suffers a species of paralysis." It is by virtue of Legrand's will that, at each stage of this series, he is able to break through his paralysis and move on.

Legrand's will is motivated and strengthened by Jupiter, out of whose mouth comes a stream of verbal singular coincidences, otherwise known as puns. The effect of these puns is to cause a species of paralysis known as laughter. For example, when Legrand refers to the bug's antennae, Jupiter says, "Dey ain't no tin in him, Massa Will [...] de bug is a goole-bug, solid [gold], ebery bit of him, inside and all." Once he of the Massive Will (Legrand) reaches the stage of the encrypted message, he uses his Poe-like intelligence to translate it into English (in which "kid" is a pun on Captain Kidd), punctuate it, interpret it, and then execute the complex instructions that it contains.

But what makes "The Gold Bug" highly valuable (a literary work of art), rather than merely entertaining (a humbug) is the fact that encrypted within it is a very sophisticated set of meditations on the subject of money. Specifically, "The Gold Bug" concerns the transition from gold coins (here symbolized by the scaraboeus) to paper money (the piece of parchment). In America, which was the first country to make widespread use of paper money, these very controversial developments took place in the 1830s and '40s, that is, precisely when Poe was alive and writing all the works for which he would become famous, if not extravagantly wealthy.

"The Gold Bug" carries an epigraph that warns its readers that decrypting the tale's real meaning may prove difficult. These lines --

What ho! What ho! this fellow is dancing mad!
He hath been bitten by the Tarantula.

-- are attributed to a work entitled All in the Wrong [hic]. Such a work exists (it was written by Arthur Murray), but it does not contain these lines, which can in fact be found in Frederick Reynold's The Dramatist (written in 1789). And so, right from the start, we must proceed cautiously, that is, if we want to "hit pay dirt."

Like Marc Shell, author of Money, Language and Thought, we note that in the 1830s and '40s, the "gold bugs" were those who insisted that money (coins) should be made out of gold and that paper money was a mere shadow, a ghost, a humbug that should not be accepted or used as legal tender. Their objection was based on the idea that gold, unlike paper, is inherently valuable, that is, valuable even when it isn't properly inscribed or indited with certain images, words and symbols by a bank or the government. Gold costs money (and human lives) to excavate from the ground, while paper literally grows on trees. If the government were allowed to print and accredit paper money, it could turn anything into legal tender, simply by placing its stamp upon it. Phrased another way, the relationship between inscription and inscribed thing is necessary or logical in coined money, but contingent or arbitrary in paper money. And the "transition" from coins to bills wasn't necessary or logical (that is, natural), but contingent and arbitrary (political), and thus very dangerous.

It is significant that the treasure unearthed by Legrand contains jewels and gold ("several very large and heavy coins, so worn that we could make nothing of their inscriptions"), but no paper money. So that we do not miss the point, Poe has his narrator state, "There was no American money," which presumably would be worthless. It is also significant that the road to this golden treasure begins with the discovery of the scaraboeus, and not with the discovery of the piece of parchment. Marc Shell takes these facts to signify a critique of paper money, that is, a denunciation of and warning about its disassociative, illogical and unnatural powers. The story begins and ends with gold; paper is merely a step or detour along the way. To quote Legrand: "Do you know that [...] in supposing it to be a bug of real gold [...] Jupiter is quite right about it?"

But the fact of the matter is that, despite the story's title, the gold bug is a factor or element that could easily have been removed or discarded. The key to discovering the buried treasure was the discovery and decryption of the parchment, not the scaraboeus. To make this clear, Legrand tells Poe's narrator that, when he (Legrand) dropped a small, heavy object through the left eye-socket of a human skull that had been nailed to the limb of a tall tree -- and thus determined the location of the buried treasure -- he could have used a bullet, something composed of a base metal, rather than the gold bug itself. "I felt somewhat annoyed by your evident suspicions touching my sanity," Legrand says, "and so resolved to punish you quietly, in my own way, by a little bit of sober mystification."

And so, everything that might be said about the power of paper money can also be said about coined money: both of them produce disassociative, illogical and unnatural effects. What's so special about gold? As King Midas learned so tragically, you can't eat it. Provided that they are inscribed with the right words, images and symbols, even bullets can be used as legal tender. Though the advent of paper money made visible a certain crisis, that crisis didn't begin or wasn't caused by paper money; it began or was caused by the advent of money itself, thousands of years ago.

-- Bill Not Bored, February 2005