Pit and the Pendulum
An Evening With Poe
Of Edgar Allan Poe
And Enlightening Look
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010..©
......."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.
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
.......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 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
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.
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.
.......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.
suffering from catalepsy, the narrator appears to suffer from what psychologists
today term obsessive/compulsive disorder.
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.