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The Gold Bug | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Meeting

"The Gold Bug" tells the story of a once-wealthy man's attempt to regain his fortune using methods that cause his friends to question his sanity. The story opens on October 18, sometime around the year 1840. The unnamed narrator describes his longtime friend, Mr. William Legrand, who moved to a small island in South Carolina after his wealthy family lost their fortune. The island is isolated and barren, save for strangely shaped shrubbery and "an almost impenetrable coppice" or woodland. Legrand lives on the island with "his man" Jupiter, a freed slave who chose to accompany Legrand when he moved to South Carolina. He lives with Legrand as an indentured servant and calls Legrand "Massa Will."

After not seeing Legrand for a few weeks, the narrator visits his friend on the island. Because it's a cool, autumn day, Legrand has built a fire, the warmth of which the narrator welcomes. Legrand is beside himself with excitement, having just discovered a new species of beetle on the island. The beetle, he claims, is "of a brilliant golden color" that Jupiter suggests is real gold. Unfortunately, Legrand lent the beetle to his neighbor, a fellow bug enthusiast, so he can't show the narrator until the following morning. He offers to draw a picture of the markings on the bug's back. Searching for paper but finding none, Legrand sketches the markings on a random scrap of parchment he had in his pocket.

As the narrator inspects the drawing, Legrand's large dog bursts into the room and rushes toward the narrator to be petted. The narrator laughs and relaxes in his chair, accidentally bringing the drawing close to the fire. The narrator expresses surprise at how much the drawing appears like a skull, and Legrand is offended at the criticism of his artwork. When the narrator hands the drawing back to Legrand, a confounded expression crosses Legrand's face. He stares blankly at the parchment and ignores the narrator for the next few minutes, prompting the narrator to comment: "He made an anxious examination of the paper; turning it in all directions ... His conduct greatly astounded me." As he leaves, the narrator worries that Legrand might be losing his mind.

The Return

About a month later, Jupiter anxiously visits the narrator in Charleston: "I had never seen [Jupiter] look so dispirited, and I feared that some serious disaster had befallen my friend." Jupiter confirms that Legrand has been acting strangely after being bitten by the gold beetle. More obsessed with finding fortune than before, his behavior seems erratic and bizarre: "What make him dream bout de goole so much, if tain't cause he bit by de goole-bug?" Jupiter delivers a note from Legrand requesting that the narrator visit him as he hasn't been feeling well. He claims they must discuss "business of importance" and asks the narrator to come straight away. Jupiter stops on the way back to purchase spades and scythes, alarming the narrator. Whenever the narrator tries to discuss Legrand and his strange behavior, Jupiter blames everything on "de bug," which he again insists is made of real gold. When they arrive at the island, the narrator agrees that the beetle's weight is unusually heavy but remains wary of Legrand's insistence that the bug "is to make my fortune ... to reinstate me in my family possessions."

The Hunt

Legrand admits to sending Jupiter to retrieve the narrator because he needs someone he can trust to accompany him on an "expedition" into the wilderness: "We shall need the aid of some person in whom we can confide." The narrator rejects the invitation if it has anything to do with the beetle. After a brief deliberation, the narrator agrees to join Legrand on the hike if Legrand promises to drop "the bug business" afterward and to follow his advice as his physician. They set out at four o'clock in the afternoon with the narrator desperately worried that Legrand has gone mad: "When I observed this last, plain evidence of my friend's aberration of mind, I could scarcely refrain from tears." Nevertheless, he follows behind Legrand who is swinging the beetle from a string tied to his pocket, while Jupiter, carrying the spades and scythes, mutters under his breath about the bug.

After hiking for two hours, they arrive at a particular tree. Legrand asks Jupiter to take the bug, climb the tree, and look for anything unusual. Jupiter refuses, terrified of the bug, but Legrand pressures him to take it: "If you do not take it up with you in some way, I shall be under the necessity of breaking your head with this shovel." Jupiter eventually complies. Following Legrand's command, Jupiter climbs to the seventh branch up the tree, although doing so puts him in danger. When Jupiter calls back that this tree limb is mostly dead, Legrand falls into "the greatest distress." Jupiter suggests he could go out even further if he could drop down the heavy bug. Irate, Legrand shouts, "You infernal scoundrel! ... I'll break your neck," with an anger that only adds to the narrator's suspicions that Legrand has gone mad.

Suddenly Jupiter shouts fearfully that he sees a skull. Elated, Legrand asks Jupiter whether he knows right from left, and when Jupiter says he does, asks him to drop the gold bug through the skull's left eyehole, careful not to let go of the string. Legrand works quickly with the scythe to clear a circular space into which the beetle can fall and be easily seen. When it drops, Legrand marks the spot with a wooden peg, then measures out 50 feet and places another peg. He creates a circle four feet wide around the second peg and hurriedly starts digging.

