The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Fear
  • 0:39 Stories of Others
  • 1:59 The Narrator's Own Paranoia
  • 2:56 Ending in Realization
  • 3:44 Analysis
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of the macabre whose dark stories stick with you long after you've finished reading them. 'The Premature Burial' is one such tale that instills the fear of being buried alive.

Fear

Do you have a fear that has haunted you all your life? Maybe a fear of the dark or a fear of heights, or maybe even fear of dying early? Edgar Allan Poe had many fears, one was of dying young. Ironically, this fear was realized when he died at the relatively young age of 40. His 1844 story The Premature Burial is concerning a common fear at the time of being buried alive. Let's take a look at a summary of the story and follow up with a brief analysis.

Stories of Others

The Premature Burial begins with the narrator bringing up cataclysms like the Lisbon Earthquake and the Plague of London and all of the death and destruction they caused. He starts with this background to emphasize how people are naturally drawn to these horrific events, but also to explain that even with these horrors, it's individual deaths that seem more poignant and painful: 'the ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man the mass. . . ' Our individual deaths are what haunt people, and the narrator capitalizes on this, while also asking the eternal question of where the soul goes upon death.

The narrator goes on to tell stories about men and women who were accidentally interned before they were actually dead. In one example, a congressman's wife had taken ill and supposedly died. The doctors pronounced her dead and had her placed in the family burial vault. After three years the vault was accessed again and lo and behold it's realized the woman woke up in two days and struggled so much that she shook the coffin of its shelf to break open on the ground. She banged on the door, and ultimately died trying to escape the vault. The narrator recounts other such tales of individuals being mistaken for dead and then buried, some surviving the ordeal, some not.

The Narrator's Own Paranoia

With this fear paramount in the story the narrator then tells of his own fear of being buried alive and why he worries about this specific issue. He is afflicted with catalepsy, a state where someone occasionally falls completely still and is unable to move or speak. During this time he appears dead, although he isn't. He worries that this illness will lead to his death, and this makes him paranoid. He makes sure to spend time only with friends that know of his affliction.

Although his friends know of his illness, his paranoia grows to the point that he has his burial vault stocked with food and water, and a lever to be installed so he can open it from the inside. After all, 'To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.' His fear continues to grow until he refuses to be anywhere but with friends that know him especially well, and have promised to not bury him.

Ending in Realization

Towards the end of the story the narrator has a terrifying cataleptic experience. He is frozen, unable to move and unable to scream. He smells soil and comes to believe that he has been buried in an unnamed grave, his true fear coming to fruition: 'I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last.'

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