Themes and Meanings
Edgar Allan Poe filled this story with allusions that he could hardly have expected the average reader to recognize. The story’s primary theme, the incalculable potency of the directed will, derives from Joseph Glanvill, the seventeenth century English philosopher and clergyman. Glanvill held that will could survive the body if determined to do so, that God’s immortality proceeded from the perfection of volition, and that humanity yielded itself to the angel of death only when weakness of will could no longer sustain life.
Ligeia has all the prerequisites to test Glanvill’s thesis. Poe’s detailed character sketch gives her the timeless, strange, and ancient beauty of Egypt, Greece, and Israel. Her eyes, which Poe describes in vivid detail at the beginning and end of his story, combine the immortality of the twin stars Castor and Pollux and that of the Turkish houri, nymphs of the Muslim paradise. She is universal intellect, Psyche, and a true child of Apollo, and her broad and deep erudition implies her privileged place in the order of creation.
Rowena is, by contrast, mediocre. Her beauty, though genuine, is conventional and superficial compared with that of Ligeia. It is this mediocrity, not Rowena herself, which the narrator loathes. Correspondingly, it is the force of Ligeia’s will, still alive after her death, which directs the narrator’s own volition to Ligeia’s rebirth in Rowena’s body. Poe has, therefore, elaborated on a traditional love-death theme to make a statement on the regenerative nature of the human spirit and the indomitable, irrepressible nature of the intellect.