Professor: Patricia Haseltine



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Death in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”

By

Joanne, Wong


American Literature

Professor: Patricia Haseltine

Dept. FLAL

Jan 2011


Introduction

In Edgar Allan Poe’s works, the concerns of aesthetics, style, and effect are important principles Poe uses. However, when we read some of his works, we may wonder what they really mean. The following parts would focus on one of Poe’s famous short stories—“Ligeia” to discuss one of the important aesthetic principle—death. What is the Poe’s aesthetic of death in “Ligeia”? How does Poe create his own style of the description of death?

First, I would introduce the characteristics of Poe’s works. Some of the characteristics create the atmosphere related to death. I would also give some example to support. And death of beautiful woman in Poe’s work is also the point I would discuss. Then I would move to the differences between Ligeia’s death and Lady Rowena’s by the narrator’s descriptions. Moreover, I would go deeper to interpret the meaning of their death. Finally, I would like to interpret the idea of death by comparing the meaning of the first paragraph and the poem “The Conqueror worm” in Ligeia.

The unusual atmosphere in the whole story

As we all know that “Ligeia” is a short story in the Gothic horror genre. “The gothic genre emphasizes the grotesque elements, the mysterious, the desolate environment, the horrible, the ghostly & ultimately the fear that can be aroused in the reader.” (http://shs.westport.k12.ct.us/palca/romantic_and_gothic_genre.htm) In “Ligeia,” which has all characteristics mentioned above, we can easily feel the atmosphere unusual horror atmosphere in the whole story. For example, the narrator’s use of opium creates obscurity of some plots, adding mysteries and horror in the story. Moreover, some descriptions in the story would make the readers associate them with death. “She came and departed as a shadow.” (Poe 1) The narrator compares a human as a shadow, which is unusual and strange. It seems that the women does not exist in the world, just likes a ghost, which implies the obscurity line between life and death. This kind of association impresses the readers and gives some hints of the following story.


Death of beautiful women

"the death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover" (http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/cpjrn/vol45/early.htm) Beautiful woman generally represents the image of tenderness and it has been a stereo type in that time. However, in Poe’s work “Ligeia,” the role of woman is not similar to common idea of woman. For example, the narrator describes Ligeia’s feature by the use of words loveliness and “strangeness.” She is a woman with strong will and charm. Ligeia and the other woman in the story, Lady Rowena are totally different type of woman. Ligeia is raven-haired from a city by the Rhine while Rowena is a blonde Anglo-Saxon. Lady Rowena, a woman who represents a “normal beauty,” just like it should be. Compared to Rowena, Ligeia is so special and “strange.” Ligeia subvert the common idea of a beautiful woman, which not only makes the whole story impressive but successfully conveys the idea Poe wants to emphasize on.


The meaning behinds the death of two women—from Ligeia to Lady Rowena

Both descriptions of Ligeia’s and Rowena’s death show two women’s totally different responses. Although the there are two woman in the story, we may put more attention on Ligeia, who finally occupy Lady Rowena’s body and revive. From Ligeia’s death to Lady Rowena’s, we can clearly find the some changes in Ligeia.

When Liegia is dying, she asks her husband (the narrator) to read her a poem named “The Conqueror Worm,” which is written by herself. The poem reveals the inevitability of death in life. However, when Ligeia faces death, she starts to question. “O God! O Divine Father! – shall these things be undeviatingly so?”(Poe 5) It seems that she dies without content. She still wants to be alive. “…a low murmur from her lips. I bent to them my ear and distinguished, again, the concluding words of the passage in—‘Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor onto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.’”(Poe 5) She firmly believes in the words that Glanvill has said before she dies. However, even though she has a strong will, she cannot avoid death. She is forced to accept the cruelty of her destiny.

The description before Lady Rowena’s death, however, reveals a more horrible and abnormal atmosphere. Moreover, the image of Ligeia still lingers in the second half of the story. It makes the reader feel the existence of Ligeia. “[. . .] and I saw that there lay upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich luster thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect [. . .]” (Poe 7) Here the image of shadow appears. The narrator once describes Ligeia as a shadow. So we may easily associate the shadow with Ligeia. Besides the shadow, the narrator’s recall of Ligeia also makes the image of Ligeia vivid. In the story, sick Lady Rowena’s condition gets worse but sometimes she becomes better. The uncertainty of Lady Rowena’s death and narrator’s hallucination make the story scary but impressive. In the end of the story, Lady Rowena revives and becomes Ligeia. “Ligeia triumphs over death, takes over Lady Rowena’s body, and comes back to life—or seems to, anyway.” (http://shmoop.com/ligeia/) When Ligeia dies, it seems that it is impossible for her to revive. However, we may be surprised that she finally comes back to her life. The uncertainty of Rowena’s death can be seemed as Ligeia’s struggle for resurrection. Ligeia’s strong will of being alive finally makes her come back to life again.


The Main Idea of death in Ligeia

In “Ligeia”, it shows that death is never the end. A person can overcome death if he or she can have a strong will, just like what Joseph Glanvill says in the first paragraph of the story. The whole story develops based on Glanvill’s statement in the beginning of the story. In the end, Ligeia prove the statement—she revives because her strong desire of becoming alive. However, the poem “The Conqueror Worm” in the story gives the opposite idea. “The poem within the story, ‘The Conqueror Worm’, also leads to some questioning of Ligeia's alleged resurrection. The poem essentially shows an admittance of her own inevitable mortality.” (http://www.enotes.com/topic/Ligeia) It shows the conventional cognition of death— we can do nothing when we face death. Death is something we cannot resist. But Ligeia breaks it at last. The arrangement of the quote from Glanvill and the poem confirm the power of strong will.


Conclusion

From Poe’s writing style and techniques, we can know that he uses many things unusual to create the atmosphere of horror and death. The description has its intention, making the readers know more about the message he wants to convey in the plots. The description of the death of beauties is technique Poe uses in this story. Ligeia, one of the beauties in the story, dies because of the incapability of avoiding death. However, the death of Lady Rowena, the other beauty in the beauty, symbolizes the resurrection of Ligeia. So in “Ligeia,” there is a concrete idea which forms the whole story—strong will can overcome everything, including death. The whole story is constructed by this idea, which makes the story impressive and has a lot of rooms to discuss. Although the whole story is fictitious, the descriptions are realistic, successfully making the readers immerse in the atmosphere of the story and conveying a message that Poe wants to give.

Works Cited

EBAOMONTHLY.COM <http://www.ebaomonthly.com/ebao/readebao.php?eID=e04808>

Gothic Genre <http://shs.westport.k12.ct.us/palca/romantic_and_gothic_genre.htm>

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia’’ 2011 Enotes.com, Inc <http://www.enotes.com/ligeia-text>


Shmoop: Study Guide & Teacher Resources <http://shmoop.com/ligeia/>



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