Poe’s tales have unique Gothic elements that were mostly born from the disturbing episode that follows. The tropes of hypersensitivity, wasting women, psychosis-blighted genius, premature burial, monomaniac fixations, and gruesome, psychologically-poignant violence trace back to “Berenice” (sounds like “barren-icy”). “Berenice” is the grandmother of the Poe Grotesquerie: it formulates his dark Romantic vision by developing themes and motifs which, while not original in large part, are orchestrated in a tremendously innovative concert of psychological terror, obsession, and decay. “Berenice” is a meditation on the struggle between the antisocial introspection of the intellect and the gregarious sensuality of the body. The two extremes are destined to strive for dominance, Poe suggests, and once an upper hand is achieved, only complete and absolute possession will satisfy the desire to own.
"Berenice" begins harmlessly enough -- although those familiar with Poe will immediately sense the imminent sense of doom. Egaeus (a rare Poe narrator with a name, which means "shield" in Greek) is a gloomy man with a gloomy life, living in a gloomy mansion with his vivacious cousin, Berenice. As you can tell, Berenice is the only bright spot in Egaeus' life: she is his polar opposite with her extraversion, optimism, and joy, and he views her with spiritual awe and admiration. But Egaeus has a problem: he has a monomaniacal fetish for teeth. And Berenice's teeth are impossibly perfect -- their whiteness and symmetry defy mortal standards and perfectly represent Berenice's status as a spiritual Ideal in her cousin's mind.
Deeply obsessed, he fights a desire to hold the teeth and view them from all angles. Sadly, he learns that she has a wasting sickness and might no live long. In what he calls "an evil moment," he proposes to her and they become engaged. One morning, in the grey light of dawn, he sees Berenice emerge from the murk, vulgarly transformed by her illness: she had grown taller, thinner, paler; her hair has even turned from blond to black; her face is cadaverous and waxy and her eyes are large and lifeless. But her teeth are untouched: she flashes a dazzling smile that stuns him hopelessly. But -- as with Ligeia, Morella, Annabel Lee, Lenore, Ulalume, Madeline, and more -- female spirituality cannot fend off masculine mortality: the body alone cannot support the spirit, and the flesh is overwhelmed with death. Berenice dies before their wedding day and Egaeus pays homage to her coffin as she lies in state. In a frequently censored passage, he peers at her corpse only to watch the "livid lips wreath into a species of smile," revealing that she must still be alive, and exposing her imperishable teeth.
Later that night Egaeus wakes up from a stupor covered in mud and gore, finding a box on the table beside him and a dirty shovel leaning against the wall. His servant approaches him nervously with the news that the fresh grave has been robbed, that the corpse has been violated, and -- most distressing of all -- that Berenice has been found mutilated but alive. Shaking from horror, Egaeus reaches over to the box. He seems aware of what is inside, but is terrified to look. In his fear he drops the box which shatters on the ground, revealing a handful of dental surgery instruments and thirty-two perfect, freshly-pulled teeth...
Abuse and misogyny abound in Poe’s tales (though not in his life), but few are as nuanced and sinister as “Berenice.” “The Black Cat” is a grim meditation on substance abuse, but “Berenice” is a wordless conflict conflated with extreme malice and resentment unparalleled in Poe’s marvelous oeuvre. The explicit brutality is handled with such subtle gentility that the last sentence flutters across the page like a strand of cobweb before the full heinousness of its content is understood. Such gruesome stories were not entirely unknown to Anglophonic literature – think of the bride’s severed head in Washington Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student” – but they were reserved largely for sensational rather than literary publications. Poe delves far beyond the simplistic morals of ghastly horror stories, murder ballads, and revenge tragedies (with their shared “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” moral visions) by entering the realm of psychological rather than emotional resentment.
The desire to extract and possess Berenice’s teeth is not rational or even ironic, but a fabrication of the unconscious – a wholly symbolic act. No mistreatment has been suffered by Egaeus, no adulterous heartbreak or even unrequited love – she has not bit him, or used his toothbrush, or eaten his leftovers. His motives are psychotic (L.B. Griffin called them explicitly schizophrenic) without conscience or logic. But, far from meaningless, his actions and impulses are engorged with meaning – psychological rather than rational. Obsessed with Berenice’s sensual physicality, Egaeus – who represents the intellect, the idealizing imagination – is incapable of accepting her mortality and seeks to extract her most idealized element – her perfect teeth. An act of avoidance, he attempts to deny the relationship between Berenice-the-Ideal and Berenice-the-Mortal. His effort is in vain, and the grisly revelation underscores the impossibility of extracting spirituality from mortality, or essence from form: the two are insoluble, and any attempt to divorce them in Poe’s works ends in a brutal illustration of their fusion. Like E.T.A. Hoffmann (“The Sandman”), he paves the way for psychoanalytical theorists like Freud, Adler, and Jung by diverting from the paved highways of commonplace moral horror onto the uncharted and chaotic wastelands of human psychology.