Birth and death are the two main points of life, one signalling the beginning and the other signaling the termination of life. Although birth is celebrated in all cultures around the world, death is greeted with defiance and terror. The fear of death has led to a fascination with death and a love for all things that are eternal. Indeed, several of the mythical beings in various cultures around the world are first credited as immortal. In the nineteenth century, terror of burial was profoundly ingrained in western society. During this time, there were hundreds of recorded cases of persons who were wrongly declared dead. The coffins at that time had emergency devices to allow “corpses” to call for help if they were still living
In the stories of The Premature Burial and The Fall of the House of Usher, the author Allan Poe was taking advantage of the public fascination of death in the nineteenth century. The Premature Burial is a short story that was published in the year 1844. The major theme of the story is fear of being buried alive. The Fall of the House of Usher written in1839 has many themes. The fear of being buried alive is real and is shown in both short stories. There are psychological effects of premature death. Even outside the stories, all human beings have a fear of dying before their age. Most human beings rationalize death. The imagination of premature mortality can make one delusional and lead to long-term psychological trauma.
In death, there is an uncertainty of what happens beyond our earthly existence. It is, therefore, easier to cling to life in which there is a certainty. In The Premature Burial, the narrator puts it that, “man’s primal instinct more basic than his sexual urge is the denial of his mortality.” He goes on to puts it that, “Man’s search for immortality, actual or symbolic, thus becomes a crucial response to the problem of mortality.” (Kennedy 169). Human is an intelligent species, and as such questions the environment, nature, and try to find answers to these quandaries. Questioning mortality is, therefore, a way of rationalizing death. Mortality and its symbolization in literature and other forms of expression of culture is not only natural but also an expression of human intelligence. “To exceed beyond the prescribed limits of the divine universe to reject matter and love and life to embrace the idea is to journey towards a sinful and an ultimately unenlightened self-destruction” (Budick 37). As important as it is to regard the human condition, it is uninformed to forget to live by allowing the human mental faculties to be consumed by the search for immortality.
The first narrator in The Premature Burial gives a situation where he struggles with a disorder called catalepsy. This condition leads to the narrator’s fear of being buried alive. He says, “The true wretchedness is to be buried while alive” (Kennedy, 174). The story gives several instances of fear of death. His condition got worse over time, throwing him in a transient state of unconsciousness. He has a psychological trauma through his thoughts of falling unconscious while being away from home. He thinks that his state would be mistaken for death in such cases. Out of that fear, the narrator builds an elaborate tomb with equipment that allows him to signal for help if he awakens from his death. Out of the psychological trauma, the narrator commands his acquaintances to make a vow that they will not bury him before his death. He also fears to leave his home. He is delusional. The narrator awakens in darkness in a confined area and makes a presumption that he was buried alive. He also thinks that none of his previous precautions were followed. He cries out loudly and is not at ease. The narrator is hushed and quickly realizes that he is in the berth of a small boat and not a grave. This event gets the narrator of his obsession with death that has been traumatizing him mentally.
