The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar | Plot Summary & Analysis

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The narrator acknowledges that there has been considerable speculation and gossip regarding an event he was involved in. He also expresses his desire to clear the air and reveal the facts about what happened. He introduces himself as a man who has been interested in mesmerization for the past three years and has wondered what would happen to a person if they were mesmerized at the moment of death.

The Selection

The Mesmerist recalls why he chose M. Ernest Valdemar as the subject upon which to test his mesmerization techniques. He had mesmerized Valdemar before, Valdemar had always fallen into the trance-like state easily, and Valdemar is nonchalant about his terminal illness. He also doesn't have any family who would protest against the experiment. Valdemar writes to the Mesmerist when the doctors agree that he is near death. After hearing the news, the Mesmerist appears at his bedside within forty-five minutes to begin the mesmerization process.

The Process

The Mesmerist speaks to Valdemar's doctors, and they agree that his lungs have virtually been destroyed by tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a serious disease caused by a bacteria that attacks the lungs. The doctors agree that Valdemar is near death and leave for the night. The Mesmerist is left alone with Valdemar and his nurses. He doesn't want to start the mesmerization without more reliable witnesses, so he waits until his medical student acquaintance Mr. Theodore L—l can be in attendance. The next evening Mr. L—l observes and takes notes. The Mesmerist puts Valdemar into the mesmerization after conferring with the doctors once more.

The Effects

Valdemar quickly falls into a perfect mesmerized state. His breathing was once loud and strained. It now falls quiet, and it is only perceptible when it fogs a mirror that is placed to Valdemar's lips. At this point he looks perfectly still but not dead. The doctors are amazed that he hasn't died yet. The Mesmerist asks him if he feels pain, and he says no and that he's dying. They decide to leave him undisturbed in this state until he dies naturally, which they assume should occur at any moment. His body noticeably changes before their eyes, and his black tongue hangs out of his open mouth. They presume that he is dead, but then he attempts to speak, and his voice sounds supernatural and hollow. Valdemar tells them that he is dead. They recover from the horror and check his vitals, which all indicate that his body is dead. Yet his tongue keeps moving as if he's trying to talk. He remains in this state for seven months.

The Waking

The Mesmerist and doctors decide to wake Valdemar to see what will happen. Valdemar's eyes start leaking a fetid fluid when the Mesmerist first tries to rouse him. The Mesmerist asks Valdemar what he feels or desires, and he says that he wants to be awakened or put back to sleep because he is dead. The Mesmerist awakens him and presumes that he will wake to consciousness. Instead, he screams out that he's dead and disintegrates into a rotten and glutinous mass.


Fact Building

The opening paragraph establishes the "facts" of the story and creates a foundation of realism that accentuates the horrors to come. The story is fiction, but readers at the time were unaware of the genre. The realistic setting and language convinced many that it was an actual medical report. The Mesmerist begins by acknowledging that the public has been speculating and gossiping about an event that occurred. He claims that he wants to essentially set the record straight by giving the facts of the case. He says that the event involves the experimentation of mesmerization techniques and death, but he doesn't allude to anything supernatural or horrific. He instead continues to build realism through specific and technical language. He describes Valdemar as the organizer of "Bibliotheca Forensica," which is a specialized way of saying that he put together an "investigative library." By using elevated language he builds his credibility as a scientifically minded man who could be capable of conducting mesmerization experiments.

The Mesmerist is never directly named as a scientist or doctor, but he keeps the company of such professionals and is able to speak their language. He goes to Valdemar's room and speaks with doctors D and F about Valdemar's physical condition. He summarizes Valdemar's state, describing how "The left lung had been for eighteen months in a semi-osseous or cartilaginous state, and was, of course, entirely useless for all purposes of vitality." These specific and technical descriptions of Valdemar's lungs reflect the Mesmerist's familiarity with medical terminology and lend credibility to his character. They also reinforce the realism of the story.

