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The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether: Summary & Theme

Instructor: Joe Ricker

Joe has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

In this tale of one man's curiosity about the happenings of a secluded insane asylum, he gets treated to a rather peculiar dinner. He also gets a first-hand account of what can go wrong in an asylum.

The Asylum

Things are not always what they seem. In Edgar Allan Poe's ''The Case of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,'' this is precisely the theme. The narrator doesn't quite get this, despite the various foreshadowing throughout the story. However, that's primarily the point.

The story begins with the narrator and his companion travelling through the countryside on horseback. As they travel, the narrator inquires about the Maison de Sante, which is a lunatic asylum (as mental hospitals were referred to in the nineteenth century). The asylum is a privately run institution under the control of Monsieur Maillard.

The companion wants no part in the narrator's visit and offers to point him in the right direction but will continue to travel slowly so the narrator can catch up with him in a day or two. When they come upon the asylum, the exterior of the chateau is in very poor condition. The narrator is mostly curious to see the ''soothing system'' that Monsieur Maillard uses, which does not punish patients and allows them to wander freely over the premises.

Some Foreshadowing

The narrator realizes that unfortunately, not just anyone might be welcome at such a place, so he expresses his dilemma to his companion, who offers to introduce him to Monsieur Maillard. The companion brings him to the entrance of the chateau, where they are met with Monsieur Maillard. Maillard recognizes the narrator's companion and greets him warmly, the two of them having met a few years prior. Maillard agrees to show the narrator around the premises and almost immediately the narrator's companion leaves.

Inside the chateau, there is a woman playing piano. The narrator wonders if she's a patient until Maillard informs him that she is his niece. The narrator inquires about the ''soothing system'' but learns that the system is no longer in use. The asylum has adopted a new system, one that has never been used before. When the narrator expresses his surprise and claims that he's familiar with every form of treatment available, Maillard warns him with the following statement:

''Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see.''

This is foreshadowing and solidifies the theme that things are not always what they seem. Maillard insists that the narrator eat dinner and rest after his ride before he brings him to the house to observe the new ''system.''

A Peculiar Dinner

Dinner is where things get a little crazy. The narrator is brought into a wing of the chateau where there are numerous elderly women dressed lavishly and wearing excessive amounts of jewelry. During dinner, the other members of the dinner party talk almost exclusively about the patients and their ''lunatic'' tendencies. Some of the patients were prone to imitate animals such as donkeys, frogs, and roosters, while others believed they were cheese or champagne. As the dinner guests continue to tell their stories about the patients, there is a clamorous disturbance in another part of the building. The dinner guests fall silent.

When the noise is gone, the guests continue with their stories and engage in light bickering. Maillard informs the narrator that there's nothing to worry about and that a minor uproar is quite common. Maillard and the narrator continue to drink until they are quite drunk and the narrator inquires again about the new system. This is when Maillard tells the narrator about Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. It's also when Maillard reveals that at one point, one of the patients led the others in a revolt and took over the asylum, locking the keepers in cells, which is why the new system had replaced the ''soothing system''.

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