Edgar Allan Poe's Morella: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Horror Story
The women of Poe’s tales are often polar opposites from the men who adore them. Like Berenice, the extroverted sensualist (who is mutilated by Egaeus, the reclusive intellectual) they represent what Jung would call the Anima to their male foils: the feminine, communal, earthy element of their own natures which they avoid, deny, or otherwise repress, until they are plunged into schizophrenic relationships with their own bifurcated psyches.
These women are poised to provide unity and cohesion to their counterparts’ lives – a gesture which the men invariably shun. They are ephemeral and intangible where their lovers are cerebral and morbid. Morella is a chilling exception. Not only does she avoid being a foil to her husband, but the dichotomy of mind and matter exists within her – she masters them both.
This tale ponders the dynamic coexistence of Logos (logical intellect) with Eros (erotic sensuality). Morella claims dominion over both, which rapidly unsettles her husband, who, though once enchanted by her unorthodox brilliance, is repelled both by her unquestionable intellectual superiority and by her desire to be loved as a woman. His refusal to acknowledge her simultaneous mastery of Logos and Eros drives her to assert herself from beyond death.
The narrator tells of how he became enchanted by the Lady Morella, an intimidatingly intelligent woman with a devotion to German metaphysics and philosophy, and particularly fascinated by theories about selfhood, identity, pantheism, and the boundaries of the soul.
He describes how, even though she was bedridden and feeble, she lectures him about her dizzying spiritual theories, reading books by Fichte and Schelling, and teaching him to fear her ever-expanding intellect. But even worse, he feared her physical deterioration: her wan fingers, pale skin, blue veins, and wild eyes became increasingly grotesque, and in his heart he wishes for her to die and remove him from her influence.
Pregnant and dying, Morella calls him to her bedside one foggy, autumn day, and announces that though she is dying “yet shall I live.” Shocked, the narrator responds with her name: “Morella!” “The days have never been when thou couldst love me – but her whom in life thou didst abhor, in death thou shalt abhor.” He responds, again, with “Morella!” She continues to prophecy that her spirit will depart when her child is born, and that his days “will be days of sorrow.” Responding, again, with “Morella!” the narrator demands to know how she can predict such things, but in that instant Morella dies giving birth to a daughter.
Haunted by this memory, the narrator attempts to move on and shed Morella’s influence from his soul, but she manifests in the face and figure of their daughter, who grows more and more like her mother every day. Partly due to this, her father delays having her baptized, and she remains nameless until her tenth birthday, when the resemblance to her pale, intelligent-eyed mother has become so uncanny as to terrify her father.
Hoping that baptism will eject Morella’s demonic influence from her daughter, the narrator takes her to a priest to be dedicated and named. Without any particular name in mind, he is horrified when – after the priest asks for a name – he impulsively says “Morella.” At the sound of her new name, the younger Morella calls out “I am here!” and collapses to the floor, a corpse.
Brokenhearted, her father carries her body to Morella’s tomb, where – to his horror – he “found no traces of the first, in the charnel where I laid the second – Morella…”
Morella is a strange and unearthly woman, rivaled only by Ligeia in Poe’s oeuvre. Like Ligeia, she is sometimes cataloged as a witch, or even a vampire, but her uncouth powers transcend common definitions. What is certain is that she demands respect, attention, and acknowledgment from a man who, though he rejects her, is her intellectual inferior.
While the story is not explicitly one of feminist sensibilities, Morella’s potency far outshines that of Annabel Lee, Lenore, Madeline, and Berenice, filling the narrator not with dread of his own misogynistic actions (“Black Cat,” “Berenice,” “Usher”), but of her incomprehensibly transcendental power. Her ability to manipulate the laws of time and death would be replicated in less flattering female characters by authors such as H. Rider Haggard (She), J. Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla), and Bram Stoker (The Jewel of the Seven Stars).
While the supernatural-woman has been used as a horror trope in many works, Poe’s Morella elicits more awe than horror. Though grim and supernatural, her resurrection is less that of the vampiress returning to feast on the living, than that of the woman whose will was obeyed, even by death. As a philosophical study, Morella presages the will-empowering German philosophies (which she undoubtedly would have studied) of Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and especially Nietzsche, whose Will-to-Power (described as “the striving to reach the highest possible position in life”) is embodied in the enchantress’ hunger to transcend.
She effortlessly exemplifies Nietzsche’s Űbermensh: the Superb-Being who exceeds the expectations and limitations of mankind, leaving her spiteful lover mystified by her supremacy – what Nietzsche would term her circumventing practice of Master Morality. Indeed, Morella is a superior human, overriding the permanency of death, impregnating her newborn child with her spirit, and overpowering that body until it became her own, leaving her lover staggered at the testimony to her Christlike resurrection, empty tomb, and spiritual transcendence over the powers that will inevitably stifle and annihilate him.
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And you can read our annotated and illustrated collection of Poe's best horror HERE!