Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
When this story was published in the December 1845 issue of New York's The American Whig Review, the idea of Mesmerism, or hypnotism, was still rather popular, given that its founder, Franz Anton Mesmer, had only just died in 1815. During Poe's early years in London from 1815-1820, he no doubt had exposure to this man's teachings, which originated from nearby Paris, France. Mesmerism is also the central topic of "A Tale of the Rugged Mountains" which also depicts a man controlled by another who later dies, similar to the narrator's attempts to control Valdemar's dying body. Certainly this was a subject of great interest to him. Poe wrote "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" while serving as editor of The Broadway Journal in New York City, where he had moved to from Philadelphia. not so very far from the Harlaem, or "Harlem" where Monsieur Valdemar resides. The first letter initial of the narrator is "P." thus matching the first letter of Poe's last name, which is an interesting detail to make note of. Poe obviously draws from a geography that is familiar to him in composing this story, and given that the story was published for a mainly New York readership, the immediacy that the story creates could be a marketing strategy as well.
Furthermore, it was around this time that Poe's wife, Virginia, had taken a turn for the worst. Like Valdemar, Virginia had been battling a terrible bout of tuberculosis since her initial diagnosis in 1842, and both names even begin with the same initial, "V." Poe's detailed descriptions of the symptoms that this painful disease carries are hardly based upon guesswork or research, because he was able to observe and experience this illness and the suffering it brings, on a firsthand basis. The doctors standing at the lingering patient's bedside, and the accepted inevitability that there is nothing to be done in preventing death for the tuberculosis patient are stark realities that Poe knew all too well. His own mother, Elizabeth, had died from this same ailment when he was only a small child. Poe no doubt had a particular hatred for tuberculosis while simultaneously accepting, as is reflected in "The Masque of the Red Death," that there is nothing to be done to save the infected victims from death. The narrator P. puts forth a concerted effort to delay or event prevent the onset of Valdemar's death, while later realizing that nothing anyone can do to save Valdemar; this man himself, frozen in his trance, even begins to beg for death to come.
Both of these stories reflect the same theme in different ways; Prospero hopes to escape death by locking himself within the walls of his castle, whereas the narrator mesmerizes Valdemar to prevent this from happening. In both instances, these attempts fail; Prospero is the first to fall at the hands of the Red Death, followed by all of his partygoers, and Valdemar's body collapses into a melted mass of fetid body fluids once his trance has been lifted. The significance should be clear: in spite of Poe's inward yearning for Virginia's recovery, he understood that her premature death was an undeniable reality. Mrs. Poe did expire at their cottage in the Bronx on January 30, 1847, at the age of 24. There is no documented report of Virginia being placed into a mesmeric trance in the hours preceding her death. Another interesting item of note is that, due to the extremity of details that he used in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," including quotations, visual descriptions, and the use of scientific terminology, many readers in the public assumed that Poe's story related events that had actually happened when it is published. Later, when Edgar Allan Poe revealed that it was merely a fictional story of his own creation, he explained that the factual presentation of events was merely a tool to direct the reader's attention toward mesmerism, a topic with which he was very interested.