It’s Edgar Allan Poe month here at our Friday Book Club column, and today’s feature could just as easily be entitled, “What the Hell is going on in ‘Ligeia’? ‘Ligeia’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1863. Poe writes a lot of stories with unreliable narrators and cliffhanger endings, but this may be the king of them all. If you don’t want to find out what happens in ‘Ligeia’, than stop reading here, for SPOILERS ABOUND. If you live in the Sacramento area, come visit our in-person book club at Arden Dimick Library, at 2PM on September 22nd, and in the meantime, or if you are out of the area, you can participate by leaving a comment.
Snarky Summary of the Story:
‘Ligeia’ is narrated by a narrator who is so unreliable that he follows almost every observation by pointing out that he was, after all, really stoned at the time (he’s an opium addict). This narrator starts off by saying that he was madly in love with this woman, Ligeia, and married to her, and she was totally perfect although she’s hard to describe, and he can’t remember when he met her, and he can’t remember anything about her family but he’s sure they’re just great, and he never did learn her last name.
Ligea was incredibly smart (“I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia – it was immense – such as I have never known in a woman”). And Ligea was perfectly beautiful, but hard to describe. She had a perfect nose, and perfect skin, and she was tall and thin, and had black hair. Her most amazing feature was her eyes. And she loves the narrator passionately:
That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions? –how had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them, But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only, that in Ligeia’s more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognized the principle of her longing with so wildly earnest a desire for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing –it is this eager vehemence of desire for life –but for life –that I have no power to portray –no utterance capable of expressing.
Alas, Ligeia gets sick and dies. The narrator expects her to face death with stoic courage, but Ligeia is determined to fight it off through sheer force of will. Her last words are a quote from Joseph Glanville: “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
In the mundane world, people deal with grief by staring at huge piles of casseroles. But this is the gothic genre, so the narrator moves to The Rhine, buys a “castellated abbey”, decorates it in gloomy and macabre furnishings, and remarries. He marries The Lady Rowena, who is Ligeia’s opposite – she looks opposite, she never speaks a word in the story, and seems extraordinarily passive. Immediately after the marriage, the narrator, who by this time is an extreme opium addict, detests her. Rowena pines away in the Abbey of Horror and dies. Her body is wrapped in shrouds and her face is covered.
But wait! Rowena’s body shows signs of life – and then sinks back into death. She stirs again and dies again, and this goes on through the night, until at last she rises and walks. When the cover that conceals her face falls, the narrator sees that it is not Rowena who has returned from the grave – “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never –can I never be mistaken –these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady –of the LADY LIGEIA.”
Crack pot theory:
For a full analysis of this story, I recommend schmoop.com. I found ‘Ligeia’ to be baffling – what happened? Why? How? This is a new story to me and I can’t stop thinking about it. One moment I regard it with horror, the next I think it is strangely hilarious what with the narrator constantly having to explain that he thought it was weird that various things happened but he was really, really high at the time. Apparently some critics believe that the story is a parody. Obviously the story is a powerful one – I can tell, because I can’t stop thinking about it. So, what the heck happens at the end, and how, and why?
We’re really not supposed to know what happens at the end. Maybe Ligeia has come back to life. Maybe the narrator is hallucinating the whole thing. The ending is not only a mystery, but a cliffhanger. Is Ligeia happy to be back? Is she angry? Is she a vampire/zombie/bad thing? We don’t know. But I have a crackpot theory.
Many people believe that the ending is a hallucination on the part of the narrator, but I have a theory – what if there is no Ligeia? What if her existence was dreamed up by the narrator from the start? This would explain the gaps in her backstory, her unusual appearance, and the fact that she seems too good to be true. She seems like the perfect woman because that’s what the narrator created her to be.
If Ligeia is the perfect woman, than why would the narrator kill her off by fantasizing her death? Well, I think the narrator overshot a little bit and created a woman who threatened him. He clearly has some interesting gender hang-ups (her “unwomanly” displays of affection” are Victorian code for “her interest in sex was tacky”). My guess is that the narrator longs for a perfect woman, but one that won’t threaten him sexually – he wants the egotistical gratification of Ligeia’s passionate expressions of love, and yet he seems to regard them with some distaste, calling them “immoderate”.
Ligeia is sexual, vibrant, and dominant – she helps him with his homework, she drives the relationship, he is child-like in her presence. So the narrator, with mixed feelings (and all unconscious ones – he believes all this is real) tries to create a new fantasy woman. Since Ligeia was too dominant, he will create a woman in his mind who is completely subservient – over whom he can exercise complete power. This is, of course, Rowena. He controls her body by keeping her a prisoner in the abbey. He controls her mind by creating an atmosphere of oppressive horror. But guess what – passive people are boring. The narrator wants Ligeia back – and he gets her back by willing her back into existence. But because he thinks his creations are real, he can’t just wave them away. Rowena wants to live, and so does Ligeia, and so through the night they battle for supremacy.
The Mighty Power of Ligeia:
So, if the narrator wants Ligeia back, why is he horrified by Ligeia’s appearance? I think he is ambivalent about what he wants (this helps explain why Rowena lives and dies over and over again, as he tries to make up his mind). When faced with the reality of passive Rowena, he’s bored, but when faced with the reality of powerful Ligeia, he is terrified. On some level, he wants to eliminate both women, in an effort to regain his sanity or in an unconcious effort to be free from entanglements. But Ligeia, although she was created by him, has her own will, and she will not be cowed. That’s why Ligeia doesn’t just kill Rowena – Rowena becomes Ligeia, the smart, strong-willed vision that refuses to go away. Earlier I said that the narrator wills Ligeia back into existence, but I think to some extent she wills herself back into existence – he is too ambivalent about what he wants to truly desire her return.
The narrator makes it clear that he both admires and fears the living Ligeia. I like to think that Ligeia represents the spirit of women who will not be silenced – not by society, not by law, not by abusive husbands or condescending expectations. I doubt that this was what Poe intended – but he did know a lot of strong-willed women in his life, and he both desired and resented them for taking care of him (he refered to his wife as his “wife-mother”). So maybe he did intend that message – regardless, I’m Team Ligeia.