Saturday, November 24, 2012

"The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" Published 1845

"The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" is a comedic short story written by American author Edgar Allan Poe.

Plot summary

The story follows an unnamed narrator who visits a mental institution in southern France (more accurately, a "Maison de Santé") known for a revolutionary new method of treating mental illnesses called the "system of soothing." A companion with whom he is travelling knows Monsieur Maillard, the originator of the system, and makes introductions before leaving the narrator. The narrator is shocked to learn that the "system of soothing" has been abandoned recently. He questions this, as he has heard of its success and popularity. Maillard tells him to "believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see."

The narrator tours the grounds of the hospital and is invited to dinner. There, he is joined by twenty-five to thirty other people and a large, lavish spread of food. The other guests, he notices, are dressed somewhat oddly; though their clothes are well-made, they do not seem to fit the people very well. Most of them are female and were "bedecked with a profusion of jewelry, such as rings, bracelets and ear-rings, and wore their bosoms and arms shamefully bare." The table and the room were decorated with an excess of lit candles wherever it was possible to find a place for them. Dinner is also accompanied by musicians, playing "fiddles, fifes, trombones, and a drum" and, though they seem to entertain all others present, the narrator likens it to horrible noises. Upon the whole, the narrator says, there was much of the "bizarre" about everything at the dinner.

Conversation as they eat focuses on the patients that they have been treating. They demonstrate for the narrator the strange behavior they have witnessed, including patients who thought themselves a teapot, a donkey, cheese, champagne, a frog, snuff, a pumpkin, and others. Maillard occasionally tries to calm them down, and the narrator seems very concerned by their behavior and passionate imitations.

He then learns that this staff has replaced the system of soothing with a much more strict system, which Maillard says is based on the work of a "Doctor Tarr" and a "Professor Fether." The narrator says he is not familiar with their work, to the astonishment of the others. It is finally explained at this point why the previous system was abandoned. One "singular" incident, Maillard says, was when the patients, granted a large amount of liberty around the house, actually overthrew their doctors and nurses and usurped their positions, locking them up as lunatics. These lunatics were led by a man who claimed to have invented a better method of treating mental illness, and who allowed no visitors except for "a very stupid-looking young gentleman of whom he had no reason to be afraid." The narrator asks how the hospital staff rebelled and returned things to order. Just then, loud noises are heard and the actual hospital staff breaks from their confines. It is revealed that the dinner guests were, in fact, the patients who had just recently taken over. As part of their uprising, the inmates had treated the staff to "tarring and feathering." The keepers now put the real patients, including Monsieur Maillard, back in their cells, while the narrator, who is the "stupid-looking young gentleman" mentioned by Monsieur Maillard, admits he has yet to find any of the works of Dr. "Tarr" and Professor "Fether."

The "system of soothing"

Monsieur Maillard's system avoided all punishments and did not confine its patients. They were granted much freedom and were not forced to wear hospital gowns but instead "were permitted to roam about the house and grounds in the ordinary apparel of persons in right mind." Doctors "humored" their patients by never contradicting their fantasies or hallucinations. For example, if a man thought he was a chicken, doctors would treat him as a chicken, giving him corn to eat, etc.

The system was apparently very popular. Monsieur Maillard says that all the "Maisons de Santé" of France have adopted it. The narrator remarks that after the patient revolt is crushed, that system is reinstated at the asylum he visits--though modified in certain ways that are intended to reform it.

Historical background

At the time this story was written, care for the insane was a highly political issue. People were calling for asylum reform at a time when the mentally ill were treated like prisoners. It is also during a time when increased acquittals due to the insanity defense was being criticized for allowing criminals to avoid punishment.[1]

Publication history

"The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" was held by editors for several months before finally being published in the November 1845 issue of Graham's Magazine.[2]


One of the plays given at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris was "Le Systéme du Dr Goudron et Pr Plume" (1903), adapted by André de Lorde.
The surreal Mexican film La Mansión de la Locura (1973), in English The Mansion of Madness, by Juan López Moctezuma.
Director S.F. Brownrigg's movie The Forgotten (1973), also known as Death Ward #13 and Don't Look in the Basement.
"(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" is the fifth track on Tales of Mystery and Imagination, an album by The Alan Parsons Project of music inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer based part of his film Lunacy on this story. The film was also inspired by Poe's 1844 short story, "The Premature Burial," and the works of the Marquis de Sade.
A one-act opera called A Method for Madness (1999), composed by David S. Bernstein, American composer, and libretto by Charles Kondek.


1.^ Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense," collected in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001. p. 66-7 ISBN 0-7910-6173-6
2.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 469. ISBN 0801857309

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