Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether
Far south from Paris in rural France, an unnamed narrator makes a journey accompanied by an acquaintance whom he had only recently met in the year 18--. In passing a famous Maison de Sante and being himself a doctor, he wants to visit briefly to learn more about a special "soothing system" employed at this psychiatric hospital. However, the narrator's companion doesn't want to stop because he's afraid of lunatics, offering instead to introduce him to the asylum's director, Monsieur Maillard before departing. He adds that the two can meet up the next day because he will travel extremely slowly for the narrator to catch up to him. Riding by horseback to the doorstep of this structure, Maillard exits, addresses the narrator's companion, before this man bids farewell to them both, leaving the narrator, who admires Maillard as being a "fine-looking gentleman of the old school" and having a "certain air of gravity, dignity, and authority."
The two men enter a "small and exceedingly neat parlor, containing...many books, drawings, pots of flowers, and musical instruments. A cheerful fire blazed upon the hearth. At a piano, singing an aria from Bellini, sat a young and very beautiful woman, who, at my entrance, paused in her song, and received me with graceful courtesy. Her voice was low, and her whole manner subdued" Poe, pg. 183. The narrator then reflects about the "soothing system" which he has heard so much about, noting that this system involves giving no punishments to any of the mental hospital's patients, and they are all allowed to freely walk around the hospital uninhibited wearing customary clothing rather than hospital garb. He then analyzes this mysterious female, cautiously wondering if she could possibly be a patient, even though she appears to be a rational person. She soon leaves, when the refreshments are brought in by a servant, and Maillard explains that she is in fact his niece and not a patient at all.
Satisfied, the narrator inquires about the "soothing system," but Maillard replies that this system was abandoned several weeks ago. Patients also used to behave poorly whenever inspectors would come over to visit the asylum, and as a result he does not allow many visitors at all any more either, so the narrator is lucky to have been admitted inside. He explains more about this old system, "We put much faith in amusements of a simple kind, such as music, dancing, gymnastic exercises generally, cards...We affected to treat each individual as if for some ordinary physical disorder, and the work 'lunacy' was never employed. A great point was to set each lunatic to guard the actions of all the others. To repose confidence in the understanding or discretion of a madman is to gain him body and soul" Poe, pg. 185. This system is also now used in psychiatric hospitals throughout France as well, even though it is no longer used there for undisclosed reasons. In spite of the narrator's curiosity that there is not other way to cure mania than the soothing system, Maillard does not tell him what new system has replaced the "soothing system," choosing instead to invite him to dinner later that evening at six o'clock. Afterwards, he shall reveal everything. Thus, the narrator eagerly accepts this invitation.
Later that evening, the narrator joins Monsieur Maillard and about thirty of his friends in the dining room of the asylum and admires their expensive clothes and jewelry. However, some guests are dressed with too much of this finery, noting that it is not consistent with current fashion trends in Paris, attributing this to the fact that these people are from the country and are a "peculiarly eccentric people, with a vast number of antiquated notions" for this reason. Also present is the woman whom he had first seen upon entering the asylum, Maillard's niece, "but my surprise was great to see her wearing a hoop and farthingale, with high-heeled shoes, and a dirty cap of Brussels lace, so much too large for her that it gave her face a ridiculously diminutive expression. When I had first seen her, she was attired, most becomingly, in deep mourning" Poe, pg. 187. As a doctor himself, the narrator is slightly disturbed to see such a dramatic transformation in this woman's appearance, since she once appeared to have a lot of eloquence in her demeanor, but now she looks rather silly because of the old-fashioned way she is dressed, with a dress made in a style that went out of fashion over one-hundred years before and a cap that is too big for her head.