The narrator joins the dig even though he "had no especial relish for such amusement," but worries that if he refuses, he will greatly disturb a man already acting quite strangely: "I saw no mode of escape." He briefly considers overpowering Legrand and dragging him to the doctor, but he knows that the depth of Jupiter's loyalty would render the plan impossible. So he agrees to work alongside the other men. They dig for two hours, turning up nothing. Heartbroken, Legrand calls it quits and starts to head back home.

The Discovery

A few paces from the dig site, Legrand suddenly realizes that Jupiter could have been wrong. He questions him again about which eyehole he dropped the bug through, and realizing Jupiter was confused about his right and left, excitedly begins remeasuring. The other men quickly join the dig despite being exhausted. The narrator recalls, "I felt no longer any great aversion from the labor imposed. I had become most unaccountably interested—nay, even excited!" They dig for an hour and a half before Legrand's dog begins howling wildly. Moments later they uncover a "mass of human bones" that amount to two skeletons and a small collection of silver and gold coins. Jupiter leaps with joy, but Legrand "wore an air of extreme disappointment" and orders them to keep digging. Shortly after, the narrator strikes something hard and uncovers a large iron ring connected to a massive trunk. Working with "intense excitement" the men unearth a large iron box. When they manage to open it, "a treasure of incalculable value lay gleaming before us." In amazement the "stupefied, thunder-stricken" men work to pull the excruciatingly heavy box from the pit.

Gathering what they can of the treasure, the men rush home, leaving the dog behind to keep watch over the rest. They arrive home at 1:00 a.m., eat a quick meal, and rush back with sacks to carry home the rest. Back home again, their excitement nearly prevents them from sleeping, but they manage a few fitful hours. They spend the early morning counting their treasures, calculating it to be worth over $1.5 million (roughly $42 million today).

The Cipher

After counting the money, Legrand explains how he came to discover the treasure. It all started with the scrap of parchment Jupiter pulled from the dirt to pick up the gold beetle. Legrand used that scrap of parchment to draw the outline of the skull-like shape on the bug for the narrator. When the dog jumped on the narrator and his hand dropped close to the fire, the heat revealed numbers and symbols in invisible ink which Legrand noticed when the narrator handed the parchment back. After the narrator left and Jupiter went to sleep, Legrand spent the next hours investigating the scrap. It revealed a cipher (coded message) and an illustration of a baby goat, or "kid." From this he determined the note to be clues to the missing treasure of the famed pirate, Captain Kidd.

Since "kid" is a play on words only found in English, Legrand assumed the cryptic was also written in English, so he used the logic of letter repetition within the code to decipher its message:

A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seventh limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death's head a bee line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out.

The clues were enigmatic, but Legrand figured out how to punctuate the message. He discovered that a Bishop's Hotel (bishop's hostel) had been in existence on the old Bessop family estate years before and quickly solved the rest of the clues to determine the location of the human skull, or "death's head"—often used to represent a pirate ship—and the suspected pirate treasure buried close by.

Legrand knew he would need help to uncover the treasure, but aside from Jupiter, he didn't know whom he could trust. He didn't think the narrator would come if he simply stated he believed he knew the location of a pirate treasure, so he manipulated Jupiter's belief in his insanity so that Jupiter would implore the narrator to visit for the sake of his friend's health. He added to this deception by swinging the gold beetle for no apparent reason from a string while the three men went to search for the treasure. Legrand later admits he did this "to punish you quietly, in my own way, by a little bit of sober mystification." As for the two skeletons buried with the treasure, Legrand ominously hints that Kidd likely killed the men who helped the pirate bury the treasure once their work was complete.

Analysis

Tone

Modern readers are conditioned to think of Poe as a horror writer, and several features of "The Gold Bug" fulfill those expectations. Beginning with the epigraph, "this fellow is dancing mad! / He hath been bitten by the Tarantula," Poe manipulates the reader into believing Legrand is mad, just as Legrand later leads Jupiter and the narrator to the same conclusion. In the final line of the story, "Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient [to kill Kidd's men]; perhaps it required a dozen—who shall tell?" Legrand ghoulishly hints that Kidd killed his assistants to preserve his fortune, leaving readers to wonder whether Legrand might do the same.

However, Poe was master of many poetic and narrative genres, and "The Gold Bug" was written during the height of his ratiocinative powers. Poe defined ratiocination as the ability to reason, and he gifted it to characters who became the prototype for all future detective stories, including most famously Sherlock Holmes. In Poe the technique is most commonly seen in the Auguste Dupin stories—"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). "The Gold Bug" (1843) was written roughly contemporaneously with those stories and permitted Poe to develop his ratiocinative style absent the subtle detective and his stupefied audience. Legrand's supposed insanity, Jupiter's superstitious nature, the skull, and the pirate's legend all lend the story a note of the macabre that other detective stories might eschew.

