The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether

The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether shows Edgar Allan Poe’s dark sense of humor to great effect. We will include it in Poe Illustrated, our collection of three illustrated stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe wrote The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether in 1845.  About 50 years prior to that, French doctor Phillipe Penel had devised a gentle system for treating mentally ill patients. Poe created a similar ’soothing’ system for treating patients in the House of Health, the asylum setting for this humorous, yet controversial story.

Despite Penel’s well-publicized innovation, harsh treatment of mental patients persisted in asylums world-wide. Maybe Poe was trying to promote Penel’s gentle methods when he wrote his story. Or perhaps not. To this day scholars who analyze literature or try to psychoanalyze Poe don’t know what hidden rationale motivated him to write it.

Some guess Poe was questioning the yet unproven idea that ordinary citizens could effectively govern themselves in a democracy. Others say he was mocking the legal system; criminals in 1845, increasingly aware of benign advancements in asylum care, were regularly pleading insanity to avoid punishment in prison. Still others guess that Poe, who endured a lifetime of periodic depression and suicidal tendencies , was taking pleasure in highlighting the thin line separating the sane and insane. 

Many scholars agree that any of these motivations, or others, either singly or in any combination, are possible. But esteemed Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott downplays the need to focus on whatever serious intent lies beneath this story. While he concedes that Poe built all his stories on at least one serious, supporting idea, that doesn’t matter to him. “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” simply strikes Mabbott as one of Poe’s best humorous stories, and he is perfectly content with that!