(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ligeia cover image

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.)


(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.)