Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
The anonymous narrator, who was trained as a surgeon, has been arranging the papers of his deceased mentor, Dr. Martin Hesselius. One case in particular, from about sixty-four years before, draws his attention; forthwith the narrator presents a set of letters, with a memorandum, that discuss the doctor’s efforts to treat a particularly insidious and vexing complaint.
One evening, Dr. Hesselius meets the Reverend Mr. Robert Lynder Jennings at the house of a mutual friend, Lady Mary Heyduke. In an aside, the hostess informs the doctor of Mr. Jennings’s probity and good standing in the community; nevertheless, the clergyman’s health is uncertain and he seems subject to sudden and mysterious collapses. With some evident embarrassment, the clergyman engages Dr. Hesselius in a discussion of Metaphysical Medicine, and evinces an active interest in the doctor’s publications on the subject. Later, Lady Mary mentions that Mr. Jennings’s late father had seen and spoken with a ghost. On the following evening, the clergyman sends his calling card with a note requesting a consultation with Dr. Hesselius.
At Mr. Jennings’s house in Richmond, the doctor is received by Jones, the vicar’s servant; the clergyman has been detained by work in his parish. While waiting in his host’s library, Dr. Hesselius comes on a set of the complete works, in Latin, of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystical philosopher; perusal indicates that Mr. Jennings has underscored such passages as “May God compassionate me.” As Dr. Hesselius continues, he realizes with a start that “four eyes were reading the passage.” Mr. Jennings’s unannounced return is revealed by his features reflected in an overhanging mirror. He abruptly embarks on a conversation about the origins of illness, and he confounds the doctor with his spirited denunciation of materialism in medical thought. Dr. Hesselius is taken aback particularly by the abrupt fluctuations of unchecked gloom and brisk gaiety in his host’s demeanor.
After five weeks, Mr. Jennings again summons the doctor to his home, and there sets forth his own diagnosis of the maladies that have taken possession of him. Already he has been described as having once been an inveterate tea drinker. Mr. Jennings now maintains that his nervous sensibilities have been upset by the consumption first of black and then, gradually and more insidiously, of green tea. Even a change in his habits has not improved his condition. More than that, he is stalked by a creature that, whether imagined or real, relentlessly insinuates itself into his field of vision at every turn.
Once while riding on an omnibus, Mr. Jennings endeavored to push a small monkey out of his way; his umbrella actually seemed to pierce the animal. Since that time, this small, jet-black primate has followed him, its eyes ever animated with burning malevolence; in the dark, it is enveloped in a glowing reddish aura. Inexplicably it has been absent for fifteen days, but the clergyman suspects it will return. He fears that it will induce a cataleptic state, rendering powerless his own will, and lead him to crime or self-destruction. After this exposition, the first he has made to anyone, Mr. Jennings asks Dr. Hesselius whether the quantities of tea he has taken could have affected his inner eye, the cerebral tissue alongside the optic nerve. He increasingly has become conscious of the monkey’s singing speech, which would seem to have entered his mind through some degeneration of his faculties.
Rather soon after his second visit, the doctor receives another, and unmistakably urgent, appeal from the clergyman. It is all in vain. When he arrives, Dr. Hesselius is met by Jones, who leads him to...
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his master’s body; Mr. Jennings has opened a deep gash in his neck and left a vast pool of blood on his bedroom floor. During his last night on earth, Mr. Jennings asked his servant whether he could hear the monkey’s cursing; evidently the master then did away with himself during the early morning hours.
In his concluding statement, Dr. Hesselius expounds his belief that Mr. Jennings was persistently affected by hereditary suicidal mania. The doctor contends that the optic nerve is the channel by which the inner eye establishes contact with the external world. Prolonged abuse of chemical agents—such as those found in tea—upsets the mental equilibrium and renders those affected vulnerable to innate weaknesses. Dr. Hesselius maintains finally that this combination of predisposed melancholia and morbid overstimulation of the nervous system led Mr. Jennings to take his own life.