Even the dining room is rather ugly with no carpet, no curtains on the windows, and the shutters were barred shut to allow no view of the outside. There was far too much food served as well, and most of it was meat. Wax candles covered the table everywhere, and a group of musicians played nearby on "fiddles, fifes, trombones, and a drum" although they are not very talented; in fact, their songs really bother the narrator throughout his meal. In spite of this, however, he pretends to be having a wonderful time, seated to the right of Monsieur Maillard, noting that his strange companions do seem to be well-educated. They all begin to discuss various patients at the asylum, and unlike the narrator's acquaintance who refused to enter the asylum with him because of his fears, these people embrace the topic of lunacy. One man talks about a patient that thought he was a teapot and polished himself every day; another man excitedly adds that another patient thought he was a donkey, so the asylum staff insisted that he only eat thistles like a donkey as a result and liked to kick his legs as donkeys do. Mademoiselle Laplace cuts in, asking this man, Monsieur De Kock, to stop kicking his legs and to keep his feet to himself. De Kock then kisses the hand of Laplace and they toast their wine together after Maillard reprimands them both for fighting with each other.
Next, Maillard orders that "veal a la St. Menehoult" be brought to the narrator, although it looks like a large monster has been killed and cooked on the plate, but Maillard assures him that it is merely a young calf roasted with an apple in its mouth. Disgusted, the narrator decides to try some rabbit but declines this also upon being told it is called "rabbit au-chat" or "rabbit from cat," adding that he will have ham instead. The guests begin talking about other patients gleefully, describing one man who thought he was a piece of cheese and wanted everyone to slice him up; another man describes a patient who thought that he was a bottle of champagne and used to pop and fizz, at which the speaker inserts his thumb into his mouth and makes a loud pop and fizzling sound to demonstrate for several minutes. Maillard is bothered, but he does not speak up about this rude behavior. Yet another man interjects that one patient thought he was a grog and would make croaking sounds, demonstrating such sounds for everyone at the dinner table. Another guest reminds them of a patient that thought he was a piece of chewing tobacco, and another thought he was a pumpkin, and another thought he had two heads. Another guest describes a patient who thought he was a spinning top, or teetotum, and liked to spin around, at which the guest prepares to demonstrate before being interrupted by another table guest who whispers into his ear.
An old lady describes a patient named Madame Joyeuse, who thought she was a rooster, demonstrating for everyone the crowing this patient would make, "cock-a-doodle-de-doo-doo-doo-doo-o-o-o-o-o-o" adding that this patient's behavior was "delicious." Maillard reprimands her, stating that she will leave the table if she can't behave appropriately. The young woman from the parlor in the Brussels cap, whose name is Eugenie Salsafette then describes a female patient of the same name who loved to take off her clothes all of the time and be naked, at which SHE starts taking off her clothes. The guests manage to restrain her from accomplishing this deed, however, while a series of loud yells from somewhere in the building fills the dining room. The guests become very pale, and the narrator observes how irrational this seems considering that these people are supposed to be sane. The yells fade away after a fourth time, and Maillard calmly replies that he is "used to these things," since it is merely from the lunatics at that hospital, whenever they are trying to escape. The narrator uses this as an opportunity to find out about the new system employed there, having replaced the "soothing system."
Maillard reveals that they only have about ten patients at that time, adding that they used to have about twenty-seven patients, but now things are very different. When some guests add that things have indeed changed a lot, Maillard tells them to hold their tongues, meaning to stop talking, at which one guest stuck out her tongue and held onto it with her fingers. The narrator inquires about Madame Joyeuse and her crowing, curious if she is a lunatic after all; Maillard insists that she is as "sane as myself." Suspicious that everyone is so strange, the narrator asks about the other guests, at which he replies that they are all his friends. Monsieur Maillard then mentions that they have started to use the system of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, two famous people although the narrator, an educated man and doctor, has never heard of such a system or such people. Maillard is stunned that he hasn't heard of these two men, throwing his hands into the air with surprise, adding that they should all have a toast of wine together, changing the subject of conversation.