The Mesmerist goes to great lengths to substantiate his story. He describes his relationship with the doctors and continues to use medically specific language up until the effects of the mesmerization are described. He claims to have consulted with the doctors multiple times before performing the mesmerization. He even makes sure that a medical student witnesses the experiment and records everything that occurs. The doctors, medical student, and nurses initially seem like peripheral characters. Yet they are strategically positioned in the story to support the Mesmerist's character. He isn't just telling his version of the story. He's trying to prove that there were multiple credible witnesses to support his claims. The story is presented like a court case, and the secondary characters serve as character witnesses to enhance the believability of the Mesmerist's "facts." The Mesmerist uses these specialized techniques to build his credibility, but ultimately his reliability as a narrator cannot be validated. The reader only gets his version of the events since no other character testimony is given. It is therefore impossible to know if he is telling the truth.

Credibility within the Horrific

The details become more supernatural after the mesmerization. The Mesmerist still maintains his method of building credibility by continually describing his interactions with the witnesses. He also extensively explains each interaction he has with Valdemar. Valdemar tells the Mesmerist that he's asleep yet dying while in the mesmerized state. The Mesmerist meticulously chronicles what happens to Valdemar's physical state. He writes, "The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly." Valdemar's mouth falls open, "leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full view the swollen and blackened tongue." The Mesmerist catalogs what happens to each of Valdemar's facial features instead of bluntly stating that Valdemar appears to be dead. He does this so that readers can see Valdemar's death for themselves. The Mesmerist doesn't tell the reader what to think but instead provides enough details that they can come to their own conclusions.

The Mesmerist acknowledges that the subsequent events will be hard for readers to believe but that it's his "business, however, simply to proceed." He builds believability and credibility by admitting that his story is implausible and that his purpose is to give the facts. His language also supports his credibility. His language remains that of an interested scientist rather than an emotional relater even after the events grow more horrific and otherworldly. Everyone presumes that Valdemar is dead, but he speaks and "Mr. L—l...swooned...My own impressions I would not pretend to render intelligible to the reader." The Mesmerist admits the horror of the moment through Mr. L—l's and the nurses' reactions, but he does not reveal the same emotive response in himself. He glosses over his own emotional state because his intended purpose is to provide the facts and deviating from this purpose would hinder his credibility as a narrator.

The Mesmerist's restrained state is again seen when he finally awakens Valdemar and an "out-flowing of a yellowish ichor (from beneath the lids) of a pungent and highly offensive odor" leaks from Valdemar's eyes. The Mesmerist describes the final moments of the mesmerization-waking process instead of describing his own emotional state or reaction during this time. This is again the case after the climactic moment when Valdemar rouses from the mesmerized state just long enough to scream that he is dead and then dissolves. The Mesmerist doesn't linger on how he felt or the implications of Valdemar's death. He instead comments on the observable features of the liquid that was once Valdemar's body.

The Struggle between Humanity and the Elements

Resistance to death is a common theme throughout the story, but the struggle between humanity and the uncontrollable elements of nature is the foundational theme, and nature always wins. The Mesmerist represents humanity's desire to overcome nature. His most definitive quest is to overcome death through scientifically derived techniques. The Mesmerist believes that science is a powerful man-made tool that he hopes can overcome the most threatening problems that arise from nature. This idea is emphasized when the Mesmerist describes M. Valdemar's decrepit condition moments before his death. Illness had caused M. Valdemar's lungs to deteriorate and become hardened, essentially rendering him unable to breathe. This condition is what leads to M. Valdemar's death, and it represents the cruel effects of nature. Humans will always inevitably die, whether from sickness, disease, or old age.

The Mesmerist uses his techniques to mesmerize Valdemar at the moment of his death, and Valdemar's death process is stopped. The Mesmerist temporarily believes that he has single-handedly conquered death. Then he realizes that what he thought was a complete cessation of the death process only prolonged it. The Mesmerist's techniques ultimately cause Valdemar to suffer more than if the Mesmerist had allowed him to die naturally. The Mesmerist originally believed that he had conquered death, but he quickly discovers that interference with nature has unexpected and often dire consequences.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The Mesmerist introduces himself and the story.

Rising Action

2 The Mesmerist mesmerizes Valdemar as Valdemar is dying.

3 Valdemar is mesmerized but manages to say that he is dying.

4 Valdemar's body decays as if dead, but he can still speak.


5 Valdemar awakens and screams as his body disintegrates.

Falling Action

6 The Mesmerist recalls how Valdemar rotted beneath his hands.


7 The Mesmerist recalls the "putridity" of Valdemar's remains.

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