Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Premature Burial
A narrator begins by mentioning several horrific events in history that have captured people's attention, including the Passage of Beresina, the Earthquake of Lisbon, the Black Hole at Calcutta, the Plague of London, and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, reminding the reader that "it is the fact -- it is the reality -- it is the history which excites." He continues that, although he has mentioned many very important catastrophic events, individual stories of suffering are of even greater importance, and greatest among these are the stories of those who have been buried alive, and the narrator asks the reader, "The boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely...temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism" Poe, pg. 59. The man comments that there are illnesses where the victim may appear to be dead, when in fact the body is still very much alive. At these times the person may even be buried, because everyone thinks that he's dead, and it will not be until later that the individual will awaken, locked in a coffin and unable to escape.
Next he tells of several specific instances during which these exact situations have occurred. First of these was in the city of Baltimore when a congressman's wife became very ill and appeared to die, as her skin was pale and cold, and she was not breathing. After three days she was buried and rested in her family vault undisturbed until three years later, when this tomb was reopened to put another body into it. The living were horrified to find the women's body dangling in front of the door, where it appeared she had been banging for help. Her coffin had been broken open from the inside, and it was assumed that she had awakened within two days after she had been laid to rest. Doubtless, this poor woman had been buried alive. Another incident occurred in the year 1810 in France, where Mademoiselle Victorine Lafourcade decided to marry Monsieur Renelle instead of Julien Bossuet because Renelle was a wealthier man. Her marriage was very unhappy, however, and Victorine later died, and she was buried in a graveyard underground.
Hearing of her death, Julien found her grave and lamented for his lost love, that she did not choose to marry him all those years ago; he digs up her grave to have a piece of her hair as a final reminder of his love. However, the woman's eyes suddenly opened! Julien took her back to where he is staying and soon after, the woman is miraculously restored to good health, for she was not in fact dead at all! Grateful to have been saved, and recalling her wicked husband, Victorine proclaimed her love for Julien, and the two travelled together to America and does not return to France for twenty years. Upon their return, Victorine was recognized by her husband, and he demanded that she come live with him again, which she protests. The court decided that their marriage is no longer valid because they had not been together for so long, and the triumphant Victorine was permitted to remain with her true love, Julien. In this instance, being buried alive turned from a tale of horror into one of romance, for it brought two estranged lovers together again and healed a broken woman's heart. The terrible mistake she had made was undone, and she chose Julien Bossuet not for his money, but instead for the beauty of his soul.
Yet another incident (related in The Chirurgical Journal of Leipsic) involved a tall officer of artillery man who fell off of his horse and fractured his skull, but he appeared not to have anything wrong with him. Draining blood from the wound did not solve the problem, and his condition worsened until he died, or so the doctor thought! His body was then buried underground on a Thursday, but three days later on Sunday a peasant sitting on the soldier's grave felt the earth moving beneath him and ran off to find some help. The body was dug up and, indeed, his coffin had been stirred from within, although the man was unmoving at that time. Rushing him to the hospital, he was later revived and made a full recovery. Unfortunately, when later being experimented upon by some doctor with a galvanic battery, his body experienced an adverse reaction to the battery's electrical charge, and the man really died as a result.
In 1831 there was an instance during which a man named Mr. Edward Stapleton, a lawyer, whom everyone thought had died of typhus fever. As a result, he was buried in the ground without even getting an autopsy at the request of his friends. The greedy physicians insisted on cutting open Stapleton's body and had his body snatched from its grave so that they could experiment on it privately, three days after the funeral. Carried to a hospital, and the doctors experimented with the body while it laid on an operating table; one medical student who was present decided to make a cut into the man's chest, and he jabbed in a wire connected to a galvanic battery. Edward then sat up and got off of the table, collapsing in the middle of the room after speaking some unintelligible words which were "I am alive." Those present soon set to work treating the poor man, realizing that he was in fact very much alive, and after some amount of time Edward is recovered and fit to continue his normal life again. He explained that he was never dead at all, that he was aware of everything that happened to him from when he was first declared dead by the doctors until he was revived once again. This evidences the fact that, although the body may appear to be dead, the mind may still be very much awake.
