Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”

It has come to my attention that I have not written about any novels. Though I love the visual splendor of movies and video games, I am still a fan of the printed word. However, since reading a book requires more time commitment than watching a two-hour movie, I have only managed to read a short story.

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Many quandaries are spinning through my head after having read “The Tomb”, by HP Lovecraft, one of the most well-renowned and brilliant writers of the twentieth century. What initially hooked me was the way the first paragraph was established. It began with the words “In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weight with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal;that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them, but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism”. What is fascinating about this premise is that before even telling the story, the narrator gives a reason for deniability in his account. Often times in stories we are presented with an unreliable narrator, but one that is always unraveled by the reader at some point during the story. It is rare to see a story in which from the beginning we as readers have reason to doubt the narrator’s account. This statement, however, is followed by the narrator’s declaration that the “bulk of humanity” is often too easily dismissive, due to its limited scope and understanding of its environment, of phenomenon that would be deemed supernatural or out of the ordinary. He goes on to state that individuals of greater understanding are aware that there is no true distinction between what is real and what isn’t, and that which is tangible to the individual can be viewed as reality. Everything that the individual sees is only a combination of the physical senses and its perception by the human mind. The tragedy highlighted by the narrator is that in a society of matter and “obvious empiricism” where only seeing is believing, the “flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil” are condemned as madness. The premise introduces the reader to the narrator and his mentality. The narrator believes himself to be of heightened intellect and understands that everything that he sees he can acknowledge to himself to be real, and that the rest of humanity is misguided in its attempt to deem him insane.

    The narrator introduces himself as Jervas Dudley, an unnecessarily wealthy daydreamer who would spend his childhood “apart from the visible world” and instead buried in books and ponderings. Dudley considers his company to be among the non-living and spent his time by a wilted and haunting hollow tree. By the tree, in the darkest of the hillside thickets lies a tomb of a great and exalted family whose last descendant died long ago, the Hydes. The door to the tomb was rusted shut with the door slightly “ajar”. The family’s mansion was burnt in a fire and only one man perished and the ashes were brought to the tomb. Jervas forms a bower by the tomb where he would spend time sleeping and thinking. He eventually discovers that he is linked to the Hydes family on his maternal side. This stirs the notion that the tomb is for him. One night he finds an old chest in his attic containing the key to the tomb. He unlocks the tomb and finds a grave marked with one word, Jervas. He feels a sense of belonging in the tomb and a realization that his peace and final resting can be found only within the tomb. On one particular visit, he is seen by an unknown observer, but Jervas continues to the tomb anyway. However, upon visiting the dark hillside thickets, Jervas comes across an astonishing sight, the old Hydes mansion was rebuilt and brimming with light and reveling guests. Jervas enters with comfort and familiarity and takes part in the revelries, however at some point, a bolt of lightning strikes the ceiling and the house is set ablaze. Jervas attempts to escape but is burnt to ash. He suddenly finds himself struggling in the arms of two villagers and sees his father looking disdainfully at him. Before being whisked away, Jervas notices a chest containing a statue of a mirror image with an inscription “ J.H” Jervas is taken to an asylum where his father tells him that his visits to the bower were familiar to everyone and that the lock to the tomb was rusted shut and had been for ages. Jervas concludes that he would have resigned to being mad had it not been for his trusty servant within the asylum who broke the lock to the tomb and found within a grave marked with only one word, “Jervas”.

    An easy explanation is that Jervas is clearly insane. On the surface, this story can be seen as a depiction of a troubled mind driven mad by an unsightly tomb. Or it can be seen as the classic story of the person who may be crazy but may be telling the truth, but if we recall the first paragraph of this story, we would be falling in line with the bulk of humanity, dismissing the phenomena that exist outside the common experience, and declaring the perpetrator of the super-sight to be mad. The truth of the story is that whether the events are supernatural is irrelevant, because the story is about only one individual, Jervas. Jervas is the sole pair of eyes by which we witness the events, and from his perspective, everything he has seen exists. If we step back from his view and observe as a skeptic of society, he is crazy. However what Jervas sees is what we see, and what he sees is real to his senses, therefore by the transitive property what Jervas sees is the truth. “The Tomb” is an exploration of thought and perspective as it pertains to the existence of the individual and the faith in society that we uphold. It begs the question of what real truly is. Perhaps there is no real. An individual cannot live in the body of another individual, therefore cannot know if the other individual truly exists. All he knows is that he himself is conscious and him alone. Therefore, on account of his consciousness and existence, everything that he sees and feels can be deemed real to him.

 

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Responsible for such works as The Call of Cthulu, and At the Mountain of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft is known as one of the greatest horror-fiction writers of all time.