The Premature Burial
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
Type of Work
Poe's Narrative Approach
Word Choice
Use of Anaphora
Narrator's Illnesses
Author Information
Complete Free Text
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......Writing fictional tales about extremely terrifying or extremely disgusting events is in poor taste, the narrator says. But writing stories about appalling events that actually happenedu0096events that caused immeasurable suffering, such as the great earthquake in Lisbon or the devastating plague in Londonu0096is necessary and useful. Such stories serve the cause of truth.
.......Of course, the type of horrifying event that most unsettles readers is one that happens to a single person rather than to a multitude.
.......u0093The ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass,u0094 the narrator observes.
.......The most unspeakably terrifying event that a single human can undergo is to be buried alive. Yet it has happened many times after mysterious diseases rendered living persons seemingly lifeless, rigid, dead.
.......Records exist attesting that victims of such diseases have been buried alive. One such victim was the wife of a Baltimore lawyer and member of the U.S. Congress. After she exhibited no signs of life, she was pronounced dead. A funeral was held, and she was entombed in a vault. Three years later, the vault was opened to receive a sarcophagus. At this time, the womanu0092s coffin was found in pieces on the floor. It had fallen from a ledge where it was placed. An investigation revealed that the woman revived after her entombment and struggled to free herself, causing the coffin to fall and break up. She apparently beat on the iron door of the vaultu0096to no avail, of courseu0096then died. Her skeleton, free of the coffin, attested to her u0093resurrection.u0094
.......Another victim of an illness that mimics death was a young French heiress, Victorine Lafourcade. A poor Parisian journalist, Julien Bossuet, loved heru0096and apparently she loved himu0096but she rejected him because of his low social standing and instead married a banker and eminent diplomat, Monsieur Renelle. However, he mistreated her and, after several years of marriage, she diedu0096or appeared tou0096and was buried in a grave in the village where she was born. Devastated by her death, Bossuet traveled to the village and opened the grave and coffin at midnight to cut off her beautiful hair as a memento. But just as he was about to snip away the hair, Victorine opened her eyes. She was alive but remained in a stupor. After Bossuet carried her to his lodgings, he revived her. Realizing that she truly loved Bossuet, she fled with him to America. Twenty years later, they returned to France in the belief that no one would recognize her. But Monsieur Renelle did recognize her and tried to reclaim her. However, a court ruled that he had no hold on her after so long a time.
.......A German medical journal reported a case of a military officer who diedu0096apparentlyu0096after falling from a horse and suffering a blow to the head. Three days after his burial in a shallow grave, a cemetery visitor noticed movement of the earth while sitting on the grave. The officer was disinterred and revived in a hospital, where he spoke of the horror of awakening beneath the earth. It seems that the shallow grave admitted air to keep him alive. Unfortunately, even though the officer seemed on his way to recovery, doctors performed experiments on him with a galvanic battery, causing his death.
.......Oddly, the use of such a device in London revived a u0093deadu0094 manu0096one exhumed from a grave three days after his burial. Curious doctors wanted to dissect the body to determine the cause of death, presumed to be typhus. A student who decided to conduct an experiment on his own attached a wire from the battery to a muscle. In a moment, the patient stood up and uttered several words. Later, he made a full recovery.
.......The narrator notes that the cases he has discussed are but a few of many. Premature burial probably happens frequently, he says, and he can think of nothing more horrible than finding oneself inside a grave while still alive.  He then discusses his own risk of premature burial, for he suffers from catalepsy.
.......Catalepsy, he says, is an affliction that causes a human to enter a deathlike trance. A sufferer can reduce his risk of being declared dead if he informs everyone he knows about his condition. 
.......The narrator says the affliction often caused him to fall into u0093half-swoonu0094 in which he could not move or think but was vaguely aware of his surroundings. u0093At other times I was quickly and impetuously smitten," he says. I grew sick, and numb, and chilly, and dizzy, and so fell prostrate at once. Then, for weeks, all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the universe.u0094
.......The illness appeared not to affect his general physical health. However, he did notice a strange symptom upon awakening from a nightu0092s sleep: For several minutes, he would lapse into a state of confusion, lacking memory and other mental abilities.
.......Eventually, he could think only morbid thoughts, and he talked u0093of worms, of tombs, and epitaphs.u0094 Fear of being buried alive possessed his mind. He was afraid to go to sleep, for he worried that he would awaken inside a grave. After falling asleep on one occasion, he dreamed about being in a cataleptic trance. 
.......This dream and others like it unnerved the narrator. Soon, he was reluctant to keep company with anyone except those who were aware of his conditionu0096those would not bury him prematurely in the event that he fell into a cataleptic fit. As a further precaution, he redesigned the family vault so that it admitted air and could be opened from inside. A rope through the hole of the coffin lid was attached to a bell on the roof. If he were prematurely buried, he could ring for help. 
.......The time came when, upon awakening in the morning, it took him longer to come to his senses. When he reached full consciousness, an eyelid would quiver and a pang of terror would shoot through his body when he remembered his catalepsy. 
.......One morning, deep despair overwhelmed him as he awoke from another stupor. Mustering courage, he opened his eyes to face the new day, but everything was dark. He tried to shriek but could not. When he noticed that he was lying on something hard, he threw up his arms. They struck solid wood. 
.......u0093I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last," he says.
.......However, remembering the alterations he made in the vault, he took heart. First, he pushed on the coffin lid. It would not move. Then he reached for the rope to ring the bell. It was not there. When he noticed that he could smell moist earth, he realized he was not in the family vault. He concluded that he must have suffered a cataleptic fit while away from home, surrounded by strangers, and was buried in the earth in a common coffin. He again tried to shriek. This time he succeeded, giving out a long cry of agony. 
.......Someone answered. Then three others spoke, one saying u0093Get out ou0092 that!u0094
.......One of them shook him, and he was restored to the world of light and the living. The incident took place when he went on a "shooting expedition" with a friend along the James River near Richmond, Va. When a storm came up in the evening, they took shelter in the cabin of a small boat, where they spent the night. The narrator slept in a berth 18 inches wide and 18 inches high. In the morning upon awakening, he assumed he was in a coffin. The smell of the earth had come from cargo on the boat. Those who shook him to his senses were crewmen. 
.......From that time forward, he became a new manu0096traveling, exercising, avoiding morbid thoughts and burning medical books he had been reading. In time, his symptoms of catalepsy disappeared. He realized that the human imagination, like a cavern, cannot be explored to its fullest without risking dangerous results. And, although terrifying thoughts may have some basis in reality, u0093 they must sleep, or they will devour usu0096they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.
The action takes place in the middle of the 19th Century at the narratoru0092s home in Richmond, Va., and on a  small, single-masted sailing vessel (sloop) on the James River. The narrator takes shelter on the boat during a storm.   


