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Like Poe’s other short fiction, “LIGEIA” is told by a first-person narrator. The tale opens with an account of this narrator’s marriage to his first wife, Ligeia, a woman from an ancient European family. Possessed with “great intensity,” “fierce energy,” and “immense” knowledge, Ligeia tutors her husband in arcane studies dealing with topics such as reincarnation and transcendentalism. Eventually Ligeia falls ill and dies with the words of Joseph Glanville, which also serve as the motto of the tale, on her lips: “’Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.’”

The narrator then leaves the “dim decaying city by the Rhine” with his inheritance and purchases an abbey in a remote part of “fair England.” There he marries “the fair-haired and blue-eyed” Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. Unfortunately, the narrator’s romantic thoughts, perhaps intensified by opium, are still of Ligeia, and after a few weeks of marriage, Rowena falls ill. One night the narrator thinks he sees three drops of a mysterious “ruby colored fluid” fall into the glass of wine that he gives Rowena, and very soon she apparently dies. On the third night of his bedside vigil, however, the narrator, his thoughts still of Ligeia, sees the corpse stir back to life, not as the blonde Rowena but as the dark-haired Ligeia.

The tale may be interpreted on several levels. The reliability of the narrator is questionable as his mental state is admittedly impaired by drugs; it is possible that he has murdered his wives and is attempting to rationalize his crimes. The allusive quality of the tale, however, suggests a more symbolic interpretation, perhaps a parable of the psyche.

“LIGEIA” is a tale typical of Poe in that such ambiguities are left unresolved and that the real action is in the narrator’s mind. It is also typical of the author’s fiction in that it creates the Gothic effect of terror and horror and involves the death, in this case, of two beautiful women.


Basler, Roy P. “The Interpretation of ‘Ligeia.’” In Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. A psychological study of “Ligeia” that interprets the work as an exploration of the narrator’s rational and nonrational obsession and madness.

Jones, Daryl E. “Poe’s Siren: Character and Meaning in ‘Ligeia.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1983): 33-37. Dismisses critics who interpret “Ligeia” as a straightforward gothic tale or a tale of psychological realism. Instead, explores the title character as a siren, which justifies her strength as well as the narrator’s weakness of will.

Levine, Stuart. “‘Ligeia’: Multiple Intention, Unified Effect.” In Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman. DeLand, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1972. Argues that Poe uses Ligeia’s beauty to establish an explicitly romantic aesthetic. Explores several reasons why the story is difficult to interpret.

Matheson, Terence J. “The Multiple Murders in ‘Ligeia’: A New Look at Poe’s Narrator.” Canadian Review of American Studies 13, no. 3 (Winter, 1982): 279-289. Sees the story as flawed and tries to reason through Poe’s own contention that “Ligeia” was his best tale.

Saliba, David R. “Formulaic Achievement: ‘Ligeia.’” In A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1980. Explores “Ligeia” as one of Poe’s most successful nightmare pieces. Accepts the premise that the title character is a dream figure.

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Critical Evaluation