When I read this story, it was evening, and I was looking for something short to read in bed before sleep. I scanned the table of contents in my copy of Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems and decided on this one, since I had never read it and it seemed short enough. I have to say that I was very impressed with the story, the premise of which I found fascinating.
The basic plot of the tale centers around an experiment on mesmerism. The protagonist, who is relating the story, decides to see what would happen if an individual was mesmerized just before death.
My attention, for the last three years, had been repeatedly drawn to the subject of Mesmerism; and, about nine months ago, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that in the series of experiments made hitherto, there had been a very remarkable and most unaccountable omission: no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis. It remained to be seen, first, whether, in such condition, there existed in the patient any susceptibility to the magnetic influence; secondly, whether, if any existed, it was impaired or increased by the condition; thirdly, to what extent, or for how long a period, the encroachments of Death might be arrested by the process. There were other points to be ascertained, but these most excited my curiosity—the last in especial, from the immensely important character of its consequences.
An acquaintance, M. Valdemar, who is terminally ill, agrees to participate in the experiment. He is mesmerized just before the moment of death. After he passes, he is asked a question, and responds.
I have spoken both of “sound” and of “voice.” I mean to say that the sound was one of distinct — of even wonderfully, thrillingly distinct—syllabification. M. Valdemar spoke—obviously in reply to the question I had propounded to him a few minutes before. I had asked him, it will be remembered, if he still slept. He now said:
“Yes; —no; —I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead.”
The implication here is that physical death does not mean the end of consciousness, that consciousness continues after the body ceases to function. And this begs the question: What is life, the functioning of the physical body, or the cohesive awareness of an individual’s consciousness?
It was evident that, so far, death (or what is usually termed death) had been arrested by the mesmeric process. It seemed clear to us all that to awaken M. Valdemar would be merely to insure his instant, or at least his speedy dissolution.
While this tale does have a touch of eeriness for which Poe is renowned, it is the exploration of consciousness that I found most fascinating about this short story. I highly recommend giving it a read. You can find the full text online if you are interested (since it is part of the public domain).
Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading interesting stuff.