Critical Evaluation

First published in The Baltimore American Museum in September, 1838, “Ligeia” was included in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). The final text appeared in The Broadway Journal in 1845. One of Poe’s most famous tales, “Ligeia” is also among his most brilliantly written, and he himself once declared it his best. He considered it an “arabesque,” a term he used to refer to tales that, while scarcely credible as depictions of realistic occurrences, are told seriously, without the tone of mockery or satire that he used in his so-called grotesques. Examples of the latter include “King Pest,” with its fantastic group of characters, “every one of whom seemed to possess a monopoly of some particular portion of physiognomy,” and “A Predicament,” in which a lady writer tells in shuddering detail how she felt when the minute hand of a giant clock cut off her head. Later critics have called “Ligeia” a tale of terror, since the narrator is frightened and horrified by what he sees, or thinks he sees, at the story’s end. Similar terror is experienced by Roderick Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and by a number of Poe’s other narrators who undergo harrowing experiences.

The narrator of “Ligeia,” who should not in any way be autobiographically identified with the author, never tells his name, a device Poe employed often, as in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and many other tales. Telling the story from a first-person point of view increases the final dramatic effect, a predetermined element that, as Poe said in his famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), should always be the aim of a serious artist in short fiction.

Two themes in “Ligeia” appear elsewhere in Poe’s tales. Psychic survival through reincarnation is the theme in an early tale, “Morella,” in which a bereaved husband learns that his dead wife has taken over the body and the character of the daughter who was born just before the mother died. In the climactic closing scene of “Ligeia,” the supposedly dead first wife, Ligeia, has (or seems to have) appropriated the body of the second wife, Rowena. A second theme, that of premature burial, appears in the early tale “Berenice” and in such later tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Premature Burial.”

“Ligeia” illustrates Poe’s skill in achieving the unity of impression that, like his “predetermined effect,” he considered of primary importance in telling a tale. Throughout, the tone of the narrator is intensely serious as he relates the story of his two marriages. He dwells on his love for and passionate adoration of the beautiful, mysterious, intellectual Ligeia. There is foreshadowing when he speaks of his suffering and of the loss “of her who is no more.” The final scene is anticipated in several ways. The description of Ligeia at the beginning emphasizes “the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant, and naturally-curling tresses,” and her eyes are repeatedly...

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