A Comparison of Poe and Doyle
A Comparison of Writing Styles and Themes From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The
Musgrave Ritual” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug”
It was well documented in his Biography that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his character, Sherlock Holmes on his teacher and mentor, Doctor Joseph Bell, a surgeon that Doyle studied under at Edinburgh University (Hodgson 4). We can see another influence on the stories written about “the great detective” in the works that came some 50 years earlier from the American literary critic, poet, editor and writer Edgar Allan Poe. In his own writing, Doyle commented on Poe’s work, specifically mentioning his detective character Dupin in A Study In Scarlet, the first short story to feature Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. In it, Dr. Watson, tries to complement Sherlock Holmes, comparing him to Poe’s detective from Murders in the Rue Morgue: "it is simple when you explain. You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe 's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist out of stories" (30). But Doyle also goes on to point out that the talents of Poe’s character Dupin were not quite on par with the great detective when Sherlock Holmes points out “Now in my opinion Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of breaking in on his friend’s thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He has some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine” (30). In other words, Dupin was ok but he’s “an inferior fellow” (30) not at the level of “the great detective” Sherlock Holmes (Hodgson).
There are some similarities in the themes of stories like Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual”. For example, the main characters use knowledge of history to help unlock clues to riddles in both stories. Mr. William Legrand’s knowledge of the history of Captain Kidd helps him decipher the pirates code in the “The Gold Bug” and helps him make sense of seemingly bizarre clues uncovered in the cipher like “the devil’s seat” and “Bishop’s Hotel”. And Holmes’s knowledge of the history of the “Royal Stuarts” Charles I and Charles II in “The Musgrave Ritual” which helped him discover an “ancient crown of the Kings of England” (212) in a pile of metal scraps and stones.
While there were many similar themes running through both author’s stories there were some significant differences in the lives and writing styles of both, Doyle and Poe. Doyle perhaps implied in Holmes’s quote from A Study in Scarlet about Dupin’s inferiority that Poe’s writing, had “…some intellectual genius, no doubt…” (30) but yet was somehow inferior to Doyle’s own writing. At times it seems that Poe’s writing style was quite different, rougher and somewhat harder to follow compared to Doyle’s. The seemingly endless, and at times even boring, drawn out descriptions of Legrand’s solution to the cipher in “The Gold Bug” are a real contrast in my opinion to the clear, quick and almost elegant way Doyle’s ties his own love of history into Holmes’s solution to the riddle of “The Musgrave Ritual”. Even Holmes comments on the quickened pace of the resolution when he says, “My data were coming more quickly than I could have reasonably hoped” (208). In contrast, the solution to Captain Kidd’s cipher in The “Gold Bug” is so detailed and descriptive that at times, it becomes hard to follow for the reader. Poe takes us four pages with Legrand explaining, in detail how he solved the cipher. It makes me wonder, did Poe perhaps pad his story “The Gold Bug” by adding so many details to give his readers more quantity but not real quality?
For Poe, writing seemed to be a riddle or cypher to be solved for financial gain or treasure; solve it correctly and get rewarded, to find proof we can look into the lives of both authors. When reading the biographies of Poe and Doyle it becomes easier to understand why their writing styles were so different and in many ways reflected each authors life. Poe wrote “The Gold Bug” in 1843 and won $100 for the short story (Poe Biography). This was the most he ever made from one of his short stories; Poe was never financially as successful an author as was Doyle. While The Gold Bug influenced some of Doyle’s greatest detective fiction it is not a detective story in the classic sense, like Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. The short stories main character, Legrand ties clues together for his friend the narrator and Poe’s readers in the same manner that a detective would “reveal” his solution to a whodunit.
The early lives of Poe and Doyle could not have been more different and I believe greatly influenced both men’s work and their paths in life. While Doyle was very close to his mother for most of his life, Poe’s mother died when Edgar was only 2 years old, his father had abandoned him at an even earlier age so young Edgar was taken in by John Allan. Allan had money and sent Edgar to good schools, but there was never the same family bond and influence that Doyle experienced growing up close to his mother. At the age of 6, Edgar was sent off to London to study for 5 years before he returned to the US to continue his education (Poe Bio). It’s hard to imagine the hardships Poe experienced at such a young age. Doyle, on the other hand, remained close to his mother, Mary Foley Doyle, “a spirited forceful, intelligent woman with great ambitions for her eldest son” and his work reflected her nurturing and influence (ACD 6).
