The Gold Bug: Art and Commentary by Gregory K.H. Bryant

The Gold Bug

I particularly enjoy Poe’s tale, “The Gold Bug”. It is the closest to a light-hearted piece of writing that comes to us from his pen, and it comes also to a delightfully happy ending.

One can easily appreciate how Poe must have savored writing the paragraph in which the narrator of the story and the protagonist, Mr. William Legrand, tally up in exacting detail the riches in found in the buried treasure they unearthed with the assistance of the titular Gold Bug.

From the tale;

“The chest had been full to the brim, and we spent the whole day, and the greater part of the next night, in a scrutiny of its contents…. In coin there was rather more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars –estimating the value of the pieces, as accurately as we could, by the tables of the period. There was not a particle of silver. All was gold of antique date and of great variety –French, Spanish, and German money, with a few English guineas… There were several very large and heavy coins, so worn that we could make nothing of their inscriptions…. The value of the jewels we found more difficulty in estimating. There were diamonds –some of them exceedingly large and fine –a hundred and ten in all, and not one of them small; eighteen rubies of remarkable brilliancy; –three hundred and ten emeralds, all very beautiful; and twenty-one sapphires, with an opal… Besides all this, there was a vast quantity of solid gold ornaments; –nearly two hundred massive finger and ear rings… eighty-three very large and heavy crucifixes; –five gold censers of great value…”.

And this extended quote is cut down by half from the original paragraph which Poe – whose struggles with poverty are the stuff of legend – wrote with pen on paper, presumably in the light of an oil lamp, all a very meticulous and painstaking process. This is not a paragraph dashed thoughtlessly off in twenty minutes, tapping quickly at a keyboard. This paragraph was one on which Poe lavished a great deal of attention, possibly spending an hour or two, or even more, getting it to his satisfaction.

Who could deny him the vicarious joy of it? Who could do anything, but share vicariously in that moment?

Of course, it would not be a tale by Poe, without intimations of horror and madness. And those intimations are masterfully rendered, only but increasing our delight at the happy ending with the relief that the shadowy threats of horror and madness prove to be all illusion.

The cryptographic analysis offered by Poe is critical to the tale, and one of the features for which it has been so widely celebrated in the hundred and seventy two years since its publication in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper in 1843. Poe was awarded a hundred dollars for the story, which was probably the largest amount he was ever paid for anything he ever wrote.
So of course I had to include the script of the cryptogram in these two drawings.

The Gold Bug 1st Version

The Gold Bug 2nd Version














Two drawings, because the first one got away from me. That sometimes happens. The pen does what it will, and we can only hold it and watch. Influenced by the uncharacteristically happy tone of this tale, the line of the first drawing leaned a bit too much toward a style of rendering that failed to properly acknowledge the undercurrent of menace that never materializes.
So I tackled it again. Though the second drawing is closer to what I first had in mind with my illustrations for Poe, I find that I have come to appreciate my first attempt a bit more. The first one has a bit more character to it, especially the person of Jup, or Jupiter.

There is much more I could say, of the vividly drawn Jupiter, Legrand’s manservant, more I could say about the complex structure of the tale, of Legrand’s convoluted search for the treasure, all the while he is keeping his friend, the unnamed narrator, in the dark about his intent.

But here, I am only an illustrator, not an essayist.


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