Edgar Allan Poe and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
December 8, 2009 1 Comment
Occasionally I dip into my copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a compact and inexpensive, but moderately elegant, hard copy edition in the Barnes and Noble “Collector’s Library.” It measures 4 inches by 6 inches, is not quite an inch thick, has gilt edges, and a wine-colored ribbon.
The collection includes Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a story ostensibly about the effects of mesmerism (the precursor to hypnotism) on an individual who is about to die.
Though not obvious to everyone when first published 20 December 1845, the story is pure fabrication. It is narrated with a tone of seriousness and objective reportage. Poe must have delighted in the sensation it caused among those who simply accepted it as factual. That it was received in this fashion says much about the gullibility of the public mid-nineteenth century. [Note: Charles Darwin was to published The Origin of Species not fifteen years later.]
This story considers a possibility that could not have been ruled out by the science of Poe’s age. What if, approaching the moment of expiration, a patient was put into a mesmeric state? What influence would it have on the subject? What if, in this way, death could be “arrested by the mesmeric process”?
The narrator relates certain facts in the case of his patient. M. Valdemar had a terminal illness (namely, pthisis, or pulmonary tuberculosis) and had agreed to the experiment. When the signs of his impending demise appeared, the narrator was summoned. This narrator arranged for two physicians to be present and observe. No one knew or could guess in advance what would happen since, as far as the narrator knew, no one had attempted this before.
Very near the moment of death, the man was mesmerized. The narrator takes pains to describe the changing condition of Valdemar’s body over under these conditions. In due course, all observers agree that “what is usually termed death” was interrupted, and that mesmerism was the cause. Substantial evidence for this is the fact that our narrator is able to extract answers to questions from an otherwise apparently lifeless body.
The last two pages recount the dilemma the narrator and others faced by the fact that Valdemar persisted in this condition going on seven months. Eventually it was decided that the “sleep-waker” be relieved from his trance. Initially, there were indicators that it was working—he was coming out. But these indicators were accompanied by putrefaction, at an astonishing rate! And in an instant,
[a] hideous voice broke forth —
‘For God’s sake!—quick!—quick—put me to sleep—or quick!—waken me!—quick!—I say to you that I am dead!
This, to say the least, was unnerving to all concerned. The narrator, in near panic, it seems, tried then to re-establish the hypnotic state. Failing, he sought earnestly instead to waken him.
Here Poe inserts a characteristically “Poe-etic” statement:
For what really occurred . . . it is quite impossible that any human being could have been prepared.
The story concludes with two sentences describing what did occur. Lest I completely ruin your experience of reading this story, I won’t repeat them here.
Note: You know this already—there’s nothing to compare with reading from a book, for the proper experience of what is written. This may be especially true of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. For your convenience, however, I note that the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has published online the complete text of this story here.