Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
An unnamed narrator whose first name is P. describes that he has an increasing interest in a process known as Mesmerism, to be more commonly interpreted as hypnotism, or rather, to put someone into a trancelike state of mind, and to thus cause an increased responsiveness to questions. The narrator is presumably a doctor as well, but this does not appear to be directly established in the story. The main problem that the narrator wishes to solve in his quest for knowledge is that nobody has ever been mesmerized right before death, "in articulo mortis," and he wonders if perhaps death could even be avoided if this were done. Next, he tries to find someone who would be willing to subject themselves to mesmerism while dying, and he recalls his friend Ernest Valdemar, who is a well-known scholar and book author that has resided in "Harlaem, N.Y., since the year 1839" is in poor health, and "For some months previous to my becoming acquainted with him, his physicians had declared him in a confirmed phthisis [tuberculosis of the lungs]. It was his custom, indeed, to speak calmly of his approaching dissolution, as of a matter neither to be avoided nor regretted" Poe, pg. 49. Valdemar does not fear his own death, but rather accepts it as an inevitability. Prior to this, the narrator had tried to mesmerize him, but it did not work very well, possibly because of his poor health.
However, the narrator asks this man if he would agree to be mesmerized at the brink of death, and Valdemar readily consents and looks forward to this event, declaring that he will send a message to the narrator when he is within twenty-four hours of death. Soon after, Valdemar sends such a note on a Saturday, adding that his two physicians "D--- and F---" have given him only a short time to live, not "beyond tomorrow midnight." The narrator P. rushes over to Valdemar's bedside in Harlaem within fifteen minutes, where the dying man is calmly writing down some final words on paper, attended to by his two doctors. They relate that his lungs are rapidly deteriorating and ossifying, or hardening, "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. The right, in its upper portion, was...ossified, while the lower region was merely a mass of purelent tubercles, running one into another. Several extensive perforations [holes] existed; and, at one point, permanent adhesion to the ribs had taken place" Poe, pg. 50. The detailed description reveals the grave nature of his condition, as his lunsg have become nearly useless and additionally, the doctors think he has an aneurism in his heart. The doctors both say good-bye to Valdemar for what they think will be the last time, since there is nothing more to be done. The narrator, however, asks them to come back on Sunday around ten o'clock.
Afterwards, a male and female nurse remain behind to watch the dying man, but the narrator does not want to mesmerize Valdemar with only these people, just in case something goes wrong. As eight o'clock approaches, a medical student named Theodore L---l arrives, and the narrator decides to mesmerize Valdemar with this man as a credible witness that Valdemar gives permission for this. The narrator begins to mesmerize Valdemar by touching his forehead and continues to mesmerize the dying man until the arrival of the two physicians D--- and F--- at around ten o'clock. His breathing becomes very hoarse and slow, as does his heartbeat. After fifteen minutes, Valdemar sighs deeply, his skin becomes cold to touch, and the breathing returns more to normal. Shortly before eleven o'clock, the narrator describes more changes, "The glassy roll of the eye was changed for that expression of uneasy inward [sic] examination which is never seen except in cases of sleep-walking, and which it is quite impossible to mistake. With a few lateral passes I made the eyelids quiver, as in incipient sleep, and with a few more I closed them altogether" Poe, pg. 52. He then causes Valdemar's body to straighten out and to lift his head slightly, until around midnight the doctors examine the man, discovering that he is in a complete "mesmeric trance."
At three o'clock in the morning, the narrator inspects Valdemar yet again, only to find him in exactly the same condition and position that he had left him in nearly three hours before, still breathing and obviously not dead; he has outlived the midnight deadline put forth by his doctors! Standing next to the bed, the narrator manipulates Valdemar's arm by moving his own arm over his head, like a magician, and Valdemar mirrors these actions, which no change in his facial expression. Now the narrator asks him if he is asleep several times, until finally the man replies, "Yes;--asleep now. Do not wake me!--let me die so!" He adds afterwards that he feels no pain. Later the narrator returns again before sunrise and with both physicians present, asking again if he is still asleep, to which Valdemar replies "Yes; still asleep -- dying." Everyone then agrees that the best thing is to leave him in this trancelike state of mind, until death will at last fall upon him and he will speak no more. The narrator, fascinated and curious, wishes to speak with him yet again, and this time "The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils slowly disappearing upwardly; the skin [resembled] not so much parchment on white paper...The upper lip, at the same time, writhed itself away from the teeth, which it had previously covered completely; while the lower jaw fell with an audible jerk, leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full view the swollen and blackened tongue" Poe, pg. 54.
There is no response from the man, but suddenly his tongue begins to vibrate rapidly and after a few minutes from the tongue comes Valdemar's voice, "Yes;--no;--I have been sleeping--and now--now--I am dead" at which the nurses flee in fear, and Theodore faints. After this medical student is revived, they decide to inspect Valdemar again and try unsuccessfully to draw blood from his arm; they no longer see any sign of breathing; and the narrator can no longer make the arm move around with his mesmeric powers. The only indication that Valdemar is not dead, is because his tongue continues to vibrate when a question is asked, as if it is trying to respond but cannot. They hire new nurses because the other pair is too frightened to ever return, and at ten o'clock in the morning the narrator leaves with the physicians and Theodore. After making another visit later that afternoon, the men observe that Valdemar is still in his trance and has not yet died; at this they conclude that the mesmeric trance has, indeed, delayed Valdemar from dying indefinitely. To revive him from the trance would mean that he would die instantly, for it is the only thing keeping him alive right now.
In the days and weeks that follow, the narrator visits Valdemar's house daily, and this routine continues for about seven months during which Valdemar stays in exactly the same position as he had been on that first day, with his eyes opened and tongue protruding from his gaping mouth. He is cared for by the two new nurses throughout these months. Seeing no change in his condition, the narrator decides at last to awaken Valdemar from his trance and allow him to die. He goes to Valdemar's bedside and proceeds to wave his hands over the man's head as he had done once before in putting the trance upon him. The first detectable change in Valdemar as he comes out of his trance, is that his eye starts to leak a flood of yellow pus which smells very unpleasant. Next, he tries to move his arms and receives no response at all and decides to speak with Valdemar, "M. Valdemar, can you explain to us what you are feelings or wishes now?" at which the tongue vibrates again and shouts out "For God's sake!--quick!--quick!--put me to sleep--or, quick!--waken me!--quick!--I say to you that I am dead!" The narrator P. hesitates before continuing the process of revival, expecting Valdemar to just wake up again and return to his old self.
However, "As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of "dead! dead!" absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once -- within the space of a single minute, or eevn less, shrunk -- crumbled--absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of lothsome [sic] -- of detestable putridity" Poe, pg. 57. Valdemar finally dies after seven long months of avoiding this, and his body quickly decomposes as if he had in fact lain there on the bed for seven months, dead already. Nobody was expecting this to happen, and as a result many people gossip about this event as a result, because of its gruesome nature, and perhaps to wonder whether putting Valdemar in a trancelike state while on the verge of death was really such a good idea after all. Although in the beginning Valdemar had been very much in agreement, it seems that after seven months of being suspended from both life and death, his voice frantically pleads to be revived. Once perceived with indifference as an inevitability, death instead becomes a welcomed blessing.