The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether

Poe, Edgar Allan

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela
  • Date of entry: Jan-29-1997


A young man is traveling through France with a companion. They pass near a well-known "Mad House" and decide to visit. His companion introduces him to the superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, then leaves. The superintendent informs the young man that the hospital has given up the system of management it was famous for. Previously, patients were allowed complete freedom. The practice had finally proved too dangerous and Maillard promises to show the young man the alternative system he installed after dinner. He escorts the young man to a banquet table crowded with guests and laden with food.

To the visitor, the dinner guests seem rather mad as they take turns describing and then demonstrating the delusions of patients. But Maillard assures him that the lunatics are locked up; the guests are keepers. Maillard says the new system was invented by Doctors Tarr and Fether. He describes the dangers of the former system used. In one instance, he says, patients rebelled and imprisoned their keepers while they themselves enjoyed the wines and beauty of the grounds.

Suddenly, there is a crash at the boarded-up windows. The visitor thinks it is the escaped madmen. It turns out, however, to be the keepers who were indeed imprisoned by the madmen, tarred and feathered and kept on a diet of bread and water. Maillard, the former superintendent, had gone mad himself and organized the rebellion.


Poe explores the thin line between sanity and madness. The visitor cannot tell whether his dinner companions are mad or not. It is ironic as well that the director of the institution turns out to be the head "madman." The story also demonstrates the nineteenth-century fascination with mental illness and its treatment.


First published: 1845

Primary Source

Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. III


Harvard Univ. Press

Place Published

Cambridge, Mass.




Thomas Ollive Mabbott