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HerpinGoldBug

Jupiter finds the skull in the tree, 19th century illustration for "The Gold-Bug" by Herpin.

"The Gold-Bug" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843, which includes elements of mystery and adventure. The action takes place on Sullivan's Island, North Carolia and in the nearby town of Charleston. The three characters in the story are an unnamed narrator, William Legrand, and Jupiter. William Legrand is a man originally from New Orleans whose family had once been very rich but whose wealth has gradually disappeared. The African-American Jupiter is Legrand's servant and a former slave. The plot concerns a secret message which leads to the discovery of a pirate's buried treasure.

Poe entered the story in a writing competition which was held by the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. The story won first prize and was published in the newspaper in three installments between June 21 and June 28, 1843. Poe also received one hundred dollars prize money for the story, the most that he was ever paid for any of his writings.

Many modern readers feel uncomfortable with, what certainly appears today, to be the racist characterization of Jupiter. The character is ignorant and foolish and his speech is written phonetically to reflect what Poe considered to be a black man's pronunciation.

"The Gold-Bug" is the longest of Poe's short stories, taking up about forty pages in most editions, and was the most popular of his stories during his lifetime.

Robert Louis Stevenson admitted that "The Gold Bug" influenced his own Treasure Island. It also probably served as inspiration for the short stories "The Musgrave Ritual" and "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Plot

On winter evening, the narrator goes to visit his friend William Legrand on Sullivan's Island. Legrand is interested in insects and is excited about a beetle which he found earlier that day on a beach on the mainland. Legrand thinks that the insect, which appears to be made out of pure gold, is a new species. He is unable to show the beetle to the narrator because he had already lent it to another friend. He finds what appears to be a dirty scrap of paper, draws a sketch of the beetle on it and hands it to the narrator, who is sitting by the fire. The narrator remarks that the sketch looks like a skull. Legrand is at first confused and then insulted. He considers himself to be good at drawing and insists that the beetle which he drew looked nothing like a skull. The narrator leaves Legrand's home early and does not hear from him for some time after that.

Poe gold-bug byam shaw

The narrator and Legrand see the gold-bug on the string descend from the tree. Illustration by Byam Shaw for a 1909 British edition of Poe's stories.

A month later, the narrator is visited by Legrand's black servant Jupiter. Jupiter tells the narrator that Legrand, who Jupiter says has become sick and gone mad as a result of being bitten by the gold-bug, insists on seeing him. Legrand denies that he is mad or sick but insists on taking the narrator and Jupiter on what appears to be a foolish expedition deep into the island's forest, the reason for which he will not explain. Legrand insists that they take several tools and the gold-bug itself, attached to a long string.

Legrand orders Jupiter to climb a tree. A human skull has been placed on one of the branches and Jupiter is told to drop the bug on the string through one of the skull's eye sockets. Where the bug falls, the three men begin digging. They eventually find a buried treasure, which the narrator says is worth a million and a half dollars and which William Legrand says had once belonged to the pirate Captain Kidd.

After the treasure has been retrieved, Legrand explains how he found out about it. On the day that he found the gold-bug, Jupiter wrapped it in what appeared to be an old piece of paper which was also on the beach, the same scrap on which Legrand later drew the beetle. The skull which the narrator saw was on the other side of the scrap, really a piece of parchment, to Legrand's drawing and only became visible when the parchment was held up to a flame. Legrand knows that the skull was a pirate symbol. He also sees an image of a young goat, a kid, on the parchment, which serves as the signature of the pirate Captain Kidd. The rest of the parchment contains a message in a secret code. Legrand knows that the message is in English, because the pun about "kid" and "Kidd" does not work in any other language. He is gradually able to decode the message, on the basis of the symbols appearing most often representing the most common letters. The message gives Legrand instructions on how to find Captain Kidd's treasure.

See also

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