Narrator: A man who says he suffers from catalepsy, an illness which temporarily incapacitates a person in a condition mimicking death. The narrator lives in abnormal fear that he will be pronounced dead during a cataleptic trance and buried alive.       
Unnamed Friend: This friend accompanies the narrator on a u0093gunning expeditionu0094 along the James River. 
Boat Crewmen: Men on a sloop providing shelter for the narrator and his friend when a storm interrupts their expedition.

Type of Work and Publication Date

"The Premature Burial" is a short story of in the horror genre written in first-person point of view. It was first published on July 31, 1844, in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper.



The central theme of "The Premature Burial" is extreme terror and its effects on the human mind. The narrator's terror is the result of his dwelling obsessively on morbid thoughts.


Being cut off, being isolated from the world of the living, is in part the cause of the narrator's abnormal fear of being buried alive. The thought of being alone and abandoned, without hope of ever seeing another human being, petrifies the narrator. Ironically, to avoid the possibility of premature burial, he avoids leaving his home to be among people. "I hesitated to ride, or to walk, or to indulge in any exercise that would carry me from home," he says.

Let the Sleeping Mind Lie

At the end of the story, the narrator says the deep recesses of the human mind, where reside unknown and inscrutable terrors, are better left alone, unexplored. "The imagination of man is no Carathis," he says, "to explore with impunity its every cavern." The "demons" in the mind "must sleep, or they will devour usu0096they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish." Here, Poe seems to be saying that it is unhealthful to dwell on morbidity and vague fears. If one focuses incessantly on an imagined illness, he will become ill. If he focuses incessantly on what could go wrong, nothing will go right. The mind has its own secret hell; to awaken its demons is to awaken bale and bane.
Poeu0092s Narrative Approach

Poe as narrator declares in the opening paragraph of the short story that the author of fiction must avoid concocting extremely horrifying tales, for they could u0093offend or disgustu0094 the reader. Accounts of ghastly events from real life are another matter, he says. Writers may freely report them in the cause of truth. This position gives the reader the impression that u0093The Premature Burialu0094 will report a true account of a premature burial of which the narrator has firsthand knowledge. However, Poe first presents several documented accounts of premature burials he has read about to point out that such interments do occur from time to time. These accounts make the story read like an expository essay. But after presenting a paragraph that describes in detail the excruciating mental agony of being buried alive, Poeu0092s narrator announces that he himself underwent such an experience. Here, Poe switches seamlessly from essay to short story, from nonfiction to fiction. Nevertheless, the rest of the story rings as true, like the accounts from real life. The narrative has verisimilitude. Of course, except for the documented accounts, the story is complete fabrication. But it is also devilishly terrifying entertainment, with nice touches of irony and humor. Consider that Poe gives us a narrator who is not only terrified of dying but also terrified of remaining alive (inside a coffin). The poor fellow. And what is his solution? He rigs his final resting place with a bell attached to a rope running through a hole in the lid of the coffin. In the event that he is buried alive, he has only to tug on the rope to alert the outside world that he is still alive. This little embellishment is reminiscent of the jingling bells on the carnival foolu0092s cap worn by Fortunato in u0093The Cask of Amontilladou0094 before the narrator entombs him in a brick wall.

