Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

The seriocomic tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” first appeared in American Review in December 1845 as “The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case.” The revised tale was reprinted with an introductory note by Poe that noted the connection to American Review in the December 20, 1845, issue of Broadway Journal, the only journal over which Poe managed to gain complete editorial control. The story evolved out of Poe’s earlier attempt to relate a Mr. Vankirk’s experience with mesmerism that was titled “Mesmeric Revelation,” which first appeared in August 1844 in Columbian Magazine.

The unidentified first-person narrator begins his tale by explaining that, for the past three years, he has been interested in the subject of mesmerism, a form of hypnotism that renders the subject unable to feel pain, which was developed by Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Austrian physician. In the course of his studies, the narrator realizes that no one has tried to mesmerize someone “in articulo mortis” (480), at the moment of death. Therefore, he devises an experiment designed to answer the following questions: whether a person nearing death would be susceptible to being mesmerized, what effect being close to death would have on the process of being mesmerized, and how long actual death might be staved off by being mesmerized. To assist with his experiment, he recruits a friend from Harlem, New York, the well-known author M. Ernest Valdemar, who is in the late stages of tuberculosis and whom the narrator has previously been able to hypnotize.

Edgar Allan Poe/Smithsonial Magazine

When M. Valdemar is nearing death, seven months prior to the time of the story, he sends for the narrator. Because the cryptically identified physicians Doctors D___ and F___ predict the patient’s demise by midnight of the next day, the narrator sends for a medical student, Mr. Theodore L___l, who arrives to record the proceedings, from which the narrator tells this story. After M. Valdemar verbally agrees to allow the narrator to proceed (providing an early example of gaining informed consent from a patient before a procedure is done), the narrator then mesmerizes the patient, who first says he is asleep, then a few hours later that he is dying, then a little bit later that he is dead. For seven months Valdemar persists in this final state, until the narrator, in consultation with the physicians, decides that the humane thing to do would be to take the patient out of the trance. As the narrator makes the movements associated with drawing someone out of a trance, Valdemar’s tongue keeps saying, “Dead! dead!” (490) until the body crumbles away into a putrid mess and the story ends.

Critics see the irony of the story as another example of a characteristic way that Poe approaches obsessive themes in his work. In what can be seen as a parody of some of the experiments being legitimately reported during his lifetime, Poe applies the well-regarded age-old scientific method to the relatively new psychological approach that was ambivalently received in the scientific and medical community of the 19th century. Poe himself admitted in letters written to Arch Ramsay and George W. Eveleth that the story of M. Valdemar was a hoax, though critics have argued that the public uproar after his story was first published forced Poe to make this statement.

The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Available online. URL: Accessed May 24, 2021.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” In Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by G. R. Thompson. New York: Perennial Classic–Harper, 1970.
Ware, Tracy. “The ‘Salutary Discomfort’ in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 471–480.

Categories: Literature, Mystery Fiction

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