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 | Themes


Mesmerism and Pseudoscience

Many pseudosciences existed during the 18th century, including alchemy (a precursor to chemistry that focused on the transformation of matter from one element to another), astrology (a practice that asserts that stars have the power to influence human actions), and mesmerism (a precursor to hypnotism that claimed the ability to heal people through channeling their energy). These practices had many followers, but they also had a fair number of critics. Poe critiques the practice of mesmerism which claimed to have the answers for idealizing human society in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Poe calls into question the practice's moral implications by depicting what might happen if a person were to be mesmerized at the point of death.

The Mesmerist introduces the story as if he is giving a scientific report regarding the findings of his mesmerization experiment. He places himself in a position of authority by claiming to be a practitioner of mesmerism. He also situates himself as a man of science by explaining that his interest in the experiment with Valdemar is to understand the limits of the practice. One of the major themes of the Romantic tradition is the emphasis on the natural world. Poe puts mesmerism, a common practice of the time, into conversation with Romantic ideals. By exploring the darkest hypothetical facets of mesmerism, Poe reveals that death and the human psyche are natural forces that can't be understood or tamed by science.

Poe also provides a commentary on the desire of science to play God over the forces of life and death. The Mesmerist initially explains that his desire to experiment on Valdemar is essentially a desire to see whether "Death might be arrested by the process." Many of Poe's works deal with the themes of death, dying, and murder, but "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" is unique in that it portrays a scientist who tries to stop death rather than cause it. Yet Valdemar ironically experiences multiple horrific deaths as a result. This calls into question the role of science in natural processes and how that interaction often goes awry.

Death, the Decaying Body, and the Gothic

Death is a common theme in almost all of Poe's works, and it is a central theme in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Poe analyzes the effects of death on a human's body and consciousness and interprets them through a supernatural lens. This technique of focusing on the grotesque and horrific elements of death is a major theme throughout Gothic literature, which is a genre that Poe helped define. Gothic literature displays a fascination with defeating death, but there is also trepidation towards those who overcome it. This fear is almost always answered with a supernatural response, as is the case with Valdemar. His spirit or consciousness speaks from within his dead body, and the onlookers initially react with terror. They nevertheless decide to preserve him in that in-between space for seven months. Their decision demonstrates that they are initially fearful of Valdemar's state but also want to control it by determining its duration.

Romantic works often sentimentalized the death process, but death isn't romanticized in Gothic literature or most of Poe's works. It is instead described in vivid and gruesome detail to accentuate human mortality. Most of the descriptions in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" are dedicated to illustrating Valdemar's physical decline. He is described lying in bed in a mesmerized state. The Mesmerist gives much attention to the appearance of Valdemar's lungs and face as they are the most readily observable areas. The physical observations of Valdemar's body are often in opposition to his conscious self. This can be seen repeatedly when the narrator asks Valdemar how he's doing, and he responds that he feels no pain even though his body is gruesomely deteriorating. This disconnect between Valdemar's body and spirit, or consciousness, is one of the most horrific elements of the story. His body is rotting before everyone's eyes and yet he isn't aware of what is happening from within his mesmerized state.

Literary Form and the Unreliable Narrator

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" was written as a direct response to mesmerization, a pseudoscience phenomenon that swept across America in the 19th century, made supernatural claims, and entertained audiences. The Mesmerist introduces the story as a list of facts that are intended to clarify a mesmerization case in which he was involved. The resulting story form takes the shape of a scientific report. It is strengthened by its reliance on medical and technical language and heavy emphasis on eyewitnesses. The Mesmerist makes every effort to demonstrate that he is reliable, yet his claims grow increasingly unbelievable.

Many of the Mesmerist's descriptions are based on observable facts that he claims to have witnessed. He ultimately asserts that Valdemar's consciousness was mesmerized at the moment of his death, but that his body deteriorated as in death when Valdemar slightly roused. The Mesmerist chronicles every physical detail of Valdemar's declining physical state to support these claims. He even checks in with the audience frequently and directly addresses their concerns by acknowledging that his story is unbelievable. He claims that he isn't concerned with gaining believers but just wants to clear the air. He maintains the mirage of reliability and the structure of the form. His ultimately dubious reliability can be viewed as a commentary on the practitioners of mesmerism, who often made elaborate and supernatural claims yet didn't support them with evidence.

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