Poe Study Guides.
Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Date
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
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
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
Unnamed Friend: This
friend accompanies the narrator on a “gunning expedition" along the James
Boat Crewmen: Men
on a sloop providing shelter for the narrator and his friend when a storm
interrupts their expedition.
fictional tales about extremely terrifying or extremely disgusting events
is in poor taste, the narrator says. But writing stories about appalling
events that actually happened—events that
caused immeasurable suffering, such as the great earthquake in Lisbon or
the devastating plague in London—is necessary
and useful. Such stories serve the cause of truth.
Michael J. Cummings...©
course, the type of horrifying event that most unsettles readers is one
that happens to a single person rather than to a multitude.
ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man
the mass," the narrator observes.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last," he says.
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.
answered. Then three others spoke, one saying “Get out o’ that!"
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.
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.
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.
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,"
Let the Sleeping Mind
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.
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.
narrative does have verisimilitude. Of
course, except for the documented accounts, the story is a 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.
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.
It may be asserted, without
hesitation, that no event is so terribly
well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental
distress, as is burial before death.
The unendurable oppression of the lungs—the
fumes from the damp earth—the clinging
to the death garments—the
embrace of the narrow house—the
of the absolute Night—the
silence like a sea that overwhelms—the
unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror
Worm—these things, with the
thoughts of the air and grass above,
with memory of dear friends who would
fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that
of this fate they can never be informed—that
our hopeless portion is that of the
considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which
still palpitates, a degree of appalling
and intolerable horror from which the
most daring imagination must recoil.
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.
now a partial and evanescent success. And now the memory has
so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of
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.
Beresina (usually spelled
River that was in western Russia before that country's boundaries changed
in the 20th Century. It was the site of heavy French losses during the
Napoleonic wars. Here is what happened: After the Russians held their ground
at Moscow in 1812, Napoleon's army retreated. While crossing the Berezina
on his way back to central Europe between November 26 and 29, 1812, Napoleon
lost more than 10,000 men under bombardment from Russian artillery. The
Berezina River is now in Belarus, a region of the old Russia that became
an independent nation in 1991.
British physician (1729-1805) who wrote Domestic Medicine: Or a Treatise
on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines.
Apparently, the narrator of "The Premature Burial" perused this book for
information about catalepsy.
One of the most devastating earthquakes on record, registering between
8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. It occurred on Nov.1, 1755, beginning between
9:20 and 9:40 a.m. and lasting several minutes. The earthquake and its
aftermath—including tsunami waves and fires—killed
approximately 60,000 of the 250,000 residents of the Portuguese capital,
Lisbon, and 30,000 to 40,000 more in other countries in Europe and Africa.
St. Bartholomew’s Day
Massacre: Mass murder of Huguenots on August 23 and 24, 1572, ordered
by King Charles IX of France at the insistence of his mother, Catherine
de Médicis. Thousands—or perhaps tens
of thousands—of Huguenots died. St. Bartholomew’s
Day falls on August 24.
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.
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.
symptoms and severity of this disorder vary from patient to patient. However,
in one variety of this affliction, the patient dwells obsessively on a
situation, a place, a person, or an idea that he fears. For example, a
person may dread speaking in public, which is a requirement of his job.
Or he may fret over meeting people or be anxious about his physical health.
It is normal, of course, for a person to be concerned about making a speech,
meeting people, or passing his next physical examination. It is abnormal,
however, to experience intense—sometimes debilitating—anxiety
about a present or future event, or about an unplanned or unexpected turn
of events. A person obsessed with an abnormal fear can think of nothing
else but that fear. He is like the narrator of "The Premature Burial,"
who cannot shake his preoccupation with the possibility that he will be
buried alive. This preoccupation can trigger deep depression.
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.
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.