Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
to keep an account of the case of Monsieur Valdemar (M. Valdemar) from
the public could not prevent leaks of certain details. Consequently, what
the public heard was a distorted account. Many people reacted with disbelief
at what they heard.
is now rendered necessary that I give the facts—as far as I comprehend
them myself," the unnamed narrator says.
For three years, the narrator
has been studying mesmerism, he says, and he realizes no one has ever tried
the technique on a dying person. How would it affect him? Could it forestall
searching for an apt subject for an experiment, the narrator thinks of
a friend, Ernest Valdemar, of Harlaem (Harlem), N.Y., compiler of Bibliotheca
Forensica. He is a very thin, nervous man with white whiskers and black
hair. Two or three times, the narrator had previously put him in a trance.
However, he failed at other times to gain full control over Valdemar’s
will—perhaps because he was suffering from phthisis (probably tuberculosis),
a disease that causes its victims to waste away. Sometimes, Valdemar spoke
calmly of his imminent death. He agrees to become a subject for experimentation—in
fact, the prospect excites him—and he has no relatives in America who would
object to it.
course of the disease is predictable, even down to the hour of death, and
Valdemar submits to the experiment one day before his predicted demise.
the narrator arrives at 7 p.m. Saturday for the experiment, Valdemar is
so thin that his cheekbones show through his skin. He coughs frequently.
His pulse is faint. Nevertheless, he retains presence of mind and a modicum
of physical strength. Two physicians attend him. They tell the narrator
that Valdemar’s disease has ruined his lungs and that they believe he has
an aneurysm in his heart. He is expected to die at midnight Sunday. The
doctors leave but plan to return to check on Valdemar at 10 p.m. Sunday.
talking with Valdemar, the narrator has second thoughts about the undertaking,
for the only witnesses present to observe it are a female nurse and a male
nurse. So he waits until the following evening, by which time he has hired
a medical student to witness the experiment and take notes. When the narrator
and the medical student arrive at 8 p.m., the narrator goes to work immediately.
He would have waited for the doctors, but Valdemar is barely hanging on.
narrator begins by passing his hand over Valdemar’s forehead, a technique
he previously found successful in mesmerizing Valdemar. However, in spite
of a promising initial response from Valdemar, further efforts by the narrator
have no effect. When the doctors arrive at 10 p.m., they permit the narrator
to continue the experiment. After all, Valdemar will die very soon. Why
not let the narrator proceed?
10:55, Valdemar begins slipping into a trance. Over the next hour, the
narrator continues to work on him. At midnight, all present agree that
he is in a perfect state of mesmerism. One doctor, excited, decides to
stay with Valdemar through the night; the other plans to return in the
morning. The medical student and the nurses remain. At 3 a.m., the narrator
asks Valdemar whether he is asleep.
now. Do not wake me!—let me die so!"
narrator questions the “sleep-waker" again, asking him whether he is in
pain, inasmuch as his limbs are rigid.
pain—I am dying," Valdemar says.
the other doctor arrives in the morning, he is astonished that Valdemar
still lives. After conferring, the doctors say Valdemar should remain in
his present state until death, expected in minutes. The narrator then asks
Valdemar whether he is still sleeping. Immediately, Valdemar’s eyes roll
back, the skin turns white, the circular spots on his cheeks disappear,
and the lower jaw falls, exposing a black tongue.
hideous does he look that everyone steps back from him. After the doctors,
the medical student, and the narrator pronounce him dead, his tongue vibrates,
and in a minute they hear his voice. The sound seems to come from a cavern
deep in the earth. Valdemar then answers the question (whether he is still
have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead."
medical student faints. The nurses leave, refusing to return. After the
doctors and the narrator spend an hour trying to revive Valdemar, they
observe that his breathing has stopped. Moreover, an attempt to draw blood
fails, as does the narrator’s effort to make him move an arm. However,
Valdemar tries to answer questions but cannot articulate. Meanwhile, other
nurses are hired, and the narrator leaves with the two physicians at 10
a.m. When they all return in the afternoon, Valdemar’s condition is unchanged.
But to awaken him, they believe, would be to lose him completely.
he remains in his trance—for seven months. Nothing changes. Finally, the
doctors and the narrator agree that their only course is to try to awaken
him. After the narrator uses his mesmeric technique several times, the
iris of Valdemar’s eye descends part way and emits a foul-smelling fluid.
