‘Ligeia’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1838. Weaving together a number of Poe’s favourite themes and preoccupations, it’s an unsettling and ambiguous tale about love, beauty, death, resurrection, and drugs (yes, we’ll come to that). Poe also considered the story his favourite.
Before we proceed to a summary and analysis of this critically acclaimed and hotly discussed story, you can read ‘Ligeia’ here if you haven’t previously encountered this classic slice of Poe horror.
The story begins with the narrator describing a woman named Ligeia. Ligeia is beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes, although she is described as being ‘slender’ and even ‘emaciated’. But she is also very intellectually gifted. The narrator’s memory is hazy concerning her family name and her history. Did he ever know those details? He cannot remember.
Eventually, the narrator married Ligeia. But she fell ill and died. The narrator moves from the Rhine to England, where he buys an abbey. He also starts to use opium. Soon after this, he remarries to a woman who is physically Ligeia’s opposite: a blonde-haired and blue-eyed woman, Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. However, it is purely a marriage for money, it seems, and he quickly grows to detest his new bride.
Two months into their wedded life, Rowena falls ill, and although she seems to recover, she relapses one night. As she is about to faint, the narrator pours her some wine. He has been taking opium, and appears to see some drops of ruby fluid form in the air and fall into the goblet. He also thinks he sees some shadowy figure of ‘angelic aspect’ in the room.
Three days later, Rowena dies, and as the narrator keeps watch over her body, he seems to hear a sigh from the dead corpse, and a flush of colour return to his dead wife’s pale cheeks. However, this soon fades again, and he convinces himself he was mistaken.
But then, shortly after this, the corpse, wrapped in its funeral shroud, rises up and walks into the middle of the room. Rowena’s hair has transformed into the raven locks of the narrator’s first dead wife, Ligeia – and, indeed, to the narrator’s delight, the figure which stands before him is none other than Ligeia, supposedly back from the dead.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was a pioneer of what we’d now call the ambiguous horror story, where the supernatural elements of the tale may actually be explained (or explained away) with a psychological explanation. As philosophers and psychologists became more interested in the underlying causes for hallucinations, so writers like Poe began to depict the blurred boundaries between drug-induced visions and supernatural sightings. Was a ghost really a ghost, or was it a figment of a troubled or unstable imagination?
This question applies to Poe’s ‘Ligeia’, as it does to a number of other Poe stories, perhaps most famously ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. The first-person narration immediately restricts us to the unnamed narrator’s account of events, without the distancing and objectivity that an impersonal third-person narrator would provide. What’s more, the narrator is clearly a man of unstable moods who marries his second wife despite hating her, and who uses opium frequently.
Some critics and biographers have analysed ‘Ligeia’ in light of Poe’s childhood, especially the death of his mother when he was still an infant. People returning from the dead in Poe are sometimes a figure of horror (as in most ghost stories), but in ‘Ligeia’ the narrator is filled with joy when Ligeia returns (seemingly) from the dead and is resurrected from the dead body of Rowena. Is ‘Ligeia’ Poe’s attempt to ‘cheat’ death, to show the triumph of life over death in the figure of the revitalised Ligeia?
Perhaps. But the fact that this narrator is an unreliable narrator – he is addicted to the ‘shackles’ of opium, and by his own admission has a faulty memory – gives us pause:
There is no point, among the many incomprehensible anomalies of the science of mind, more thrillingly exciting than the fact – never, I believe, noticed in the schools – that, in our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.
As he later confides, as Rowena lies dying, ‘Wild visions, opium-engendered, flitted, shadow-like, before me.’ This is not unlike the magic lantern or phantasmagoria (the forerunner to the later cinematograph) in which images would ‘flit’ quickly in sequence, generating the appearance of a moving image. Indeed, the word ‘phantasmagoric’ is important in ‘Ligeia’, and appears twice. The narrator tells us, shortly after he marries Rowena: ‘The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies – giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.’ And, later on, he refers again to the ‘phantasmagoric influences’ of this same strange bridal chamber. ‘Ligeia’ is, among other things, a story about the visual image, how our minds and our eyes play tricks on us. This should be borne in mind when attempting to decipher what happens at the end of the story.
Even the story’s epigraph is unreliably attributed to Joseph Glanvill (1636-80), an English writer and philosopher (the quotation which begins the story has not been found in any of Glanvill’s works). True, epigraphs are the work of the author rather than the fictional narrator of a story, but even here, Poe blurs the boundaries between himself and his unreliable narrator, by having that narrator quote the words from the epigraph in the story itself: ‘I bent to them my ear and distinguished, again, the concluding words of the passage in Glanvill –“Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”’