The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (1845) is a dark comedy short story written by American author Edgar Allan Poe about the inmates taking over the asyulum, or, role reversal of mental patients and mental health professionals.


Plot summary

The story follows a nameless 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 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 far more strict system 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.

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.

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.


  • Director S.F. Brownrigg's movie The Forgotten (1973), also known as Death Ward #13 and Don't Look in the Basement.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools