Taphephobia in Edgar Allan Poe's collection of gothic tales: a new historicist study of 19th century america's most prevalent fear
par Salma LAYOUNI
Université de Sousse - Master 2013
As has been referred to in the first chapter, the term anecdote presents a new historicist concept that refers to a revolutionary method adapted by the author to break the rigid boundaries between literature and history. It serves as a medium to achieve the author's aim to not be trapped in the literary sphere by having a free access to report the societal events that literature is unable to describe. The use of anecdotes presents a strategy to create the effect of verisimilitude since it presents the real version of the fictitious events of the literary work. Unlike his other tales, Poe chooses to present taphephobia in "The Premature Burial" from a more realistic perspective, by choosing anecdote as a strategy to internalize the public
obsessive fear and to fuel the horror already spread in the 19th C America. By choosing this strategy, Poe guarantees an eyewitness accounts of the horrors of taphephobia, moving from a purely aesthetic level to a documentary level. In his study of the concept of anecdote, Greenblatt highlights the idea that the concept revisits the canon and at the same time infringes it. Poe's choice to start with anecdotes of real accidents of premature burial presents a celebration of the tradition of storytelling, which presents the essence of literature, and at the same time a transgression against the traditions of the canonic gothic works. In "The Premature Burial", Poe surpasses the classical openings of gothic works, which traditionally starts with the presentation of characters and setting, focusing on the gothic aspects of both elements. However, he chooses to use another tradition by offering a set of successive stories that would function as a contextualization of the narrator's experience and as a tool to create the effect of the real.
Poe presented taphephobia, throughout his tales, in a "romantic" way, overemphasizing the tragic nature of near death experience and the various emotions of regret, pain, agony and horror. However, "The Premature Burial" presents an exception since he mixes up three types of presentations. He starts by anecdote, narrating different real cases of premature burial to add authenticity to his story and to accentuate the morbid taphephobia. Then, he presents a detailed image of what the victim feels physically and emotionally during a panic attack and he ends with a humorous scene in which the narrator discovers that he is not prematurely interred but rather asleep in a ship berth and that all what he felt was just a nightmare (175). This echoes Robert Scholes' modes of fiction stated in Gerald Kennedy's essay "Poe and Magazine writing on Premature Burial", published in Studies in American Renaissance (1977), showing that the motif is actually presented in three different ways; historical (through giving factual details), satirical by adding humoristic touch to a dramatic event and romantic by exaggerating the tragic effect of such experience (166).
In this particular tale, Poe chooses an unknown narrator, a symbol of a common American who suffers from taphephobia that is empowered by the nature of his illness which is catalepsy. His feelings, his physical and psychological horror and the precautions he takes present a reflection of what common people feel and do to prevent being buried alive. The realistic feature of this particular tale grants its historical dimension that can be used to study a social phenomenon that invades the 19th C American society. Poe uses different literary techniques to guarantee different effects on different readers and to widen the scope of taphephobia as a universal fear that can overwhelm any human being.
Unlike his other tales, Poe dedicated "The Premature Burial" to be a historical document, rather than a mere fiction. He starts enumerating a number of cases in US and in Europe as an introduction to his tale and as a method to express his personal attitude towards this motif. He directly stated that the direct cause of the phobia presents an extreme example of horror and "[...] the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality" (CTP 252). He even explains the rationale behind his choice, which actually lies in his fascination with the tenuous boundaries between life and death and how the concepts of death and afterlife are ambiguous in relation with the "temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism" (252), caused by mysterious cases of epilepsy and coma. Then, Poe provides lengthy examples of premature burial cases in France (the example of aristocratic lady), US (the case of one of the elite's wife) , the example of the prestigious, authentic German medical journal and the famous case of Mr. Edward Stapleton.
The four examples are well chosen and serve the strategy of the author. They are all chosen to be reliable to strengthen the public panic of the 19th C American society. The example from France serves as a proof that the phenomenon is not restricted to the American context but rather a global event shared by all social classes from all countries. The cases share the idea of medical incompetence to discover the mysteries of certain diseases, leading
to tragic ends. This lengthy enumeration of cases and the detailed description of each one of them serve as an introduction to the unique experience of the narrator. Poe tries to present a different story of the near death experience, by showing the psychological agony of the narrator rather than the mistaken medical diagnosis. The whole tale revolves around the obsession, that psychological monster that consumes the narrator's emotional and physical life. Poe presented the motif from a mere psychological perspective in an attempt to highlight the nightmare that Americans lived during the 19th C.
9Impact, le film from Onalukusu Luambo on Vimeo.