By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......Of course, the type of horrifying event that most unsettles readers is one that happens to a single person rather than to a multitude.
.......“The ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass," the narrator observes.
.......The most unspeakably terrifying event that a single human can undergo is to be buried alive. Yet it has happened many times after mysterious diseases rendered living persons seemingly lifeless, rigid, dead.
.......Records exist attesting that victims of such diseases have been buried alive. One such victim was the wife of a Baltimore lawyer and member of the U.S. Congress. After she exhibited no signs of life, she was pronounced dead. A funeral was held, and she was entombed in a vault. Three years later, the vault was opened to receive a sarcophagus. At this time, the woman’s coffin was found in pieces on the floor. It had fallen from a ledge where it was placed. An investigation revealed that the woman revived after her entombment and struggled to free herself, causing the coffin to fall and break up. She apparently beat on the iron door of the vault–to no avail, of course–then died. Her skeleton, free of the coffin, attested to her “resurrection."
.......Another victim of an illness that mimics death was a young French heiress, Victorine Lafourcade. A poor Parisian journalist, Julien Bossuet, loved her–and apparently she loved him–but she rejected him because of his low social standing and instead married a banker and eminent diplomat, Monsieur Renelle. However, he mistreated her and, after several years of marriage, she died–or appeared to–and was buried in a grave in the village where she was born. Devastated by her death, Bossuet traveled to the village and opened the grave and coffin at midnight to cut off her beautiful hair as a memento. But just as he was about to snip away the hair, Victorine opened her eyes. She was alive but remained in a stupor. After Bossuet carried her to his lodgings, he revived her. Realizing that she truly loved Bossuet, she fled with him to America. Twenty years later, they returned to France in the belief that no one would recognize her. But Monsieur Renelle did recognize her and tried to reclaim her. However, a court ruled that he had no hold on her after so long a time.
.......A German medical journal reported a case of a military officer who died–apparently–after falling from a horse and suffering a blow to the head. Three days after his burial in a shallow grave, a cemetery visitor noticed movement of the earth while sitting on the grave. The officer was disinterred and revived in a hospital, where he spoke of the horror of awakening beneath the earth. It seems that the shallow grave admitted air to keep him alive. Unfortunately, even though the officer seemed on his way to recovery, doctors performed experiments on him with a galvanic battery, causing his death.
.......Oddly, the use of such a device in London revived a “dead" man–one exhumed from a grave three days after his burial. Curious doctors wanted to dissect the body to determine the cause of death, presumed to be typhus. A student who decided to conduct an experiment on his own attached a wire from the battery to a muscle. In a moment, the patient stood up and uttered several words. Later, he made a full recovery.
.......The narrator notes that the cases he has discussed are but a few of many. Premature burial probably happens frequently, he says, and he can think of nothing more horrible than finding oneself inside a grave while still alive. He then discusses his own risk of premature burial, for he suffers from catalepsy.
.......Catalepsy, he says, is an affliction that causes a human to enter a deathlike trance. A sufferer can reduce his risk of being declared dead if he informs everyone he knows about his condition.
.......The narrator says the affliction often caused him to fall into “half-swoon" in which he could not move or think but was vaguely aware of his surroundings. “At other times I was quickly and impetuously smitten," he says. I grew sick, and numb, and chilly, and dizzy, and so fell prostrate at once. Then, for weeks, all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the universe."
.......The illness appeared not to affect his general physical health. However, he did notice a strange symptom upon awakening from a night’s sleep: For several minutes, he would lapse into a state of confusion, lacking memory and other mental abilities.
.......Eventually, he could think only morbid thoughts, and he talked “of worms, of tombs, and epitaphs." Fear of being buried alive possessed his mind. He was afraid to go to sleep, for he worried that he would awaken inside a grave. After falling asleep on one occasion, he dreamed about being in a cataleptic trance.
.......This dream and others like it unnerved the narrator. Soon, he was reluctant to keep company with anyone except those who were aware of his condition–those would not bury him prematurely in the event that he fell into a cataleptic fit. As a further precaution, he redesigned the family vault so that it admitted air and could be opened from inside. A rope through the hole of the coffin lid was attached to a bell on the roof. If he were prematurely buried, he could ring for help.
.......The time came when, upon awakening in the morning, it took him longer to come to his senses. When he reached full consciousness, an eyelid would quiver and a pang of terror would shoot through his body when he remembered his catalepsy.
.......One morning, deep despair overwhelmed him as he awoke from another stupor. Mustering courage, he opened his eyes to face the new day, but everything was dark. He tried to shriek but could not. When he noticed that he was lying on something hard, he threw up his arms. They struck solid wood.
.......“I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last," he says.
.......However, remembering the alterations he made in the vault, he took heart. First, he pushed on the coffin lid. It would not move. Then he reached for the rope to ring the bell. It was not there. When he noticed that he could smell moist earth, he realized he was not in the family vault. He concluded that he must have suffered a cataleptic fit while away from home, surrounded by strangers, and was buried in the earth in a common coffin. He again tried to shriek. This time he succeeded, giving out a long cry of agony.
.......Someone answered. Then three others spoke, one saying “Get out o’ that!"
.......One of them shook him, and he was restored to the world of light and the living. The incident took place when he went on a "shooting expedition" with a friend along the James River near Richmond, Va. When a storm came up in the evening, they took shelter in the cabin of a small boat, where they spent the night. The narrator slept in a berth 18 inches wide and 18 inches high. In the morning upon awakening, he assumed he was in a coffin. The smell of the earth had come from cargo on the boat. Those who shook him to his senses were crewmen.