The psychological effects of mortality are seen in the narrator’s catalepsy. Catalepsy is a physical manifestation of his psychological fears. Mimicking, perhaps paradoxically the thing he most fears-Death. The narrator describes, “…. the patient lies, for a day only, or even for a shorter period, in a species of exaggerated lethargy. He is senseless and externally motionless” (Kennedy, 1670). The narrator describes the eventuality of death as the destiny of man. Life exists in a cycle allowing childhood, growth into adulthood and eventually death. The narrator’s denial of this cycle of life is what leads to his anxiety and even denies him the beauty in enjoying life. The narrator’s recognition that his preoccupation with death is wrong comes after the incident on the boat where he thinks he is in a coffin. He says” 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.” (Kennedy 172). Only after he decides to live his life without the fear of death, his anxieties and their somatic manifestations dissipate
Mortality and fear of death are the main theme in Allan Poe’s story. In another one of his momentous writings, he revisits the theme in a symbolic and artistic way. He revisits the theme of the premature burial in his book the Fall of the House of Usher. The readers can follow the experiences of another unnamed narrator as he visits his childhood friend who he had lost acquaintance with in the previous years. Roderick, the friend in question, is ailing from the unspecified malady, which has a deep effect on his mental faculties. During the visit, Roderick has to bury his twin sister Madeline after she succumbs to a cataleptic disease. Roderick says “Long— long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch, that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!” (Poe and Perry 12). Roderick has a deep fear that he will bury his sister alive, which seems to be a prophecy of the forthcoming events. This is a probable explanation to Roderick’s insistence on burying Madeline in the premises of the house. He explains that he had a feeling of his actions, but he dared not speak. Roderick says to the narrator. “OH whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”(Poe and Perry 19). Premature burial signifies cutting short an individual’s life before their time. Therefore, premature burial is not only a feared notion but also a perverse evil requiring punishment as seen by many people. Perhaps this is why Roderick explains to the narrator his fear that Madeline has returned to punish him for his haste in burying her. Roderick further proclaims himself a lunatic for his actions, as only a maniac would perform the evil of prematurely burying his beloved.
Roderick explains to the narrator “Her disease would leave him (the hopeless and the frail), the last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (Poe and Perry 21).A primary root of Roderick’s anxiety and depression seems to come from the possibility of Madeline succumbing to her illness. His anxiety revolves around the possible death of his sister and the eventual death of his person. Mortality is a natural part of the human condition. However, death forces us to face our mortality. Death, especially of a loved one, gives us an uncomfortable reminder of our mortality. Our mortality is a manifestation of our frailty and our status as mere guests of this earth. The narrator describes “a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated ” (Poe and Perry 24).The narrator is also not immune to the effects of coming into contact with death. He experiences an unnerving fear after seeing Madeline and Roderick both die in front of him. The narrator escapes the residence in a bid to not only escape this frightful scene, but also the far-reaching arms of death.
The fear of death is traumatic. The fear of being buried is even worse with the potential of mental disorder in some people. The obsession with mortality and immortality is a natural response to the uncertainty associated with death. Through, an analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s Premature Burial and the Fall of the House of Usher, the themes of death, mortality and fear come alive. Premature Burial represents the worst form of severance from life. While death’s finality is a cruel reminder of our mortality, the obsession with death is still profoundly evident in today’s society. This obsession with death and mortality are evident in every outlet of culture from religion, to folklore, to pop culture and in Science. Mortality is an evil that comes between humans and life. In folklore, death is represented as the grim reaper, a creature shrouded in mystery and evil, which uses a scythe to severe the ties between man and life. The youthful stage is seen as the prime of life and aging as nearness to the expiration of life. Society, therefore, deals with death in two ways. First, it exalts that which is deemed immortal. For example, in religion, God is exalted for he is immortal, and in other faiths, people are promised reincarnation, therefore, beating their mortality. In a pop culture, supernatural creatures such as vampires are hailed and romanticized as being above the humans because of their immortality. Secondly, society exalts youthfulness and tries to sustain it as long as possible. Plastic Surgery has grown popularity, promising an appearance of youthfulness. Genetic Science has also tried to answer the question of human mortality. Experiments in cloning, regeneration, and DNA manipulation have yet to yield a cure to mortality.
Budick, E. Miller. “The Fall of the House: A Reappraisal of Poe’s Attitudes toward Life and Death.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1977, pp. 30–50., www.jstor.org/stable/20077560. Accessed 24 February 2017
Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Poe and Magazine Writing on Premature Burial.” Studies in the American Renaissance, 1977, pp. 165–178.,JSTOR www.jstor.org/stable/30227431.Accessed 24 February 2017
Poe, Edgar Allan and Bliss Perry. “Fall Of The House Of Usher”. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday & Page, 1921. Print.