Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

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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 mentioned: “Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs!” The brief, hectic excitement of the second marriage, to the “fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine,” is quickly followed by the husband’s obsessed memories of “the beloved, the august, the beautiful, the entombed” Ligeia. In the second paragraph of the tale, Ligeia’s beauty of face is described as “the radiance of an opium dream.” This anticipates the actual opium dreams that result from the husband’s addiction following his loss of Ligeia. Those dreams, which accompany his loathing and hatred of Rowena, are filled with Ligeia, and the intensity of the husband’s longing for his lost love climaxes with her return at the story’s end. When she opens her eyes, he is sure of her identity, and he shrieks, “These are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love— . . . of the Lady Ligeia!”

The theme of psychic survival is suggested first in the story’s epigraph, with its final sentence, “Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” This theme first appears in the story when the narrator recalls having read this passage from Joseph Glanvill, which he quotes. He connects Glanvill’s words with Ligeia when he speaks of her “intensity in thought, action, or speech” as “a result, or at least an index” of her “gigantic volition.” After she falls ill, he is struck by “the fierceness of resistance with which she wrestled with the Shadow.” Just before she dies, she asks him to repeat a poem she had written some days before, a symbolic poem portraying life as a tragic drama with “its hero, the conqueror Worm,” which finally devours each actor. As he concludes the poem, Ligeia shrieks and pleads, “O God! O Divine Father! . . . shall this conqueror be not once conquered?” Her last murmured words echo Glanvill’s: “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.” Yet her own fierce will to live does not save her from death—or so her husband thinks. He leaves Germany, moves to England, purchases a decaying abbey, extravagantly refurnishes its interior, and leads his new bride to the bedroom in the high turret. Though entombed, Ligeia continues to “wrestle with the Shadow.” She fills her husband’s memories, and in final triumph she replaces her blond successor. Or does she?

“Ligeia” has achieved considerable fame as the subject of many widely divergent interpretations. It has been argued that Ligeia is not a real woman but symbolically “the very incarnation of German idealism, German transcendentalism provided with an allegorical form.” One critic has suggested that Ligeia never existed at all but has merely been imagined by the narrator, who is mad. Another has called her a witch, and still another a “revenant—a spirit who has spent immemorial lifetimes on earth.” As for the husband, he has been termed a liar and even a murderer who kills Rowena, his second wife, by poisoning her with the “ruby drops” that fall into her wine glass.

Perhaps the most acceptable interpretation of the story is a literal one. The narrator marries the beautiful, brilliant Ligeia, and they live happily in Germany until she dies of a mysterious disease. He then marries Rowena in England but soon turns against her. Rowena suffers spells of illness, and her husband endlessly dreams of his lost Ligeia, for whom he longs deeply. His increasing use of opium causes his dreams to become so confused with reality that in a final frightening hallucination, he believes he sees standing before him the beloved dark-haired and large-eyed Ligeia, who has taken over the body of her fair-haired successor. By the strength of her intense will, Ligeia would thus have defeated Death, the Conquering Worm.

Dramatically, the scene achieves the effect for which the Glanvill quotation prepares readers. That the return of Ligeia is only imagined is also prepared for by the narrator’s repeated references to his drug addiction: I had become a bounden slave in the trammels of opium. . . . I was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug. . . . I was wild with the excitement of an immoderate dose of opium. . . . Wild visions, opium-engendered, flitted, shadow-like, before me . . . passionate waking visions of Ligeia . . . a crowd of unutterable fancies . . . had chilled me into stone.

In his numbed state he has regained his intensely desired Ligeia, but surely it is a drug-induced fancy that shocks him into shrieking the words that end the story.

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