Edgar Allan Poe is famous for many things, including marrying his 13-year-old cousin, contracting mysterious diseases, and dying young while in the midst of insanity. He also sometimes wrote stuff. He is best known for sappy chick-lit tales featuring disembodied hearts, black cats, ravens, mummies, and Usher.
Occasionally, he would confound his critics with unexpected bursts of grand adventure, full of mind-boggling puzzles, exotic locations, long-dead pirates, and buried treasure. Then he would go back to writing about handsome strangers with smoldering eyes and luscious hair. The Gold Bug is one such departure.
Nowadays we think of buried pirate treasure as an old fashioned sort of adventure plot, since all the pirates have been dead for more than 100 years. In Poe’s day, piracy was on the wane, but still relevant to its audience, sort of like how everyone still likes Die Hard.
What makes The Gold Bug so much fun is the way in which its hero finds the last stash of Captain Kidd. Basically he stumbles across an invisible treasure map while beachcombing. If you think it is difficult to stumble across something invisible, you’d be right, unless there was also a gold scarab beetle sitting nearby.
I have read the story many times and it is still unclear to me whether the scarab is a real beetle or a gold artifact. The characters in the story talk about it as if it is an actual insect with a strange coloration, which they capture by wrapping it in a scrap of parchment that they conveniently find nearby. It is only later, while studying the bug near the fire, that invisible ink on the paper is revealed.
In fact, the Gold Bug itself plays virtually no role in the plot, other than that it also allows them to find the treasure map. Perhaps the title is one of those “symbolic” things that English teachers are so obsessed with. “Bug” as in “sickness.” The Virus of Greed and all that stuff.
The map contains a fiendish cryptogram, which the characters dissect in riveting fashion, while basically schooling the reader on how to solve those word puzzles in the newspaper. It translates to a riddle, which involves a trip to the seaside cliffs, the discovery of a particular tree, which happens to have a skull nailed to one of the branches high up.
Here they must solve one more puzzle in order to find the treasure’s location, and as to whether or not they succeed, I will leave to you to discover. It’s a short story and readily available online, so stop your complaining. It is best if you don’t think about the fact that trees tend to grow over time, so maybe Captain Kidd wasn’t as clever as he thought.
The story is oft-imitated. One can see its influence in dozens of works from popular culture, of which The DaVinci Code and National Treasure may be the most recent examples. It is also fascinating for its discussion of cryptography, which was a relatively new art to the literary public of Poe’s day, who up to that point had been sending secret messages using the Ovaltine decoder ring.
Poe himself seemed to have an obsession with cryptograms. He possessed an almost supernatural ability to decipher them. He once challenged a magazine’s readership to stump him with a code in any language with any character set, and despite many insane, complex submissions, not a single one could best him.
The story’s one deficiency is its glaring and blatant racism. It is definitely a product of its time, and it treats the lone black character as a ridiculous fool, complete with phonetically rendered speech and derogatory names. Were Hollywood ever to make The Gold Bug into a movie, I foresee a great many rewrites in which this character is changed to a bumbling robot played by Robin Williams.
Next up, #79.