Word Choice

Poe carefully makes every word, every phrase, every sentence in the story contribute to the overall effect, horror, accompanied by oppressing morbidity and anxious anticipation of terrifying events. Notice, for example, the tenor of the words in the following in the following paragraph. I have highlighted those that support Poe's theme.

    It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungsu0096the stifling fumes from the damp earthu0096the clinging to the death garmentsu0096the rigid embrace of the narrow houseu0096the blackness of the absolute Nightu0096the silence like a sea that overwhelmsu0096the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Wormu0096these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informedu0096that our hopeless portion is that of the really deadu0096these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. 
Use of Anaphora

As in his other short stories, Poe frequently uses anaphora in "The Premature Burial." Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from the story

    No careu0096no hopeu0096no effort.

    And now the first positive effort to think. And now the first endeavor to remember. And now a partial and evanescent success. And now the memory has so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of my state..

    Despairu0096such as no other species of wretchedness ever calls into beingu0096despair alone urged me, after long irresolution, to uplift the heavy lids of my eyes. I uplifted them. It was darku0096all dark. I knew that the fit was over. I knew that the crisis of my disorder had long passed. I knew that I had now fully recovered the use of my visual facultiesu0096and yet it was darku0096all darku0096the intense and utter raylessness of the Night that endureth for evermore. 

Allusions and References

Following is a glossary of the allusions and references in "The Premature Burial":

Afrasiab: Demonic sorcerer in Shah-nameh (Book of Kings), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur (935-1020), who wrote under the pen name Ferdowsi.
Beresina (usually spelled Berezina): River that was in western Russia before that country's boundaries changed in the 20th Century. It was the site of heavy French losses during the Napoleonic wars. Here is what happened: After the Russians held their ground at Moscow in 1812, Napoleon's army retreated. While crossing the Berezina on his way back to central Europe between November 26 and 29, 1812, Napoleon lost more than 10,000 men under bombardment from Russian artillery. The Berezina River is now in Belarus, a region of the old Russia that became an independent nation in 1991.
Buchan, William: British physician (1729-1805) who wrote Domestic Medicine: Or a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines. Apparently, the narrator of "The Premature Burial" perused this book for information about catalepsy. 
Lisbon Earthquake: One of the most devastating earthquakes on record, registering between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. It occurred on Nov.1, 1755, beginning between 9:20 and 9:40 a.m. and lasting several minutes. The earthquake and its aftermathu0096including tsunami waves and firesu0096killed approximately 60,000 of the 250,000 residents of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, and 30,000 to 40,000 more in other countries in Europe and Africa. 
St. Bartholomewu0092s Day Massacre: Mass murder of Huguenots on August 23 and 24, 1572, ordered by King Charles IX of France at the insistence of his mother, Catherine de Médicis. Thousandsu0096or perhaps tens of thousandsu0096of Huguenots died. St. Bartholomewu0092s Day falls on August 24.

The Narrator's Illnesses

The narrator of "The Premature Burial" suffers not only from catalepsy (which is actually a symptom of other disorders) but alsou0096it appearsu0096from obsessive/compulsive disorder. Here is a brief look at both afflictions.


Catalepsy is a condition that causes muscle rigidity and temporary loss of consciousness and feeling for several minutes, several hours, and, in some cases, more than a day. Generally, it is not an illness in itself but a symptom of an illness, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism or a brain tumor. Certain drugs, too, can trigger a cataleptic episode. The victim does not respond to external stimuli, even painful stimuli such as a pinch on the skin.

Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder

Besides suffering from catalepsy, the narrator appears to suffer from what psychologists today term obsessive/compulsive disorder. 
The symptoms and severity of this disorder vary from patient to patient. However, in one variety of this affliction, the patient dwells obsessively on a situation, a place, a person, or an idea that he fears. For example, a person may dread speaking in public, which is a requirement of his job. Or he may fret over meeting people or be anxious about his physical health. It is normal, of course, for a person to be concerned about making a speech, meeting people, or passing his next physical examination. It is abnormal, however, to experience intenseu0096sometimes debilitatingu0096anxiety about a present or future event, or about an unplanned or unexpected turn of events. A person obsessed with an abnormal fear can think of nothing else but that fear. He is like the narrator of "The Premature Burial," who cannot shake his preoccupation with the possibility that he will be buried alive. This preoccupation can trigger deep depression. 

Author Information

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless coupleu0096John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poeu0092s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem u0093The Ravenu0094 in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.