Studying the Various Depiction of the ‘Supernatural’ Phenomena in Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar”, and Dickens’s “The Signalman”

Hiba Sabah Saleem ALSADIK


This essay aims to examine the characterizations of supernatural elements in the short stories “The facts in the case of Mr. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe, and Dickens’s “The Signalman”.  A comparative analysis between these two stories, discussing the ways that the authors employed the supernatural images to convey their main ideas will be given. This study is trying to resolve the underlying meaning beyond using the supernatural elements in these two stories.

The current study will try to discuss the narrative techniques and the strategies that the authors used in narrating their stories and how these techniques aided them by establishing a suspension of uncertainty towards the events of the stories. For example, the unbelievable scientific facts, the symbols, and the supernatural phenomena that Poe offers during “The facts in the case of Mr. Valdemar” will be highlighted. Also, the interesting combination between the events of the “The Signalman” and the strange, odd and mysterious coincidences that Dickens used to build the sensation of uncertainty towards the story’s events will be discus.

Poe’s narrative techniques in the “The facts in the case of Mr. Valdemar” were very exciting. The story had been narrated by an unnamed narrator whose name’s first letter is (P) and who is interested in mesmerism, particularly, mesmerising a person right before death. Mr. P aims to explore if mesmerism can arrest, death or not, and if so, for how long it can do this. To get answers to his questions, he decides to conduct his experiment on Mr. Ernest Valdemar. From the beginning of the story Mr. P seems indecisive. He is not sure whether what he is going to narrate about Mr Valdemar’s case is fact or not. Even though he was a witness to what had happened, he still could not believe it actually did.  By offering a confounded narrator at the  beginning of the story, Poe brings a feeling of suspense and uncertainty towards the story’s events, causing the readers to feel the same and ask themselves what had happened during this scientific process to led this logical into a state of unbelieving .  We can see this in the following sentences:

“Of course I shall not pretend to consider it any matter for wonder, that the extraordinary case of M. Valdemar has excited discussion. It would have been a miracle had it not—especially under the circumstances..... It is now rendered necessary that I give the facts—as far as I comprehend them myself” (Poe, p. 1).

Poe pictures Mr Valdemar, the second main protagonists in the story, as a very sick man whose doctors have affirmed his death. He is educated with white whiskers and black hair and his hair looks like a wig. Mr. Valdemar appears to be accepting his death and talks about it as something which cannot be avoided and he is not the kind of person that can be controlled or influenced by mesmerism easily. Yet, when Mr. P offers putting him under hypnotism immediately before his death, Mr. Valdemar shows not only unexpected eagerness, but also cooperates with Mr. P during the mesmerism process.

As I approached M. Valdemar I made a kind of half effort to influence his right arm into pursuit of my own, as I passed the latter gently to and fro above his person. In such experiments with this patient, I had never perfectly succeeded before, and assuredly I had little thought of succeeding now; but to my astonishment, his arm very readily, although feebly, followed every direction I assigned it with mine (p. 6)

By describing Mr. Valdemar Poe established a feeling of contrast about his personality. For example, his white whiskers could refer to his body as if to say that his body is dying and he accepts his death, while the black hair can show that his soul is still young and he wants to be alive. This description gives a feeling that Mr. Valdemar fears death and he feels that mesmerism is his only chance to hold his death for a while or make it easier or more comfortable at least. Therefore, Mr.Valdemar shows unexpected eagerness when Mr. P offers to put him under. So, mesmerism’s ability to postpone death was not only the narrator’s expectation but also Mr.Valdemar’s. This expectation could refer to Poe’s belief that this scientific process could lead to supernatural circumstances.

The first signs of supernatural events in the story appeared when             the narrator says that any supernatural phenomena will not be expected from MrValemar. It seems that Mr. P is trying to say that according to the nature of Mr. Valdemar anything illogical will not be expected from his mesmerism process.

On two or three occasions I had put him to sleep with little difficulty, but was disappointed in other results which his peculiar constitution had naturally led me to anticipate. His will was at no period positively, or thoroughly, under my control, and in regard to clairvoyance, (THE SUPPOSED POWER TO SEE THINGS BEYOND THE SENSES) I could accomplish with him nothing to be relied upon. (p.2)

Under hypnosis, Mr. Valdemar talks with Mr. P several times and during these conversations he focuses on saying do not wake me, "Yes; —asleep now. Do not wake me!—Let me die so!"(P. 6). Mr. Valdemar has changed in a mysterious way under mesmerism. Mr. P pictures his alternation by saying that the circular hectic spots which are in Mr Valdemar cheeks have suddenly vanished. Mr. Poe describes their disappearance as “the extinguishment of a candle by a puff of the breath” which means that the soul had left Mr. Valdemar’s body.  In spite of the mysterious alternation, and Mr.P calling Mr.Valdemar “sleep weaker”, there is no clear evidence whether he changes into an unliving creature, his soul leaves his body and leaves him physically dead or that he simply dies because of his sickness. Yet, the image of this body can be considered as evidence of what happens to the human body after death.

The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous (CORPSELIKE) hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper; and the circular hectic spots which, hitherto, had been strongly defined in the center of each cheek, went out at once. I use this expression, because the suddenness of their departure put me in mind of nothing so much as the extinguishment of a candle by a puff of the breath. The upper lip, at the same time, writhed (TREMBLE) itself away from the teeth, which it had previously covered completely; while the lower jaw fell with an audible jerk, leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full view the swollen and blackened tongue. (Poe, p. 7)

After these appearances Mr. P and the other doctors concluded that MR. Valdemar had physically died and they ask the nurses to take care of him, but suddenly at this moment, Mr Valdemar makes a horrible sound and talks to Mr. P. He states that he had been sleeping and now he was dead. This horrified voice coming from a physically dead person who is not breathing confused Mr. P. He could not understand whether these sounds were signs of alternation to an inhuman being or if they were something else.

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