This work was first published in 1843 as the winner of a short story contest in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. The time is in the early 1840s and the action takes place in South Carolina on Sullivan’s Island and on dry land near Charleston.
This work is described as a short story. These types of stories are designed to be read quickly, usually in a single session. It is a fictional story in which even the characterization of the insect described is the result of the mixture of two existing in the area in which the work is carried out.
Narrator and characters
An unidentified doctor by name tells the story from the first person point of view. However, he quotes the main character, William Legrand, when the latter explains how he solved the secret code that reveals the location of the buried treasure. Thus, in effect, Legrand becomes a second narrator.
- Narrator: Tells the story of William Legrand’s discovery of Captain Kidd’s treasure. He fears for a while that his friend is going crazy
- William Legrand: A young man from a good New Orleans family who has settled in a cabin on the Isle of Sullivan. One day he finds a new peculiar beetle, golden in color and an old parchment. Later, aided by his servant and the narrator, he discovers a rich buried treasure.
- Jupiter: a slave who once belonged to the Legrand family. After being released, he remains as a servant and has followed William Legrand to the Isle of Sullivan.
- Lieutenant G ———: An army officer stationed at Fort Moultrie. He is a friend of Legrand’s and is very interested in entomology. He is fascinated by the beetle discovered by Legrand on the Isle of Sullivan.
The Golden Beetle owes its title to the fascinating discovery made by the protagonist of a new golden-colored insect. This discovery along with its accompanying unleashes the rest of the plot of this short mystery story.
The story follows William Legrand, the poor descendant of a once wealthy family, as he searches for treasure on a remote island in South Carolina. It is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who goes to the remote island of Sullivan to visit his friend, William Legrand.
After losing his family’s fortune due to bad luck, Legrand moves from New Orleans where he builds a cabin on the eastern edge. Legrand is grumpy and misanthrope, and lives an isolated life with only his devoted servant Jupiter, for company.
The narrator goes to visit Legrand on a cold October day and enters his friend’s cabin with a hidden key. Many hours later, Legrand and Jupiter return to the cabin and greet the narrator. Legrand tells him that he was bitten by a peculiar looking golden beetle. It was golden in color with three black dots arranged in a triangle.
Legrand draws it on parchment to show the narrator what it was like. The narrator takes the parchment and comments that the insect looks exactly like a skull and has no antennae. Legrand insisted that he drew antennas, but as he takes a closer look at the parchment, he frowns and then closes the sketch in his desk drawer.
A month later, the narrator receives a visit from Jupiter, who tells him that Legrand is behaving strangely and gives him a note from Legrand urging him to return to the island immediately. The narrator accompanies Jupiter back to Sullivan’s Island to visit Legrand, who is behaving nervously.
Write on a board and talk about gold while sleeping. He has also asked Jupiter to buy a scythe and three swords. The narrator is concerned that he may have become ill as a result of the insect bite, but Legrand ignores his concerns and asks him to accompany him and Jupiter on an expedition.
The men take the scythe, the swords, a flashlight, and the dead insect and travel across the island to a remote, mountainous area. They use the scythe to clear the brambles that surround a tall tulip. Legrand tells Jupiter to take the insect and climb a branch of the tree from which a hanging skull is attached.
Jupiter does, and Legrand tells him to drop the insect through the skull’s left eye. Legrand then marks the spot on the ground where the beetle landed, and travels fifty feet from the spot in the opposite direction of the tree. There, the three men collect the shovels and start digging.
After a few hours Legrand realizes that Jupiter must have dropped the insect through the wrong hole. After recalculating where the beetle landed, the men start digging in a different location. Before long, they unearthed two skeletons, a Spanish knife, and some gold coins. After digging a little further, they unearth a wooden chest filled with gold and jewelry.
Legrand reveals the steps he took to find the treasure. After the insect bit Legrand, Jupiter found a piece of parchment sticking out of the sand near the wreck. He used the parchment to wrap the dead insect. Legrand then lent Lieutenant G. the dead bug, but kept the scroll. When the narrator visited Legrand he realized that the parchment had a hidden drawing of a skull.
After the narrator left, Legrand used the heat to reveal more images and text on the parchment. He discovered an image that was a reference to the pirate known as Captain Kidd. He also found a coded message that said: “A good glass in the Bishop’s lodge in the Devil’s seat – forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes – northeast and north – seventh member main branch east – shoots from the left eye of the head of Death – a bee – line the tree through the shot fifty feet away.
Legrand realized that the coded instructions told him what to do. He dropped something through the skull’s left eye and walked fifty feet from the tree through the spot where the object landed on the ground and dug for the treasure buried there. Legrand deciphered the instructions and pretended to freak out for the narrator to visit and help him.
When the narrator asks Legrand about the skeletons they unearthed, he replies that he believes Captain Kidd killed his two accomplices so that the location of the treasure remains secret.
In addition to the suspense, The Golden Beetle includes a touch of humor, accomplished primarily by the inconsistency between Legrand’s high language (used by many Poe characters) and Jupiter’s narrator and dialect.
The main themes of the story are wealth and fortune, disease, obsession, codes and hidden objects and meaning. The story is both a mystery in which the details are revealed as the plot progresses, and an adventure story that revolves around the search for the main characters to find the buried treasure. In particular, the story reveals Poe’s fondness for puzzles and riddles, influencing a popular fascination with crypto.
- “Without my deeply rooted idea that there was something buried there, all our work would have been futile.”
- “It is a brilliant golden color, about the size of a walnut, with two spots of jet black”
- “From that moment on, the few doubts I could have had about my poor friend’s dementia were completely dispelled.”