Ligeia

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Ligeia” is a strange and surrealistic
tale which relays the disturbing events of the death of a beloved wife, and
her possible resurrection by uncertain means. Although the story is of the
gothic tradition, complete with dark and mysterious surroundings, ghostly
apparitions and multiple deaths, it is Poe’s use of a first-person
narration within the text which serves to transform the story from a rather
obvious horror story with shallow characters and little action, into a
psychological enigma.

The use of first-person narration within the text serves to work in a
number of ways, operating simultaneously to create a human dimension in
which the reader can experience the events first-hand through the narrator,
serving to create a suspenseful atmosphere in which fact and fantasy can
blend and any “truth” as we know it is hard to define, and acting as a
mechanism in which the author can create further tension within the text by
leaving out illuminating facts and details which could help the reader find
a “reality” in the layers of mystery. By having an unreliable, stressed,
and drug-addicted narrator Poe has the further advantage of creating a
character which the reader can empathize with through his loss, while at
the same time harboring feelings of uncertainty and suspicion about the
narrator’s role within the events.This suspicion of the narrator by the
reader consequently works to transform the story from an average recital
of horrific events into a story examining the intricate workings of the
human psyche, leading the reader to question not only the motives of the
narrator, but those of him or herself in the interpreting of the story.

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One of the primary uses of first-person narration within the text is
to add a psychological dimension to the story which relies not only on a
sense of connection between the reader and the narrator, but also on a
suspicion of the credibility of the narrator and an uncertainty about the
events as they are represented. This suspicion is
created by offering the reader a narrator who is using drugs, who is
obviously under mental anguish due to his wife’s death, and who, like the
reader, does not seem to understand what is going on around him. This lack
of credibility works against the narrator, causing the reader to question
the narrator’s motivations, mental state, and reasons for sharing this
story. Yet, at the same time, the reader maintains a connection to the
narrator, inspired by an understanding of such human emotions as fear and
sorrow that the narrator relays throughout the text. It is this combined
connection and suspicion which forces the reader to doubt the truth of
what they are reading, yet at the same time to still consider the
possibility that Ligeia has returned from the dead to retake her place at
her beloved husband’s side.

The consequences for creating a narrator who maintains little or no
credibility can be seen when considering the example of a drug addict as a
witness to a crime. The listener must ask themselves what the speaker is
gaining from such an admission, and if relaying the truth the best they
know it is their only intention. If the narrator was a distinguished
doctor with a credible reputation and an otherwise normal life, the reader
would almost immediately maintain a trust of the narrator’s view of the
events and would probably believe the events as described actually
occurred. If a sane and functioning doctor tells us that an apparition has
dropped blood into a wine glass and thereby poisoned his wife, although one
would be immediate doubtful, one would also take time to consider the
possibility. Poe’s narrator, however, is deep into opium use and seems to
have a very slight grasp of reality. The narrator himself relates that
after Ligeia’s death he became a “bounden slave in the trammels of
opium”(1582). A narrator who is drug-addicted, obsessed with his dead
wife, and who spends his time floating about a gothic abbey decorated with
symbols of death does not hold quite the same amount of authority. By
creating a suspicion about the narrator’s role and perceptions in the
story, but at the same time offering this account as the only insight into
the unfolding events, Poe lends the story a psychological aspect which
allows the possibility of multiple endings. At the end of the story,
consequently, instead of brushing the story off as just another standard
horror story with a ghostly apparition, the reader is left to question if
the events took place in reality, in the speaker’s mind, or not at all.

The use of a first-person narration is also effective in a gothic
story such as “Ligeia” because it serves to draw a reader into the passions
of normal human emotion. “Ligeia’s” narrator has recently witnessed the
loss of his beloved wife, and is still in a grieving process at the present
tense of this story. The narrator’s deep grief, related to the reader in
passages such as, “She dies;–and I, crushed into the very dust with
sorrow, could no longer endure the lonely desolation of my dwellings”(1581)
succeeds in connecting the reader to the narrator, causing one to feel
empathy for the narrator’s deep sense of loss. After nearly a page and a
half about the glowing attributes of both Ligeia’s character and her
astounding physical characteristics, the reader is aware of how much the
narrator loved his dead wife, and accordingly recognizes his pain when she
dies of a wasting illness. Rather than feeling indifferent about Ligeia’s
death, the reader is meant to feel a sense of compassion with the narrator,
the honesty and validity of these feelings consequently lending the
narrator the only credibility which he is able to maintain throughout the
text. Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them will probably know
what kind of distress a human goes through after experiencing such a loss,
and this understanding is what causes the reader to trust the narrator as
he reveals such a commonly recognized human emotion as sorrow, while at the
same time distrusting him due to his increased drug abuse and questionable
actions.By offering such a sympathetic yet obviously troubled narrator,
Poe allows the reader to become connected in such an emotional way that
he/she can understand and therefore experience the emotions of the narrator
offered by the first-person account, while at the same time maintaining a
distance from the events themselves which allows the reader to question
what they are told.

