Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug” (1843) is almost unique amongst his tales in having a specified Southern setting: Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, where, as a young soldier, Poe himself had been briefly stationed. As Tychy has previously noted, there was not much of a literary marketplace in the antebellum American South and if Poe ventured a portrayal of the South in “The Gold Bug,” he had to be careful that this regionalism did not alienate a potentially lucrative national readership. Moreover, many of Poe’s contemporary readers may have objected to either the promotion or the disparagement of the region’s slavery.
Although Poe did not socialise with black people and he seems to have accepted the practice of racial segregation, the literary critic Terence Whalen has proposed that, as a magazinist, Poe cultivated an “average” racism, or a racism typical to most American readers, in order to avoid alienating both supporters and opponents of slavery, and to “achieve a uniform literary effect among a divided national audience.” Yet Poe also avoided writing about race because he adhered to a simultaneously moral and stylistic Romantic principle that the aesthetic was necessarily at odds with the political. Poe objected to allegory: a presentation or fiction of which each part represents a value in an abstract political, religious, or moral system. In this respect, he was greatly influenced by the British poet and literary theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had argued in The Statesman’s Manual (1816) that allegory was a means of representation which is imposed upon the represented object from without, whilst a symbol “partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.” Poe similarly rejected allegory in his (last) review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction:
In defence of allegory (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said…. The deepest emotion aroused within us by the happiest allegory, as allegory, is a very, very imperfectly satisfied sense of the writer’s ingenuity in overcoming a difficulty we should have preferred his not having attempted to overcome… One thing is clear, that if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of overturning a fiction.
It would be easy to dismiss this critique as merely a consequence of Poe’s jealousy of Hawthorne, and to conclude that Poe alternatively damned allegory and resorted to it whenever it suited his purposes. Yet Poe’s fiction characteristically deploys imprecise allegories (rather than merely symbols) which do not “reinforce a truth”, but which instead license possible or multiple truths. One cannot discern solid shapes amongst these flickering shadows of allegory, and consequent glimpses of the South in Poe’s fiction are fragmentary, indistinct, and somewhat inconsequential.
In “The Gold Bug,” an unnamed narrator visits his reclusive friend William Legrand on Sullivan’s Island, and the consequent narrative can be roughly divided into two halves: the first largely reflects the view of Legrand’s manumitted slave, Jupiter; whilst the second is explained from Legrand’s perspective. In the first half of the story, Jupiter fears that his master has been bitten by a mysterious “scarabaeus” which he discovered whilst roaming the island. When Legrand attempts to sketch the beetle for the narrator, he appears to mistakenly draw a death’s head. This ominous image recurs when a seemingly unhinged Legrand orders Jupiter to climb a tulip tree, and a skull is discovered at the top. The reader may anticipate that these skulls foreshadow some terrible conclusion, but when Legrand finally locates a chest of gold, Jupiter concedes that his superstitious fear of the bug has been discredited.
In the second half of the tale, Legrand explains how he cracked the pirate code which led him to the whereabouts of the gold. The reader may grow disenchanted and find themselves skipping several of the seventeen or so pages of Legrand’s dense descriptions of cryptography. We are left with a definite sense of anti-climax, as Legrand’s exegesis splutters to an end, furnishing no justification for reading through the code-breaking section, other than to appreciate it for itself. Such disappointment may have been greater for the original readers of “The Gold Bug,” which was first serialised in The Dollar Magazine in two instalments, the first of which ended after Jupiter’s fears were discredited.
The tale’s anti-climax is not a rare instance of authorial cackhandedness on Poe’s part, but a strategy which leads the reader to wonder which half of the tale they prefer and which character is the most sympathetic. Terence Whalen is dead wrong to assume that at the end of “The Gold Bug” Poe’s sympathies lie with Legrand. He summarises the tale by stating that “Legrand decodes an old pirate cryptogram to redeem himself from his fallen economic and social condition,” but nothing of the sort occurs. At the end of the tale, we have not learnt – as we may have read on after the discovery to the gold in order to learn – what the characters do with the gold and how the relationships between them change as a result of their discovery. Poe’s refusal to explicitly endorse either Jupiter or Legrand’s reading of the tale not only undermines any temptation which we may possess to read “The Gold Bug” allegorically, but it also suggests that we, the reader, have to solve the real mystery which lies at the heart of “Gold-Bug” – a moral and political riddle, which is a far cry from the certainties revealed by a cryptographer.
