The Insect at the Heart of Edgar Allan Poe's Story "The Gold-Bug"
The Possibility of Reality Is Better Than Fiction
Claims to the contrary, the Gold Bug of the story by the same name from Edgar Allan Poe could have been real and not a Frankenstein concoction made from the parts of other insects. Scientific authorities of the time, right up through 2012, believed that no such golden insect existed in the area of Pennsylvania where Poe lived at the time he wrote this story.
In the year 1843, Poe saw a literary contest posted with a $100 prize in Philadelphia at the Dollar Newspaper . He wrote The Gold Bug and won the surprise. At the end of a year 300,000 copies of the story itself had been sold.
The gold bug that could be the model for the story's title is an interesting creature that is indigenous to the United States, east of the Mississippi, but also as far west as Texas.
Our American bug is metallic gold in color, but can change colors to look like a red ladybug when in danger. As I look at pictures across the Internet, I see that this little buggy can also create a bulls eye pattern in black and gold, as well as a green and black pattern that looks like a leaf. This is a magical, tiny chameleon-like insect. In fact, this bug can copy any color or pattern. Each of these beetles is a living jewel.
The major states in which our golden bug can be found are listed on the map below, but back in 1843, might not the insect have been found between main and South Carolina - say, in Pennsylvania? It is a possibility, since the beetle has been seen nearby recently in New York City.
Interestingly, the unknown narrator in The Gold Bug lives in South Carolina, which is a major location for the golden tortoise beetle. Poe was stationed in the US Army at Sullivan's Island for two years, 1827 - 1829.
US States That Are Home to the "Gold Bug"
Sweet Potato Leaf Beetle or Gold Bug
The golden tortoise beetle is distributed widely in eastern North America, west to about Iowa and even in Texas. It is one of three separate species of tortoise beetle found in Florida.
Only plants in the family Convolvulaceae can serve as a living environment for this beetle and the possibilities include the sweet potato, morning glory, Ipomoea spp. and bindweed, Convolvulus spp. Wherever these three plants thrive, so too might the Gold Bug.
The videos and photo images near this section all illustrate the color- and pattern-changing abilities of this interesting beetle.
Bitten By the Bug
The award-winning story is one of the first of Poe's that I ever read. It concerns the lead character, the man called William Legrand. The unknown narrator of the story assumes that Legrand is insane - mentally ill, because he has become obsessed with the hunt for gold after he was bitten by a "gold-bug."
That type of bug is a proverb in America, like the shopping bug, the politics bug, and the like. It is something imaginary upon which to blame a fad or personal obsession. The "love bug" might be the most popular application of the proverb, suggesting the almost impaired manner in which some people behave when falling in love. This is all in good humor, but might not have Poe seen a tortoise beetle and thought of an imaginary gold-bug for his story?
Legrand is a poor French Huguenot who lost his money, freed his slave, Jupiter, and went to live as a soprt of beach comber on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina, moving from New Orleans. Jupiter insists on staying with him. This relationship is full of alternating jibs and funny conversations, making the story more of a comedy than a horror.
Legrand finds a beetle like a scarab, described as gold in color black spots and antennae - exactly like the tortoise beetle - but huge. Mr. Poe had either seen such an insect himself or been told of its existence. Making it larger, like a scarab, is his own contribution to its nature. In the story, Legrand draws the insect on paper, but it looks more like a skull.
Legrand encases a gold bug in a glass case and asks his friend, the narrator, to meet him on Sullivan's Island. There, an elaborate ritual is performed in a hunt for gold. The first part of this ritual entails Jupiter's climb up a tall tree and dropping the beetle through the left eye of a skull attached to a limb. After other machinations among the three men, the narrator digs for gold to a depth of 7 feet.
Learning that Jupiter dropped the beetle through the skull's right eye by mistake, the men move, dig another hole, and come up with a treasure chest full of gold and diamonds. This seems to fulfill Legrand's belief that Captain Kidd buried treasure on Sullivan's Island (Poe was influenced by local pirate legends and literature).
The story goes on to explain that Legrand decoded a parchment's secret message in order to find the treasure and was no insane. The parchment was one he found and in which he wrapped the gold bug upon discovering it. The bug had no connection with the treasure at all. Just as we say that someone has caught a "bug" about something and become obsessed with a fad, Legrand seemed to have been bitten.
One wonders if Edgar Allan Poe originated the proverb of being "bitten by a bug" related to a fad or idea - the insanity of obsession cause by an imaginary bug bite.
A Fine Doctor and Friend
Consensus is that Legrand is based on Dr. Edmund Ravenel, whom Poe befriended during his military tour in South Carolina. In fact, Poe edited the doctor's manuscript on conch studies for The Conchologists First Textbook, 1837. Poe had many talents, including academic and humorous.
© 2012 Patty Inglish MS