Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
First published in the July 31, 1844 edition of Philadelphia's Dollar Newspaper, "The Premature Burial" reflects a similar theme to that of "The Fall of the House of Usher" which had been published five years earlier: being buried alive. In the first tale, Madeline Usher is buried alive by Roderick Usher and later murders her brother because she is so outraged; in this later tale the narrator is consumed by fear of being buried alive, although this does not actually occur at any point. The symptoms of his illness resemble those of Madeline as well, in that the illness gives the appearance of being dead for long periods of time. However, as the narrator points out all too clearly, in the later story fear is seen as the cause of his illness; it is a psychosomatic, when the body is affected by a person's mental state. In the tale of Madeline Usher, the sister appears to have a genuine malady; fear is felt only by Roderick Usher, who experiences similar bouts of paranoia very much akin to the narrator in "The Premature Burial," by reading dark literature and living every moment in melancholy, as a hermit refusing to stray far from home. The parallel between these two men is striking, except an abrupt departure from the earlier story occurs now.
Whereas Roderick was consumed by his fears and merely waited for his sister to slay him, embracing this moment as an inevitability as that story's narrator is devoured by his own terror, this story ends with the narrator's discovery of reason as a cure for his suffering. He realizes the vitality and preciousness of life, and decides to use whatever time he has to enjoy himself while living, rather than wishing for himself to be already dead. This is an odd departure in theme for Poe, especially since this story ends on such an rather optimistic note, that a man can indeed conquer his inner demons. Perhaps the uniqueness of the tale reveals the emotional highs and lows experienced by Poe throughout his lifetime, forever haunted by a flurry of childhood deaths that included his mother Elizabeth Poe, Jane Stannard, Fanny Allan, and soon his wife Virginia Poe, wasting away after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1842. Poe also forever sought an escape, as is reflected in "The Masque of the Red Death" or "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," where the characters try to flee from death. Now, while still accepting death as an inevitable reality, the narrator in "The Premature Burial" conquers his fears by also learning to accept life, a task which Poe's characters had largely failed to accomplish thus far.
It is prudent to also add that Edgar Allan Poe makes many references to a geography that is familiar to him: the first instance of premature burial featuring the congressman's wife occurred in Baltimore, a city where he had lived for a few years with his cousin and future wife, Virginia; the narrator is on a hunting trip near Richmond, Virginia, where Poe had been raised in John Allan's household, after his mother's death; the tale of Julien and Victorine occurred in Paris, France, a place Poe no doubt had been familiar with due to his childhood years in London. Rather than choosing areas such as Philadelphia, Albany, or Budapest, Poe impels his stories with personal experience and empathy, thus creating a plot that is both believable and effective. Once again, the only female in the story, at the center of a love triangle, carries the name "Victorine," beginning again with the same letter as his beloved real-life wife, "Virginia," a pattern that was also observed in the name of the male "Valdemar" in an earlier example. All in all, the brilliance and vibrancy of Edgar Allan Poe's tales are derived from a world that he knew all too well. This quickly expanding lens into mid-nineteenth century America is resurrected every time that his stories are read and understood, disinterred from the steely grip of Time.