If the reader wishes to attribute allegorical meanings to “The Gold Bug”, there are rich but ultimately inconsequential foundations for such interpretations. One may conclude that Legrand personifies Enlightenment reason and that Jupiter represents primitive superstition; but even though Jupiter exclaims “Aint you shamed ob yourself, nigger?” after the gold is discovered, his initial interpretation of the tale is not necessarily discredited. Legrand has, at least in a figurative sense, been “bitten” by the bug, and his greedy desire to find the gold is thoroughly characteristic of Old World pirate myths. Jupiter’s fear that his master has gone mad is more logical than superstitious, and he is merely reasoning from the evidence at hand, which is a quintessentially Enlightened approach. If Jupiter is too ignorant to tell left from right, he also demonstrates compassion towards his master (and he gets insulted for his pains). The tale’s epigraph, incidentally, seems to side with Jupiter‘s view of Legrand: “What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad! He hath been bitten by the Tarantula.” Any dichotomy between Enlightenment reason and primitivism in “The Gold Bug” is, upon analysis, rather a limited one.
Alternatively, however, we may recognise an allegory of the American South, with Legrand cast as an ambassador for the white ruling class and Jupiter as a representative of the exploited blacks. We are told that there “was no American money” amongst the discovered treasure, which may suggest an independent South – a nation rather than a region – where fortunes are authentic and inherited (gold), rather than unstable and made through Northern capitalism (paper currency). Yet Poe avoids the popular or established images of Southern society: Legrand hails from New Orleans rather than the Southern plantations; he had “once been wealthy” which is not the same as being aristocratic; and he is attended by a free(d) black servant rather than a slave. Moreover, “The Gold Bug” was written at a time when the South and its plantations were expanding westwards – and a war over the Texan frontier was looming – whilst Legrand and Jupiter have returned to the eastern coast which first fed the growth of the Southern economy. The literary critic Liliane Weissberg has noted that Sullivan’s Island was an eighteenth-century quarantine centre for imported slaves and also a graveyard for those who had perished during the Middle Passage (Kennedy and Weissberg 133). Yet Legrand and his manumitted slave resemble a post slavery society, and one which – to judge from Jupiter’s threat to beat Legrand (to correct his madness) – demonstrates an unusual degree of informality between white master and black assistant.
Poe’s Sullivan’s Island thus evokes both the origins and the end of slavery. If master and erstwhile slave live in harmony, then this promises a utopia; but if Jupiter demonstrates more responsibility – and at times more moral understanding – than his old master, then this heralds the apocalypse of the Old South. Whilst the characters of Legrand and Jupiter only vaguely symbolise certain values and ideas, there is, of course, a third point in these possible allegories. The tale ends, however, with the wrong number:
“It is clear that Kidd – if Kidd indeed secreted this treasure, which I doubt not – it is clear that he must have had assistance in the labor. But this labor concluded, he may have thought it expedient to remove all participants in his secret. Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen – who shall tell?”
Certainly not the narrator. The story ends abruptly, with three characters who have found a chest of buried treasure contemplating two skeletons. One does not require the wits of Dupin to imagine what happens next. Few, if any, would miss Legrand and Jupiter, a reclusive pair whose only friend appears to be the narrator (they confide only in him and seem unwilling to let “Lieutenant G” in on their secret). Only these three know of the existence of the treasure, so the narrator could bludgeon Legrand and Jupiter to death with a “mattock”; pitch them into a pit which they have already rather helpfully dug; and then cart the treasure back to the mainland whenever a suitable opportunity arose. It is the narrator who is concerned with “the expediency of removing the treasure” and he shows an absorbed interest in valuing the spoils:
We estimated the entire contents of the chest, that night, at a million and a half of dollars; and, upon the subsequent disposal of a few trinkets and jewels (a few being retained for our own use), it was found that we had greatly undervalued the treasure.
The “we” and “our” of this sentence surely arouses suspicion? The narrator was merely a spectator of the treasure-hunt, and Jupiter actually obstructed the search, and so the spoils surely belong to Legrand alone? According to the narrator, however, the treasure lapses into collective property after its discovery, although it is not clear if Jupiter is signified in the “we”. In accordance with Poe’s aversion to prescribing an interpretation, we are furnished with some grounds for believing the narrator’s story: the common ownership of the gold may be attributed to an honourable agreement among Southern gentlemen, who are rather above pecuniary questions. Yet although the narrator hails from Charleston, he is in a similar position to those from the American North whom observed the instability and backwardness of the South and, just as the narrator doubts in Legrand’s sanity, presumed that the region was mad.
The narrator would benefit from the deaths of the antagonistic master and servant, just as Poe may have anticipated that the North would benefit from disunity in the South. That the narrator exploits the good fortune of Legrand and Jupiter may be symbolised by the material form of his narrative, which submitted the pair’s history to a short story competition in a Northern newspaper: Philadelphia’s Dollar Magazine. If Legrand and Jupiter had avoided the temptations, uncertainties, and disagreement which arrived with the Gold Bug – and if they had declined to confide in a potentially exploitative outsider – then Sullivan’s Island may have remained a homely and myrtle-scented Arcadia, the myth of the Old South.