Role of the City in Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudery
Professor’s comment: This student perceptively examines the role of the city as a setting and frame for detective fiction. Focusing on two early examples, Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Hoffmann’s “Mademoiselle de Scudery,” both set in Paris, his sophisticated essay illuminates the “cityness” or framed constraint that renders the city a backdrop conducive to murder—such as the city’s crowded, constricted nature, promoting vertical rather than outward movement and increasing hostility and the fact that so much urban life occurs at night, a reversal of the natural order and facilitating illicit activity. He compels us to look in new ways both at the city and at detective fiction.
The Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève in particular is like a bronze picture frame. It is the only frame suited to our story....
—Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot.1
Here like has been ensepulchered with like; some monuments are heated more, some less And then he turned around and to his right; we passed between the torments and high walls.
—Dante, Inferno IX.2
The city, writes St. Augustine, “builds up a pilgrim community of every language .... [with] particular concern about differences of customs, laws, [and] institutions” in which “there is among the citizens a sort of coherence of human wills.”3 Put simply: the city is a sort of platform upon which “a group of people joined together by their love of the same object” work towards a common goal.4 What differentiates Augustine’s examination from other literary or theological treatments of the city is his attempt to carve out a vision of how the city operates—both the internal qualities and external features inherent within the concept of city—and not simply to define what those operations are.
It comes as no surprise that between Augustine’s time and the 19th century the vision of the city changes drastically (perhaps even disappears entirely). Yet the thrust of Augustine’s attempt to discern the city, to arrive at a fundamental notion of the city and how the city functions, is perpetuated in the way authors deal with the city and the role of the city in works of literature. The purpose of this essay will be to examine how the city functions in two works of detective fiction: Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudery. It is, I believe, important not to regard the city as a backdrop or a stage but, rather, as a frame which structures the action within (and narrative of) the texts themselves. The aim of this analysis, then, is twofold: on the one hand, to reflect on the specific framing quality of the city—the textual condition of “cityness”—itself; and on the other hand, to analyze how this quality comes to manifest itself in each of the two works under discussion. It is, above all, the unique manner in which Paris is elucidated throughout the texts, which underscores the...