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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Edgar Allan Poe's Ligeia: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Many of Poe’s tales can be seen as re-workings of previous works: “MS.” becomes “Maelström,” “Metzengerstein” becomes “Hop-Frog,” “Shadow” becomes “Masque,” “Tell-Tale Heart” becomes “Imp of the Perverse,” and “Berenice” becomes “Tell-Tale Heart” and “Black Cat.” Perhaps the most clearly reworked tale-relationship is that between Morella and her cousin Ligeia. It is not, however, the same story, even though the central theme – the reincarnation of a Germanic mystic in the body of her successor – is consistent. Ligeia delves into darker recesses than Morella explored, uncovering a malicious, almost vampiric vengeance in the indomitable will – not of the eponymous woman, but of her idolatrous husband. The narrator of “Ligeia” is complicatedly unreliable – his abusive and possibly murderous relationship to his second wife, his thinly-disguised machinations, and his opium-drenched habits cause us to question his motives, and to ask – not “how powerful is the will of the dying?” – but “how powerful is the will of the survivor?”


The unnamed narrator is the haunted widower of an otherworldly woman named Ligeia. Thinking back to their courtship, he finds that he cannot quite remember how or where they met or what family she comes from. All he can summon is a general sense that they meet in a gloomy, crumbling castle on the banks of the Rhine. He cannot even remember her last name, but he is consumed by the memory of her staggering intellect, ravishing beauty, and crushing willpower. Her forehead was large and white, webbed by blue veins, with watery, luminous dark eyes and a stream of raven-black hair.

She was profoundly well-read (particularly in German metaphysics with their focus on pantheism, reincarnation, and willpower) and her genius intimidates her husband. She is not physically strong, however: her body is almost skeletal in thinness, her frame noble but frail, and her energy levels are weak and drained. After they marry, Ligeia teaches her husband in the forbidden lore of metaphysics and deep, mystical philosophy, training him in the dark arts that she so obviously has mastered.

But their relationship seems doomed early on as her sickness (apparently consumption) drains the life from her. Notorious for her powerful, dominating will, she struggles intellectually with the certainty and oblivion of her mortality. On her deathbed she composes "The Conqueror Worm" (a brutal poem about the inevitability and cruelty of death -- personified as a massive, blood-engorged grave worm feeding on the actors of the play "Man" in spite of the watchful angels' horror), and leaves her husband brokenhearted. Haunted by her memory, he marries her polar opposite: the Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine.

Whereas Ligeia had been an intimidating, intellectual, tall, black-eyed, brunette German (representing the Gothic Romanticism of the Germans), Rowena was an easy-minded, approachable, petite, blue-eyed, blond Englishwoman (representing the idyllic Romanticism of the British). Newly married, the couple move into a Gothic tower dominated by grotesque decorations: a massive, peaked window, gold tapestries emblazoned with kabbalic and occultic symbols, and a fuming censor hung from the ceiling which fills the room with oriental perfume and casts uncanny patterns of light around the hexagonal room.

In this indulgent setting, the narrator begins to plunge into a staggering opium addiction, spending his days and nights smoking and watching over his ailing second wife, who quickly goes from a bubbly English girl to a lethargic invalid in a matter of days. By the second month of their marriage, the narrator realizes that Rowena does not love him, and watches her with curiosity as she grows paranoid of the room they are confined to: sensing something terrible lurking behind the golden tapestries and developing a hypersensitivity to sound -- hearing sounds that her husband can't detect. The narrator increases his narcotic usage as he senses Rowena's death approaching. One night he watches as she drinks a goblet of wine and is disturbed at the sight of three phantom drops of blood-red fluid falling into her drink. Three days later Rowena is dead.

On the fourth night, he sits up with the corpse, which is wound tightly in a burial shroud. In spite of his loss, the narrator's thoughts almost exclusively revolve around Ligeia. Suddenly, the corpse moans, and he rushes to its side. It's white face flushes with color, but then quickly returns to a death state -- cold to the touch. Returning to his nostalgic reverie, he is shocked once again when the body begins moaning and stirring. This time, it rises to its feet and stands in the middle of the Gothic chamber, flooded in moonlight. Despite having no reason to assume that it is anyone other than the Lady Rowena, he demands to know its identity. In the gloom he thinks that the body has grown taller and wanner, and he thinks he detects dark hair under the shroud. He reaches over to touch the looming corpse, and the face-cloth falls away. There in front of him is standing -- with flowing black hair and luminous black eyes -- the reanimated Lady Ligeia.


The nature of “Ligeia” is notoriously difficult to identify. The inclusion of the “Conqueror Worm” poem seems to imply the sureness of death, but the resurrected Ligeia demurs such an interpretation. Is this her husband’s narcotic hallucination? A mere wish-fulfilling daydream? A genuine bodily resurgence? A supernatural possession? Poe wisely shies away from clarifying the truth, leaving his unreliable narrator to accrue doubt and generate speculation. What is certain, however, is that “Ligeia” – like the proto-Nietzschean Morella – is meant as an examination of the ethics and philosophy of Will. While the Transcendentalists saw Will as a conduit to self-empowerment and spiritual purity, Poe and his fellow Dark Romantics (Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Le Fanu) recognized the potential for abuse and mismanagement in a society that encouraged the separation of the individual from the restraining forces of law and society.

Like Melville’s Ahab, Hawthorne’s Chillingworth, and Le Fanu’s Harbottle, isolation, self-reliance, and individualism – core tenants of Transcendentalism – have led to moral corruption, spiritual decay, and philosophical egoism; or, in psychiatric terminology, rampant sociopathy. Having adopted his wife’s transcendental philosophies, the narrator rapidly descends into self-indulgent bouts of narcotics, spousal negligence, and (either premeditated or complicit) murder. Whether Ligeia truly is resurrected – and if so, whether by her own unquenchable Will, by that of her husband, or through a collaborative effort – is open to debate, but the frantic monomania with which her husband prepares for and attempts to incite her revivification is undeniable. While Will in “Morella” is vampiric and parasitic, in “Ligeia” it is monstrous and murderous.

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