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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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 emphasize the pall cast over the marriage from its outset.

Indeed, after a month, the narrator becomes moody and sullen. He begins to loathe Rowena, for his memory flies back to the dead Ligeia. He wonders if the force of memory, directed by a strong enough will, might restore her. The narrator pursues these fancies even as Rowena is suddenly taken ill. Though she recovers briefly, Rowena’s relapses are periodic and increasingly serious. She speaks with increasing frequency of the slight sounds and motions that she believes come from behind the tapestries of the bridal chamber. Though the narrator at first attempts to convince Rowena that the wind has caused these, he himself realizes that some invisible object has passed him; then he notices a faint “angelic” shadow on the golden carpet beneath the censer. He wonders whether these are opium-induced hallucinations and does not mention them to Rowena. Then he hears light footsteps and believes that he sees several ruby-colored droplets fall into the goblet of wine that he gives the dying Rowena.

Four nights after this, the narrator is sitting beside the shrouded body of the dead Rowena. He notes his recollection of the angelic form, looks at the dead Rowena, and remembers Ligeia with all the intensity that his willed concentration can muster. By midnight, he believes that he “felt” a sound coming from the ebony bed on which Rowena’s corpse lies. As he directs every ounce of psychic energy that he can on the corpse, he perceives the slightest tinge of color come to its cheeks. He believes Rowena still lives and continues his conjurings, but he can think only of Ligeia. The corpse’s lips seem to part for a moment, then relax in death. No conventional procedures reverse the condition, but when the narrator returns to his thoughts of Ligeia, he hears a sob come from the bed.

By dawn, the figure stirs, and the narrator wonders whether Rowena could actually have returned from the dead. He notices that the figure is suddenly taller than before. When the narrator loosens the cerements which cover the head, he finds huge masses of black hair, long and disheveled. It is only when the wild black eyes open that the narrator knows. His first love, his dear Ligeia, has returned to the world of the living.

Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 3,334 words.)