Study Guide

Ligeia

by Edgar Allan Poe

Ligeia Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator-protagonist recalls with obsessive longing the nature of the love that he felt for Ligeia, his first wife, who has died. Her beauty had about it the strange attractiveness of antiquity. She had the radiance of a Delian Muse; her hair was Homerically “hyacinthine” in color, her nose Hebraically aquiline. Her eyes were those of the black-eyed houri, nymphs of the Muslim paradise; they were the twin stars Castor and Pollux and shone like the truth at the bottom of Democritus’s proverbial well. They recalled the timeless change found in the contemplation of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, running water.

Ligeia’s physical presence had an equally strange beauty. Her outward calm complemented an inner intensity in thought, action, and volition. Her intellect was as profound as her beauty. She knew well all the physical and mathematical sciences, was gifted in the classical and the modern languages. Still, Ligeia’s immense and varied gifts could not vanquish death, the “Conqueror Worm” whose arrival Ligeia anticipated in the poem she had written shortly before her death.

The narrator records his lonely destitution of spirit after Ligeia’s death. In an attempt to forget, he changes his castle on the Rhine for an equally desolate abbey in a remote and unpopulated area of England. He takes a new bride, the fair-haired, blue-eyed Rowena, a woman of a noble but haughty family. Their bridal chamber is an elaborate, octagonal turret of the abbey, semi-Gothic and semi-Druidical. Its furniture is massive, and the heavy canopy over the bridal couch seems to...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Ligeia Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator begins by saying that he cannot remember when he first met Ligeia, and he knows nothing of her family except that it is old. Ligeia herself, once his wife, he can remember in every detail, and he relates their story.

Ligeia is tall and slender, ethereal as a shadow. Her face is faultless in its beauty, her skin like ivory, her features classic. Crowning the perfect face and body is raven-black, luxuriant hair. Her eyes, above all else, hold the key to Ligeia’s mystery. Larger than most, those black eyes hold an expression unfathomable even to her husband. It becomes his all-consuming passion to unravel the secret of that expression.

In character, Ligeia possesses a stern will that never fails to astound him. Outwardly she is placid and calm, but she habitually utters words that stun him with their intensity. Her learning is immense. She speaks many languages, and in metaphysical investigations she is never wrong. Her husband is engrossed in a study of metaphysics, but it is she who guides him and unravels the secrets of his research. With Ligeia to assist him, he knows that he will one day reach a goal of wisdom undreamed of by others.

Then Ligeia falls ill. Her skin becomes transparent and waxen, her eyes wild, and he knows that she will die. The passion of her struggle against death is frightening. He has always known that she loves him, but in those last days she abandons herself completely to love. On what is to be the last day of her life, she bids him repeat to her a poem she had composed not long before. It is a morbid thing about death, about the conquering of Man by the Worm. As he finishes repeating the melancholy lines, Ligeia leaps to her feet with a shriek, then falls back on her deathbed. In a scarcely audible whisper, she repeats a proverb that has haunted her: that human beings do not yield to death save through the weakness of their own will. So Ligeia dies.

Crushed with sorrow, her husband leaves his desolate home by the Rhine and retires to an old and decayed abbey in a deserted region in England. He leaves the exterior of the building in its sagging state, but inside he furnishes the rooms lavishly and strangely. He has become the slave of opium, and the furnishings take on the shapes and colors of his fantastic dreams. One bedchamber receives the most...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Ligeia Extended Summary

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia” begins with the narrator admitting that he “cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia.” Upon further examination, the narrator explains that his inability to remember may be because her many attributes “made their way into my heart” so gradually that they were not noticed by him. The narrator thinks that he may have met Ligeia in a “decaying city near the Rhine.” And although he cannot recall the specifics, he is quite certain that she descended from an ancient lineage. Can he remember her paternal name? No. Regardless, Ligeia is gone from this world. Clearly, “if ever she, the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.”

The narrator can quite clearly remember Ligeia’s appearance. She was tall and thin. She “came and departed as a shadow,” and the speaker admits that when she would enter his study, he would not notice her presence until her “marble hand” was on his shoulder. She had the radiant beauty of an “opium-dream,” a beauty that no other woman could ever hope to equal. She had pale skin like ivory and glossy, “raven-black” hair that fell in curls. Ligeia’s eyes were especially captivating, though in hindsight they might be described as strange. Looking back, the narrator cannot explain what mysterious essence made her eyes so unusual, but “they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.”

As the narrator continues to struggle to recall the memory of Ligeia, he notices how odd it is that people so often find themselves on the verge of remembering something, only to fail. The struggle to recall Ligeia’s eyes especially provides this phenomenon in the narrator. He goes on to explain that

I mean to say that, subsequently to the period when Ligeia's beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs. Yet not the more could I define that sentiment, or analyze, or even steadily view it.

The speaker goes on to explain how he has sometimes felt a similar moment of approaching epiphany while studying the natural world. Ultimately, it reminds him of a quote that Poe attributes to Joseph Glanvill:

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

The narrator explains that he has traced, after years of thought on the subject, a “remote connection” between this passage and Ligeia’s “stern passion.”

The narrator continues, recalling how Ligeia’s unusual education helped him in his studies during the early years of their marriage. Ligeia was a talented linguist, particularly when it came to classical languages. Her talents were so impressive that “with child-like confidence,” the narrator had always trusted her guidance through the "chaotic world of metaphysical investigation.” The narrator confesses that his goal was to obtain “wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden,” suggesting that his studies were of an occult nature. The narrator goes on to characterize his investigations into the “metaphysical” to “the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed.” Before long, the narrator came to rely on Ligeia’s insights in order to progress in his studies. However, it was then that Ligeia became sickly.

The narrator recalls how he, in spirit, struggled with Azrael, the archangel of death. However, it was Ligeia that truly and passionately struggled. Sitting at her bedside with her hand in his, Ligeia would pour out her passions to the narrator. Now, he reflects, “that she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear