30 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1845

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Summary: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

This study guide discusses the American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” first published in 1845. Like many of Poe’s stories, this could be considered an example of literary horror. However, unlike some of his most famous tales, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is not particularly Gothic or dramatic, instead using first-person narration and extensive description to create a clinical sense of verisimilitude (i.e., to seem true or realistic). This guide refers to the Vintage Books edition of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Narrator opens the story by saying that the “extraordinary case” (96) of M. Valdemar has provoked a lot of discussion, and that, despite his efforts and those of other people directly involved in the incident to keep the matter private until they had enough time to properly investigate and explain it, an “exaggerated” version of the story nevertheless escaped and began circulating in society. He promises to provide us with his factual account, but also states that he can only describe the facts as he “understands them [himself]” (96).

The Narrator has been interested in and practicing mesmerism (a type of hypnotism) and, prior to the events with Valdemar, realizes that no one had yet experimented with mesmerizing a person “in articulo mortis” (at the point of death; 96). He says that he is particularly interested in learning whether mesmerism might cause the subject’s impending death to be delayed. When trying to think of a suitable candidate, the Narrator decides on his friend, M. Ernest Valdemar, an editor and translator living in Harlem. Valdemar is sickly and slight, and the Narrator has mesmerized him before, but with little success; the Narrator says that he never managed to bring Valdemar under his control while in a trance, and he attributes this to the general poorness of his health. Valdemar speaks often and calmly about his illness (his doctors have diagnosed him with a phthisis, or a wasting disease, probably pulmonary tuberculosis) and his impending death. The Narrator states that Valdemar seems like a perfect candidate for his new experiment because he has agreed to participate in earlier ones, and he has no relatives living in America who might interfere with his plans. The nature of Valdemar’s disease means that his time of death is easily predictable, so the two men agree that Valdemar will send for the Narrator 24 hours before he is expected to pass away.

When the note arrives, the Narrator makes his way to Valdemar’s deathbed, where Doctors D– and F– are attending. The Narrator says that Valdemar looks very sick—he has pale skin, dimmed eyes, and he has lost so much weight that he looks skeletal. He coughs often and his pulse can be barely felt—but in other ways, he seems to be in surprisingly good condition. He speaks clearly, can take his own medication, and is even writing in a notebook.

The doctors tell the Narrator more about Valdemar’s illness, noting in medical terms the deadly progression that has occurred. Doctors D– and F– estimate that Valdemar will die at midnight the next day (Sunday). The doctors wish Valdemar a final farewell, not planning to return, but the Narrator convinces them to check back in at about 10:00 pm on Sunday night. When the doctors leave, the Narrator and Valdemar discuss the proposed experiment once again, with Valdemar eager for it to begin and the Narrator to mesmerize him right away. The Narrator instead waits until the next night to begin because he has sent for Mr. Theodore L—l, a medical student who the Narrator considers trustworthy and someone who will not object to his experiment but will be a reliable witness. The Narrator had originally planned to also wait until the doctors returned to begin, but, considering Valdemar’s eagerness to start the process and the rapidly deteriorating state of his health, he ultimately decides to start right away upon the arrival of the medical student.

The Narrator says that he requested Mr. L—l take notes during the experiment, and that much of the description that follows is taken directly from those notes. The Narrator begins using “passes,” movements of his hands across the subject’s face and body, to try to send Valdemar into a state of hypnosis. When the doctors arrive, the Narrator explains his experiment, and they raise no objections, considering Valdemar is about to die anyway.

Eventually, Valdemar’s pulse disappears and his breathing becomes heavy and labored. Suddenly, he sighs deeply, his breathing becomes steadier, and his arms and legs turn ice cold. Finally, the Narrator observes clear signs that Valdemar has successfully been placed under “mesmeric influence” (99)—namely, that his eyes have a look of “uneasy inward examination” (99) like that of a sleepwalker. When the Narrator returns to check on Valdemar a few hours later, he says, it is only possible to tell he is still breathing by placing a mirror to his lips, but that despite this, it does not appear that Valdemar is dead. The Narrator attempts to provoke Valdemar’s arm to move and follow his own as he passes it over the body. He notes that he’s never been able to get Valdemar to do this before, but this time, it works. At this point, the Narrator decides to try speaking to Valdemar. He repeatedly asks him if he is asleep and, on the third try, Valdemar begins to tremble, his eyes open, and finally, he whispers “Yes – asleep now. Do not wake me! – let me die so!” (100). The Narrator next asks Valdemar if he feels pain, and he says he does not. Though the doctors tell the Narrator to leave Valdemar in peace until he finally passes away, the Narrator cannot refrain from asking Valdemar if he is still sleeping. This provokes a dramatic and visible change in Valdemar: his eyes open and roll upward, his skin turns ghostly white, like that of a corpse, and the color suddenly drains from his cheeks. At the same time, Valdemar’s lips curl up and his mouth opens widely, exposing his “blackened tongue” (101). This horrible sight causes everyone in the room to back away from the bed.

Just as the Narrator and doctors decide that Valdemar must have died at this point, they notice that his tongue has begun to vibrate. After about a minute, Valdemar speaks in a disturbing, unearthly voice the Narrator says is indescribable. He says that it sounds as if the voice is coming from somewhere far away, like an underground cavern, and that there was a certain sticky quality to the sound. He also specifies that the voice was speaking words, answering his question: Valdemar says that he had been sleeping, but that now he is dead. Everyone is terrified by this development; Mr. L–l faints, the nurses leave the room and refuse to return, and the Narrator says that he was disturbed in a way he cannot begin to explain. After helping to revive Mr. L–l, the doctors and the Narrator note that Valdemar is no longer breathing and they cannot draw blood from his arm, and the Narrator can no longer influence Valdemar’s arm to follow the movements of his own. Finally, after new nurses arrive, the doctors, Mr. L–l, and the Narrator leave the house.

When they return the next day, they conclude that the Narrator’s mesmerism has arrested, or prevented, the death of Valdemar, and that attempting to awaken him would likely only cause him to die instantly. For seven months, the Narrator states, Valdemar has remained in exactly the same condition. Finally, they decide to awaken Valdemar. The Narrator attempts this, with little result, until finally Valdemar’s eyes begin to roll down; as this occurs, they leak great amounts of foul-smelling “ichor” (102) or watery discharge. The Narrator asks Valdemar to explain to the group what he feels or wishes. The color returns to Valdemar’s cheeks, his tongue moves, and he speaks again, entreating them to quickly either put him to sleep or awaken him, declaring that he is dead. The Narrator attempts to awaken Valdemar. After shouting repeatedly “Dead!” (103) while the Narrator does so, Valdemar’s physical body suddenly (within the space of one minute) collapses, rotting away. The story ends as the Narrator describes all that is left of Valdemar—a disgusting puddle of putrid material.