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The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Other Poe Study Guides
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Plot Summary
Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Publication Date
Themes
What is Mesmerism?
Climax
Author Information
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Complete Free Text
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2006
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.......Efforts 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.
.......“It 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 death?
.......While 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.
.......The 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.
.......When 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.
.......While 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.
.......The 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?
.......At 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.
......."Yes;—asleep now. Do not wake me!—let me die so!" 
.......The narrator questions the “sleep-waker” again, asking him whether he is in pain, inasmuch as his limbs are rigid.
.......“No pain—I am dying,” Valdemar says.
.......When 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.
.......So 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 sleeping):
    "Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead.”
.......The 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.
.......So 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. 
......."For God's sake!—quick!—quick!—put me to sleep—or, quick!—waken me!—quick!—I say to you that I am dead!"
.......The 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.
Setting

The action takes place in Harlaem (Harlem), N.Y., in the first half of the 19th Century. 

Characters

M. Valdemar: Dying man who willingly submits to an experiment in mesmerism.
Unnamed Narrator: Conductor of the experiment on Valdemar
Nurses: Valdemar’s caregivers.
Two Physicians: Doctors who treat and evaluate the condition of Valdemar before and after the experiment.
Medical Student: Witness to the experiment.

Type 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. 

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Themes

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

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. 

Climax

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.

Author Information

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. 
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Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • 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 and death?
  • 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. 
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