Jupiter

Jupiter's character has caused considerable debate and discussion since the publication of "The Gold Bug" in 1843. On the one hand, Poe's portrayal of this freed slave, now Legrand's servant and valet, as a bumbling character with nearly indecipherable dialect provides comic relief to the otherwise straightforward story. On the other hand, modern critics note how the character reinforces negative racial stereotypes prevalent in 19th-century America. The comedy relies on the readily accepted stereotype of an ignorant, happy slave—one so happy with his miserable position or so afraid of life outside the plantation, that he agrees to continue serving his master even after earning his freedom. Readers laugh as Jupiter fails to correctly identify left and right, or at Legrand's threats of violence when Jupiter considers disobeying ridiculous requests, such as climbing to the end of a dead branch high up a tree.

Yet beneath these obvious stereotypes, Poe also creates a character that is central to the story and speaks his mind, regardless of how indecipherable his dialect. He certainly has his own opinion about Legrand's behavior, which he readily vocalizes to Legrand himself and to another respectable white man, the narrator. In addition Jupiter is given credit for starting the whole treasure hunt. It was he who discovers the parchment that contains Captain Kidd's treasure map, albeit during a moment of foolish fear over touching a bug. He takes equal part in the labor to unearth the treasure, and it is suggested he will earn a fair one-third share of the treasure. Poe's characterization of this freed slave is not one-dimensional and was atypical for the time.

Cryptology

Although exciting for readers to dream about, Captain Kidd's pirate treasure is not really the main object in "The Gold Bug." It is the cipher. Cryptology, or "logic puzzles" as they're often called now, were just becoming popular in the 19th century, and Poe helped popularize them. Like the narrator, most readers found code-cracking to be extremely difficult and believed anyone who could solve an encoded message had special mental abilities beyond the reach of the average person. Poe loved cryptology, and while working at the Alexander Weekly Messenger, took out a column asking readers to submit their own ciphers, claiming he could solve them with ease—and he did. In the story Legrand echoes Poe's beliefs when he says, "it may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma of the kind which human ingenuity may not, by proper application, resolve."

"The Gold Bug" offers Poe a golden opportunity to show off his cryptology skills. It is why he spends nearly half the story explaining how Legrand solved the code that leads him to the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. These facts are of some interest to the story itself, but Legrand's extensive lecture is essentially a primer for readers on solving ciphers and secret codes. To do this Poe had to make the puzzle fairly accessible to the average reader, so he chooses an author, the pirate Kidd, who is not "capable of constructing any of the abstruse cryptographs." He then explains, step by step, how readers at home can solve their own cryptograms, even listing the succession of frequently occurring letters—"e a o i d h n r s t u y c f g" and so on. By breaking down the cipher-solving process, Poe not only engages the reader's curiosity and intellect, he also demonstrates his superior code-cracking skills.

Legrand

Most Poe biographers note the similarities between the eccentric William Legrand and Poe himself. Poe, like Legrand, inexplicably and unjustly (he felt) lost his family fortune when his foster father omitted him from the will. Both men were obsessed with regaining their wealth—Legrand through the treasure hunt, and Poe through his writing, activities requiring both skill and luck. Both were perceived as reclusive and eccentric: Legrand lives on an isolated island with Jupiter, and Poe had a reputation for being moody and irritable. According to the narrator, Legrand is "infected with misanthropy and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy." Both were also brilliant. In Legrand Poe creates a character much like himself—"fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics," obsessing over the puzzles until outsiders question his sanity. However, as Poe once remarked, "I was never really insane, except on occasions where my heart was touched."

The Narrator

"The Gold Bug's" narrator is never identified by name, and the reader is given only the barest, most superficial clues about his identity. He lived at one time in Charleston, South Carolina, and was friends with Legrand. He has more than a passing knowledge of natural history, is physically fit, and fond of dogs. He is accustomed to taking charge in dire situations. He "prescribes" for his friend Legrand and implores him to "follow my advice implicitly, as that of your physician," suggesting that he may be in the medical profession. As a result of their expedition he inherited a substantial sum.

He is not the only character about whom so little is known; Legrand, Jupiter, and even Kidd are similarly cloaked in secrecy. But his role as the narrator coupled with such mystery should cause the reader pause. Through him, Legrand takes great pains to explain the mystery of the parchment, but other, greater mysteries lurk behind them both.

The Gold Bug Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 The narrator visits Legrand's island to see the gold bug.

Rising Action

2 Jupiter and the narrator question Legrand's sanity.

3 The narrator agrees to accompany Legrand on his trek.

4 Jupiter climbs the tree, and the men begin digging.

Climax

5 Legrand realizes Jupiter's mistake and finds the treasure.

Falling Action

6 After counting the treasure, Legrand discusses the cryptic.

Resolution

7 Legrand eerily suggests Captain Kidd killed his crewmates.

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