‘The Premature Burial’ is a story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), written in 1844. The story taps into a fear which many people claim to harbour: taphephobia, or the fear of being buried alive. Before proceeding to our summary and analysis of this curious story, you might want to read ‘The Premature Burial’, which is available here.
‘The Premature Burial’: plot summary
As so often with an Edgar Allan Poe story, ‘The Premature Burial’ is told by an unnamed narrator, who, he tells us, has been suffering with catalepsy. He tells us about people who have been buried while still alive, only to be subsequently rescued. The most significant case for the narrator, though, and the one he recounts in the most detail, is that of a wealthy and beautiful young Frenchwoman, Victorine Lafourcade, who married a banker even though her heart lay with a young journalist named Julien.
After several years of ill-treatment at the hands of her banker husband, Victorine was thought to have died, and was buried – but she was, in fact, still alive. She was only rescued because Julien, the young man she loved and should have married, raided her grave in the hope of cutting off some of her beautiful hair as a keepsake. He discovered her alive, and the two of them fled to America, where they lived happily for twenty years. When they returned to France, the banker husband who’d had Victorine buried recognised her and demanded she return to him, but the courts backed Victorine in refusing his demand.
The narrator also tells us about a soldier who was thrown from his horse and fractured his skull; like Victorine, he was believed dead and was duly buried. When noises were heard coming from his grave, he was exhumed and was found to be alive, but barely, having struggled in his tomb. He subsequently recovered and told of his experiences underground, and how he was awoken by the noise of people in the cemetery above him.
After he has told us these stories, the narrator confides that his medical condition – catalepsy – means he sometimes appears to be, to all intents and purposes, dead, when in fact he is in the grip of a cataleptic seizure. Because of his condition, he fears that he will be pronounced dead when he is anything but, so he has taken precautions to ensure he doesn’t end up being buried alive. Fears of being entombed before his time plague his thoughts. However, following an incident on board a boat, when he is moved to a lower berth on the boat and wakes up believing he has been buried alive in a coffin, he finds he is cured of both his fear of being buried alive and his catalepsy.
‘The Premature Burial’: analysis
‘The Premature Burial’ is less a ‘story’ than a loose collection of thoughts related by an invented narrator. A number of other Poe stories have this structure: see ‘The Man of the Crowd’ or ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ for two other famous examples. In this respect, Poe’s innovative fusing of discursive essay and fictional narrative prefigures the meditative stream-of-consciousness style of modernist fiction in the twentieth century, where plot is less important than individual detail and subjective reflection.
And although the narrator of ‘The Premature Burial’ is not out-and-out unreliable as such, he is clearly biased in his attitude to the topic of premature burial. Nevertheless, being buried alive was a real fear for many people, especially in the nineteenth century. There were some cases of premature burial: one of the most famous (and most interesting) is a case that Poe’s narrator doesn’t mention. In 1674, the Englishwoman Alice Blunden was buried alive after drinking too much poppy-water (containing a natural opiate) and falling unconscious; she was believed to be dead, and promptly buried. However, children heard noises coming from her grave, and when she was dug up, they found she was unconscious but definitely alive, and that she had inflicted severe wounds on herself in her attempts to free herself from her premature tomb. However, this story is only recorded in the eighteenth century and may well be apocryphal.
The central ‘thrust’ of ‘The Premature Burial’, however, is the narrator’s own personal fear, which is related to his condition of catalepsy (a medical condition characterised by seizures or trances, with a loss of consciousness and a rigidity of the body). However, what is curious is the fact that the narrator is cured of both his fear of premature burial and his catalepsy, leading him to wonder which was the chicken and which the egg:
In short, I became a new man, and lived a man’s life. From that memorable night, I dismissed forever my charnel apprehensions, and with them vanished the cataleptic disorder, of which, perhaps, they had been less the consequence than the cause.
As a latter-day Edgar Allan Poe, the singer-songwriter Morrissey, put it: ‘Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I dunno.’ A related question: given the apocryphal nature of most stories concerning live burials, is this one fear we can, on the evidence, confidently label irrational?