By creating a tie between the reader and the narrator Poe also
succeeds in allowing the reader to visualize the setting and events as the
narrator sees them, thereby taking the reader inside the brain of the
grieved and drug-addled mind. This serves to create a sense of tension
within the text because, although flawed, this limited view of the
unfolding events is the only one which is available to the reader for
interpretation. As the narrator sits in the “death room” the readers is
able to visualize the rippling curtain and the eerie surroundings as the
narrator describes them. The narrator’s description of the events,
likewise, helps the reader imagine the tension and horror that one might
feel if placed in the narrator’s position. The narrator relates, “The wind
was rushing hurriedly behind the tapestries, and I wished to show her
(what, let me confess, I could not all believe) that those inarticulate
breathings, and those very gentle variations of those figures on the wall,
were but the natural effects of that customary rushing of the wind”(1584).

By having a first-person account of this room, one is able to gain not
only the everyday details of the furnishings but the emotions which this
atmosphere evokes. Poe’s use of first-person narration allows both the
emotional and physical description of the story to come across to the
reader in full force, a description which would lose most of its emotional
impact if told only in third person.

Another way in which first-person narration works to the advantage
within this text is in its use as a cover for oftentimes large gaps in
character development and background. As the narrator tells us of the
description of his beloved Ligeia he describes her in such a way that the
reader is left to question whether she is indeed human, or whether she is a
mystical being capable of accomplishing an event as miraculous as returning
from the dead. The narrator’s description of Ligeia’s eyes, for example,
relates that “in times of intense excitement” Ligeia’s pupils appeared “far
larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race”(1577). The narrator then
goes on to proclaim that, “At such moments was her beauty–in my heated
fancy thus it appeared perhaps–the beauty of beings either above or apart
from the earth–the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turk”(1577). The
other-worldly and perfect description relayed to the reader by the narrator
lacks any kind of background information such as a family name or date of
birth, or even offers any clues which can solve the enigma which Ligeia’s
character represents. This lapse, attributed to the faulty memory of a
grieved narrator, leaves a reader torn between the images of an ordinary
woman held on a pedestal by a grieving husband or a brilliant, willful
being who cannot be overcome by something as insignificant as death. This
enigma is never solved within the text, but is used by Poe to create a
sense of tension which escalates until the climax of the story, then ends
suddenly without any resolution. When the narrator’s character states that
his dead wife has come back to life the reader is left with a deep
suspicion of the likelihood of this event, but also a nagging feeling that
anyone as perfect as Ligeia is described can accomplish anything.

This nagging feeling is strengthened by the introductory poem
speaking of the strength of the human will, the same poem that Ligeia
recites in her time of death. Glanvill’s quote, “And the will therein
lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its
vigor,”(1576) forces the reader to suspect that Ligeia is indeed powerful
enough to return from the dead. Together with the narrator’s faultless
description, this eerie poem permeates the entire text and leaves a
question lingering in the reader’s mind which is hard to ignore. One is
left to wonder, “Is Ligeia truly returned…or is this only part of the
narrator’s delusions?
A lack of background information also poses more questions about the
reliability of the narrator and a deeper suspicion about his actions. Has
the narrator experienced mental illness in the past? Does he hate Rowena
enough to murder her himself? Does the narrator believe in ghosts,
reincarnation, etc.? The answers to these questions would offer more
credibility to the narrator’s account, but the lack of any information
regarding these matters results in a deep suspicion of what exactly the
narrator’s motivations are in telling this story. Is it only to retell the
strange and miraculous events as they occurred, or to cover the death of
his second wife? It is exactly this tactic of making the reader question
all details, events, and actions within this text which makes the story so
successful as a gothic thriller. At the end of the story the reader is
left as confused as at the beginning of the text, probably feeling much the
same way one would if they were actually a physical witness to such strange
events.

The use of first-person narration within “Ligeia” serves multiple
purposes within the text, but its overall use is to draw the reader
emotionally and mentally into the unfolding story. The use of a third-
person voice in a story such as “Ligeia” would distance the reader not only
from the characters, but from the action, and would transform the story
from the psychological puzzle that it is into something confusing, yet not
overly exciting or imaginative. Poe’s use of first-person narration within
the text ties the reader to the events in such a way that when the action
suddenly ends the reader is left emotionally unsatisfied. This, too, is a
brilliant stroke of Poe’s writing. The reader is left to not only
interpret the story as it is told, but to choose the ending for themselves.

It is this interaction between the reader and the text which
distinguishes Poe’s writing, making “Ligeia” a psychological enigma with as
many interpretations as it has readers.