So while Doyle was being “…raised on a strong diet of national pride, genealogy, heraldry, and tales of chivalric valor and virtue…and imbued … with an utter respect for the “ancient standards” of knightly honor and courtesy” (ACD 6). Poe was an orphan by the age of 2; “started drinking heavily by the age of 18” (Poe Bio) and was eventually kicked out of ”… West Point for misconduct” (Poe Bio). Throughout his life Poe would often chase the elusive treasure of big money using the only resource he had, his writing, talents. Just like his fictional characters, Poe was never satisfied with his position, even when successful. In a way like an obsessed treasure hunter, Poe had no patience for success so he went from job to job always on the verge of poverty and “barely had enough money to support his family”. (Poe Bio)
In contrast, while Doyle’s own father was “institutionalized for alcoholism, epilepsy and depression” as stated in his biography (6). Thanks to the strength and love of his mother, Doyle was well educated, he became a doctor and then a successful author that “ always claimed to regard his Sherlock Holmes stories as a “lower stratum of literary achievement,”…”unworthy of serious comparison with his “higher work”” (ACD 11). These detective stories, however unworthy they may have seemed to Doyle at the time, brought the author great financial success. For Poe on the other hand writing was a desperate treasure hunt that drove his whole life and the only way he knew to support his family, with financial success always just out of reach. Poe had always tried to strike it rich, seeking treasure; very similar in life to his character Legrand “a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want.” (42) In his short story, “The Gold Bug”, the writer describes Legrand as “…infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy.” (42) Similar to Doyle’s amateur detective work, when he tried to “see the matter” of a woman’s lost cousin “through the eyes of Mr. Holmes” (ACD 2).
Continuing the treasure-hunting theme, Poe played a significant role in making cryptograms, so common with treasure hunters and a key part of his story “The Gold Bug”, popular in newspapers and magazines during his time. (Friedman 40-41) While an editor for Graham’s Magazine, Poe even requested that his readers send in their own cryptograms, which he promptly solved (Poe Bio). However, unlike Doyle, Poe wrote to appeal to the masses and especially for the money, the themes of his poems and his stories were often dark, a bit depressing and haunting, closely reflecting his own life. Even in “The Gold Bug”, Poe’s adventure story about treasure hunting, it’s hinted at more than once that the lead character Legrand may or may not be completely insane. As his friend, the narrator observes, “…your conduct in swinging the beetle-how excessively odd! I was sure you were mad”( 69). The same dark themes continue throughout The Gold Bug, for example, Captain Kidd’s pirate treasure can only be found by suspending a gold beetle from a string through the eye socket of a ghastly human skull that’s fastened to a tree by a nail (52). Poe’s dark stories continue to appeal to readers to this day
Doyle had a more refined and upbeat writing style, his stories and characters were not created for the masses, but written as an expression of Doyle’s own fantasies of being a “consulting detective”, uncovering hidden clues no average person could find, just like his character Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Poe, finding financial success with these detective stories that had mass appeal wasn’t really Doyle’s goal. Doyle wanted to write about serious, historical themes that he loved, like those in his novel “The White Company”. Instead of appealing to the reader’s interest in darker, sinister themes, Doyle took the opportunity to infuse his writings with a “…code of honor…” (ACD 7) “Both Holmes and Watson share with their creator an unwavering devotion to a chivalric code, a sure sense of the values and duties of a gentleman” (6).
The works of Poe and Doyle are in many ways as different as the lives of both authors and reflect their personalities. Their short stories have a loyal following to this day so while Doyle may be a bit more refined and easier to read than Poe it’s clear that their readers continue to find hidden treasures in these timeless works.
Poe, Edgar A. “The Gold Bug” Complete Tales & Poems New York: Vintage Books/Random House 1975. Inclusive pg.42-70 Print
Doyle, Arthur C. “A Study in Scarlett.” Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. John Hodgson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1994:pg. 30 Print
Doyle, Arthur C. “The Musgrave Ritual” Sherlock Holmes:
The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. John Hodgson.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1994: pg.212 Print
A Short Biography of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) poestories.com http://poestories.com/biography.php Web Accessed 11/13
Friedman, William F. "Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: pg.40–41.
Cited: Poe, Edgar A. “The Gold Bug” Complete Tales & Poems New York: Vintage Books/Random House 1975. Inclusive pg.42-70 Print Doyle, Arthur C. “A Study in Scarlett.” Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. John Hodgson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1994:pg. 30 Print Doyle, Arthur C. “The Musgrave Ritual” Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. John Hodgson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 1994: pg.212 Print A Short Biography of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) poestories.com http://poestories.com/biography.php Web Accessed 11/13 Friedman, William F. "Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: pg.40–41.