Next the narrator expresses his own fear because "When we reflect how very rarely, from the nature of the case, we have it in our power to detect them, we must admit that [these incidents] may frequently occur without our cognizance. Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions" Poe, pg. 64. He believes that people are being buried alive all of the time, without anybody ever knowing about it, and the man relates his own experience with being buried alive. Admittedly, he suffers from a strange illness which doctors merely call catalepsy, when the muscles become stiff and rigid. During such attacks, his body appears to be lifeless for a period of weeks or even months, as the limbs stiffen, and the heartbeat is hardly noticeable. The illness gets worse and worse as time passes, and the periods of stasis last increasingly longer. The narrator fell into this trance for a few weeks alone, so nobody knew about his state. However, upon waking the man obsesses only upon what would have happened had his family or friends discovered him like that, for surely they would have thought that he was dead and buried him beneath the ground!
As a result, the man obsesses about death and waking up one day only to find himself locked up in some coffin underground. To combat these worries, he tries to avoid falling asleep for fear that he will fall into one of these trances, but nevertheless his eyes close on one such occasion. A terrible nightmare preys upon his fragile condition while resting, as the man dreams that an icy hand is touching his head, commanding him to "Arise." Frightened, he sits up and cannot see anything, and the unknown speaker again commands him to "Arise," after which it states that "I was mortal, but am fiend. I was merciless, but am pitiful. Thou dost feel that I shudder.-- [sic] My teeth chatter as I speak, yet it is not with the chilliness of the night -- of the night without end. But this hideousness is insufferable. How canst thou tranquilly sleep? I cannot rest for the cry of these great agonies. These sights are more than I can bear. Get thee up! Come with me into the outer Night, and let me unfold to thee the graves. Is not this a spectacle of woe?--Behold!" Poe, pg. 67. Presumably this figure is that of Death, or the Grim Reaper, and next all around the narrator sees opened graves glowing, and many figures within these graves are moved from when they had first been buried, probably because they has been buried alive. Death thinks that this is a pitiful sight in the nightmare, and then the graves abruptly close before the man can say anything.
Thus, the narrator is haunted by his own inner fear, even during what should be the peaceful hours of sleep; he is afraid to leave his house, because unknowing strangers might find his body paralyzed while under attack by catalepsy, and bury him. To prevent this, he tries to place other safeguards down as well, in addition to staying near his home, including a renovation to his family vault, allowing it to be opened from within. He includes food and water in the tomb, adds adequate ventilation for someone to breathe uninhibited within, makes a spring loaded cover for his coffin, and even adds a long rope extending into the coffin that is connected to a bell on top of the tomb. This way, if he is buried alive he can ring the bell to tell everybody in the world that he is very much alive. In spite of these many safeguards, one day the man awakens in total darkness, and he thinks that his worst fears have come true! He finally opens his eyes after hesitating for fear of what he would see, and next "I endeavored to shriek; and my lips and my parched tongue moved convulsively together in the attempt -- but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs, which, oppressed as if by the weight of some incumbent mountain, gasped and palpitated, with the heart, at every elaborate and struggling inspiration" Poe, pg. 70.
He is unable to speak or call out for help, because a heavy weight is upon his chest, nor can he even open his mouth because it has been somehow tied up, as is customary with the dead; a heavy wooden cover sits six inches from his face, nor is any rope to be found to call for help with the ringing bell as he had planned. Realizing that he must have fallen into a trance while away from home, the man cries out for help at the top of his lungs finally, and surprisingly there is a voice that replies, "Hillo! hillo, there!" Then the narrator is picked up, and the men present remind him of exactly what had happened after all. He had not been buried alive at all! Instead, while on a hunting trip near Richmond, Virginia he was caught in a rain storm and decided to seek shelter on a small boat that was anchored in the James River in a small berth right beneath the deck. In fact, the wood above his face was the deck of the ship above him, his tied mouth was caused by a handkerchief he had wrapped around his head because he didn't have a nightcap, and the men who picked him up were members of the ship's crew. Rather than lying dormant for weeks or months, the man had a normal night of sleep after all!
This experience changes the narrator's life, however, as he sees how ridiculous it is to live in fear, as he next travels abroad without worry, he burns literature by Buchan, and he no longer reads from a book entitled Night Thoughts. The catalepsy disappears as well, and he wonders if this illness was in fact caused by his paranoia, leaving the reader with the grand statement that "There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of Hell -- but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful -- but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us -- they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish" Poe, pg. 72. The narrator declares that the human mind can be very dark indeed, and this mind is not to be fully explored lest the darkness of fear, wickedness, paranoia, and sickness will consume us. To prevent this, one must dispel these fears and turn from the inside world towards that of the outside, as he has done. Although this darkness can never be conquered because it is part of what makes us human, we can ignore it and put these fears to sleep, in order to truly revel in these short lives we lead, before the imposing figure of Death does actually come to take us away.