.......From that time forward, he became a new man–traveling, exercising, avoiding morbid thoughts and burning medical books he had been reading. In time, his symptoms of catalepsy disappeared. He realized that the human imagination, like a cavern, cannot be explored to its fullest without risking dangerous results. And, although terrifying thoughts may have some basis in reality, “ they must sleep, or they will devour us–they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.
The action takes place in the middle of the 19th Century at the narrator’s home in Richmond, Va., and on a small, single-masted sailing vessel (sloop) on the James River. The narrator takes shelter on the boat during a storm.
Narrator: A man who
says he suffers from catalepsy, an illness which temporarily incapacitates
a person in a condition mimicking death. The narrator lives in abnormal
fear that he will be pronounced dead during a cataleptic trance and buried
Type of Work and Publication Date
"The Premature Burial" is a short story of in the horror genre written in first-person point of view. It was first published on July 31, 1844, in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper.
The central theme of "The Premature Burial" is extreme terror and its effects on the human mind. The narrator's terror is the result of his dwelling obsessively on morbid thoughts.
Being cut off, being isolated from the world of the living, is in part the cause of the narrator's abnormal fear of being buried alive. The thought of being alone and abandoned, without hope of ever seeing another human being, petrifies the narrator. Ironically, to avoid the possibility of premature burial, he avoids leaving his home to be among people. "I hesitated to ride, or to walk, or to indulge in any exercise that would carry me from home," he says.
Let the Sleeping Mind Lie
At the end of the story,
the narrator says the deep recesses of the human mind, where reside unknown
and inscrutable terrors, are better left alone, unexplored. "The imagination
of man is no Carathis," he says, "to explore with impunity its every cavern."
The "demons" in the mind "must sleep, or they will devour us–they must
be suffered to slumber, or we perish." Here, Poe seems to be saying that
it is unhealthful to dwell on morbidity and vague fears. If one focuses
incessantly on an imagined illness, he will become ill. If he focuses incessantly
on what could go wrong, nothing will go right. The mind has its own secret
hell; to awaken its demons is to awaken bale and bane.
Poe as narrator declares in the opening paragraph of the short story that the author of fiction must avoid concocting extremely horrifying tales, for they could “offend or disgust" the reader. Accounts of ghastly events from real life are another matter, he says. Writers may freely report them in the cause of truth. This position gives the reader the impression that “The Premature Burial" will report a true account of a premature burial of which the narrator has firsthand knowledge. However, Poe first presents several documented accounts of premature burials he has read about to point out that such interments do occur from time to time. These accounts make the story read like an expository essay. But after presenting a paragraph that describes in detail the excruciating mental agony of being buried alive, Poe’s narrator announces that he himself underwent such an experience. Here, Poe switches seamlessly from essay to short story, from nonfiction to fiction. Nevertheless, the rest of the story rings as true, like the accounts from real life. The narrative has verisimilitude. Of course, except for the documented accounts, the story is complete fabrication. But it is also devilishly terrifying entertainment, with nice touches of irony and humor. Consider that Poe gives us a narrator who is not only terrified of dying but also terrified of remaining alive (inside a coffin). The poor fellow. And what is his solution? He rigs his final resting place with a bell attached to a rope running through a hole in the lid of the coffin. In the event that he is buried alive, he has only to tug on the rope to alert the outside world that he is still alive. This little embellishment is reminiscent of the jingling bells on the carnival fool’s cap worn by Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado" before the narrator entombs him in a brick wall.
Poe carefully makes every word, every phrase, every sentence in the story contribute to the overall effect, horror, accompanied by oppressing morbidity and anxious anticipation of terrifying events. Notice, for example, the tenor of the words in the following in the following paragraph. I have highlighted those that support Poe's theme.
As in his other short stories, Poe frequently uses anaphora in "The Premature Burial." Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from the story
And now the first positive effort to think. And now the first endeavor to remember. And now a partial and evanescent success. And now the memory has so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of my state..
Despair–such as no other species of wretchedness ever calls into being–despair alone urged me, after long irresolution, to uplift the heavy lids of my eyes. I uplifted them. It was dark–all dark. I knew that the fit was over. I knew that the crisis of my disorder had long passed. I knew that I had now fully recovered the use of my visual faculties–and yet it was dark–all dark–the intense and utter raylessness of the Night that endureth for evermore.
Following is a glossary of the allusions and references in "The Premature Burial":
sorcerer in Shah-nameh (Book of Kings), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur
(935-1020), who wrote under the pen name Ferdowsi.
The narrator of "The Premature Burial" suffers not only from catalepsy (which is actually a symptom of other disorders) but also–it appears–from obsessive/compulsive disorder. Here is a brief look at both afflictions.
Catalepsy is a condition that causes muscle rigidity and temporary loss of consciousness and feeling for several minutes, several hours, and, in some cases, more than a day. Generally, it is not an illness in itself but a symptom of an illness, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism or a brain tumor. Certain drugs, too, can trigger a cataleptic episode. The victim does not respond to external stimuli, even painful stimuli such as a pinch on the skin.
Besides suffering from catalepsy,
the narrator appears to suffer from what psychologists today term obsessive/compulsive
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.