An effort to cause Valdemar to move an arm fails. The narrator asks Valdemar
to express his wishes.
God's sake!—quick!—quick!—put me to sleep—or, quick!—waken me!—quick!—I
say to you that I am dead!"
narrator finishes his story, saying,
As I rapidly made the mesmeric
passes, amid ejaculations of "dead! dead!" absolutely bursting from the
tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once—within
the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely
rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company,
there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.
The action takes place in
Harlaem (Harlem), N.Y., in the first half of the 19th Century.
M. Valdemar: Dying
man who willingly submits to an experiment in mesmerism.
Conductor of the experiment on Valdemar
Two Physicians: Doctors
who treat and evaluate the condition of Valdemar before and after the experiment.
Witness to the experiment.
of Work and Publication Date
This literary work is a short
story, published as “The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case" in December 1845
in the American Whig Review and as “The Facts in the Case of M.
Valdemar" in the same month and year in the New York Broadway Journal.
The genres into which the story falls include horror and science fiction. .
No one can escape death.
Poe explored this theme earlier in "The Masque of the Red Death," in which
a prince withdraws to an abbey with a thousand knights and ladies to escape
a terrifying disease that causes death within half an hour of the onset
of symptoms. He orders the gate of the abbey welded shut to keep the people
in and the disease out. For more about this story, click
here. It is human nature, of course, to attempt to escape death, and
some people in the modern world resort to radical measures to prolong life,
including quack remedies or extreme diets or exercise regimens. Some victims
of disease attempt to achieve "immortality" by arranging to have their
bodies frozen at death, then thawed and treated when a cure is discovered.
Experimentation in science
and medicine can produce horrifying results. As soon as the fictional
Valdemar is released from his trance, his body decays instantly in a horrifying
spectacle. In real life in modern times, science experiments and therapeutic
treatments have sometimes resulted in deformities, weight loss, weight
gain, abnormal growth, depression, loss of memory, loss of sight, and so
on. Sometimes a cure kills.
Mesmerism was a medical technique
intended to modify the flow of body fluids in order to restore an ailing
patient to health. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a German educated in
Austria, developed the technique. According to Mesmer, illness resulted
from a blockage that inhibited the flow of body fluids. Because Mesmer
believed these fluids responded to an external magnetic stimulus, he concluded
that passing a wand or a hand over a patient’s body could alter the flow
of fluids and restore the patient’s health. The movement of the wand or
the hand tended to induce a trance in the patient. Thus, a trance state
came to be regarded as a restorative or healing process. Mesmer’s technique,
regarded as quackery in his time, led to the development of hypnosis as
a therapeutic technique.
The climax of “The Facts
in the Case of M. Valdemar" occurs when the narrator ends Valdemar's trance,
resulting in instant deterioration of his body.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple—John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Study Questions and Writing
It is now possible in many cases
for doctors to maintain the vital functions of a dying patient through
the use of special equipment. What moral and ethical guidelines would you
use when deciding whether a terminally ill patient should be kept alive
or allowed to die?
What writing techniques does
Poe use to catch, then hold, the reader's attention?
Do you believe events in Poe's
own life between 1840 and 1845 caused him to think a great deal about disease
What was the attitude of the
medical and scientific community toward mesmerism in the first half of
the 19th Century?
Writers of short stories, novels,
and film scripts frequently focus on seemingly impossible events. For example,
films such as Jurassic Park, Spiderman, and the War of the Worlds
all center on farfetched storylines. Yet hundreds of millions of people
see these films—no doubt because they all have a modicum of plausibility.
What is plausibility? What makes a film or a literary work plausible even
though its subject matter seems beyond belief? Is "The Facts in the Case
of M. Valdemar" plausible? Explain your answer.
Write your own short story about
an altered state of consciousness or a prolonged state of unconsciousness.
Examples of these states are normal sleep, narcoleptic sleep, somnambulant
sleep, coma, hypnotic trance, cataleptic trance, amnesia, narcotic stupor,
and alcoholic stupor. In the story, the departure from the normal state
of consciousness should result in a startling, shocking, strange, unforeseen,
wonderful, or horrifying development.