The Gold Bug | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Gold Bug | Themes



At the time "The Gold Bug" was written, the American economic system was undergoing great change, moving away from gold- and silver-based currency to paper money. There was great apprehension about this change, particularly as banks fought over what particular banks should be in charge of storing the gold and printing the money. Independent and public banks issued paper notes for currency, but the exchange rates were unreliable and often underfunded. Much of American society didn't yet trust paper money.

While "The Gold Bug" doesn't take a direct stance in this argument, themes of money and value are integral to the story. The strange gold-colored beetle, like underfunded paper notes at the time, appeared to have value but was worth less than expected. When Legrand discusses the parchment on which Kidd drew his map, he comments repeatedly about how little value and durability paper has, and if one wants to preserve something, they should use parchment. By describing the deteriorated remains of the skeletons and their clothing alongside the perfectly preserved treasure, Poe highlights the durability of metal and gold. Finally, that the men keep the treasure in its original metallic form rather than exchanging it at a bank for cash, Poe seems to advocate the continued use of a gold-based system over the issuance of paper currency.


At the opening of the story, Legrand lives on an isolated island, having left the city to "avoid the mortification consequent upon his [financial] disasters." Born into an "ancient Huguenot family," Legrand, whose "grand" name suggests an air of importance and status in society, spends the entire story seeking to restore his fortune and social position, just as Poe desired fame and affluence throughout his adult life after being denied by his wealthy guardian, John Allan.

Similarly, Poe lost a series of writing and publishing jobs due to his troubling habits and troubled personality and longed to demonstrate his brilliance to the public. He desired wealth, but he also wanted to prove his intellectual superiority. It is fitting that Poe won $100 for the story—not a fortune, by any means, but the prize gave him enough momentum to further his career—while Legrand acquires a pirate's booty. The key to this redemption is that both men used logic and intellect to secure wealth. The money isn't simply handed down to them by inheritance. The men must rely on their unique intelligence to create (as Poe) or solve (as Legrand) puzzles, suggesting the feeling of intellectual superiority Poe craved.


While the first half of the story builds suspense surrounding the gold bug and its effects on Legrand's supposed mental illness, the writing in the second half explains the interplay of chance and logic that result in the discovery of a pirate's buried treasure. After the three men uncover the booty, Legrand sits down with the narrator to explain how a series of coincidences leads to its discovery. It all starts with Jupiter pulling a piece of parchment out of the dirt to pick up the strange gold bug because he is afraid to touch it with his bare hands. This piece of parchment is the treasure map, although it takes many more happenstance events to uncover this fact: Legrand gives the bug to a neighbor for examination; Legrand puts the little scrap of parchment, which Jupiter had used to pick up the bug, into his pocket; the weather finally becomes cool enough to light a fire; the narrator chooses this particular day to pay Legrand a visit; Legrand is out of paper when he wants to draw a picture of the skull-like shape on the beetle's back so he fishes the piece of parchment from his pocket, draws on it, and hands the parchment to the narrator; Legrand's big dog leaps up on the narrator while he sits near the fire causing the parchment he is holding to get close enough to the heat of the flames to reveal strange writing in invisible ink. After further heating, Legrand exposes a code written in numbers and symbols.

Coincidence now gives way to reason and problem-solving. To break the secret code, Legrand has to use a complex system of logic and deduction. It reveals a series of words that themselves form a puzzling message, certainly directions to finding something, and that something Legrand suspects is Captain Kidd's buried treasure. He also has to follow the steps dictated in the message to the letter and complete the measurements described in the code with scientific precision.

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