More time passes, and the narrator and Maillard drink several bottles of wine. The noise from guests and the horrible music fills the room, and Maillard has to scream his words aloud to the narrator to be heard. The narrator asks what problems the "soothing system" had, at which Maillard replies that it was too dangerous to allow the lunatics to walk around without any confinement because they were very sneaky, adding a deep understanding of what thoughts go through the mind of a lunatic, "His cunning...is proverbial and great. If he has a project in view, he conceals his design with a marvelous wisdom; and the dexterity with which he counterfeits sanity presents, to the metaphysician [psychiatrist], one of the most singular problems in the study of mind. When a madman appears thoroughly sane, indeed, it is high time to put him in a straitjacket" Poe, pg. 196-7. He explains that lunatics are very intelligent, and they can easily conceal their insanity from doctors, and as a result it is difficult to determine who is really sane or insane after all. Maillard supports this statement with an example, that the patients there at the asylum once behaved remarkably well when they had the "soothing system," until one day they rebelled suddenly against their doctors, tying them up and imprisoning them in the very cells that had once held these patients.
Amazed, the narrator adds that he had never heard of such an event happening before, at which Maillard proudly describes how one patient led the uprising who wanted to create a "lunatic government" at the asylum, with the support of all the other patients, where they would be in charge of everything. He adds that the imprisoned keepers were treated fairly well. The narrator replies that surely these doctors must have taken over the asylum once again afterwards, to which Monsieur Maillard states that he is wrong, because the lunatic in charge was too intelligent, admitting no visitors there except for one "stupid-looking gentleman" who posed no harm. Curious, the narrator asks how long this went on for, hearing that they took over the asylum a month before. He describes the "system of Tarr and Fether" as being delicious but is interrupted by a series of screams and yells, at which Maillard calmly states that the lunatics have escaped, becoming very pale. The room shakes as people outside smash the door and shutters with sledgehammers; Maillard hides down on the floor, while the intoxicated orchestra starts playing "Yankee Doodle" on their instruments.
The guests are totally out of control, as one man spins around the room like a top and knocks everyone else down, while another man makes champagne popping sounds, while another man eagerly croaks like a frog, and another makes donkey sounds. Madame Joyeuse stands in the corner, crowing like a rooster. The narrator feels sorry for her, because her facial expression reveals that she is pouring her heart and soul into crowing, as if it is a matter of life and death. Suddenly, all of the windows are smashed in and in jumped a bunch of scary creatures that look like black chimpanzees from Cape of Good Hope, attacking everyone in the room, including the narrator. Hiding beneath the couch, he made sense of what was happening. Monsieur Maillard had once controlled the asylum a couple of years ago, but he had since gone insane and became a patient himself; the narrator's traveling companion did not know this because he had not seen Maillard for a couple of years anyway. The real doctors and keepers at the asylum had been attacked by the patients about a month ago, led by Maillard, and then they were tarred and feathered and locked up in underground cells.
There they remained for the whole time, unable to walk about freely in the tradition of the "soothing system" and fed only bread. Water was pumped on them daily as well. Eventually, one of these people escaped through the sewer, releasing the others, and they regained control of the asylum on that very evening that the narrator was Maillard's guest. Since this time, the narrator adds that the "soothing system" is now used at the asylum once again, adding that Maillard's "system of Tarr and Fether" was simple enough and prevented anyone from causing any trouble. Indeed, this system was merely to tarr and feather patients, keeping them confined. The "soothing system," as Maillard can no doubt attest to, gives many opportunities for lunatics to misbehave because they are allowed to wander freely. The narrator concludes with a statement that he has searched everywhere for the writings of "Doctor Tarr" or "Professor Fether," but he has failed to discover any references to these men anywhere. Tarr and Fether are fictional figures created by Monsieur Maillard, in an attempt to make his own primitive system of tarring and feathering people appear as if it is the result of expert discussion and research. Since the narrator does not seem to understand this connection, choosing instead to go vainly searching for these men's research in bookstores and academic libraries, Monsieur Maillard's subtle references to the narrator as a "stupid-looking gentleman" are hardly the rantings of a madman.