Edgar Allan Poe is one of the cornerstones of English literature, prominent particularly in Gothic fiction. Best known for his short stories concerning mystery, Ligeia is a prime example of his earlier works. There were many interpretations of the character of the titular heroine and this article seeks to explore how those changed during the years. The author was particularly proud of this work of his, openly declaring it one of his bests not just once (Schroeter, 1961).
The short story itself was first published in 1838 in the American Museum (Johanyak, 1995) and, regarding its genre, could be categorized as a Gothic romance. The work contains plenty of the genre tropes, such as a dark and gloomy scene, supernatural elements, intense emotions and an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.
The plot narrates the story of the bewitching and extremely clever Ligeia, wife of the unnamed hero, who is unreliable due to his established opium addiction. After her death caused by an crippling illness, her husband enters into another marriage with a woman named Lady Rowena. Unfortunately, Lady Rowena shares Ligeia’s fate –and she also falls ill and perishes. During the night, the unreliable narrator witnesses the revival of his second wife. However, a metamorphosis takes place at the end of the story which changes Lady Rowena into Ligeia.
Despite being a titular character, Ligeia can also be regarded as a mysterious stranger as the narrator – who feels a passionate almost obsessive love towards Ligeia (Carter, 2003) - cannot recall anything about his wife, including the name of her family.
Roy P. Basler, an American historian and critic argues in his article regarding an earlier analysis of the story that is
obviously erroneous when the unknown narrator takes for granted that Ligeia is the main character, that the action of the story is concerned primarily with her struggle to overcome death, that the hero (the narrator) is 'an ordinary character' who functions merely as an 'eyewitness' and as a standard by which the unusual capabilities of the central figure may be measured (1944, p. 364).
In his interpretation (1944), the readership comes to know the traits possessed by Ligeia through the eyes of her husband, who is in an almost crazed state, with his "idolatrous devotion in his every thought, he kept his wife’s physical beauty and personality painfully alive. The acme of womanly beauty and spiritual perfection which easily overcomes him".
Another analysis, written by Schroeter (1961), insists that "an examination of the opening sections of 'Ligeia' reveals that Poe's first six paragraphs form a sequence, which aims at setting forth a complete picture of the heroin” (p. 399). The structure of the opening segment elucidates how the narrator first met Ligeia, laying down the foundations of his obsession. Poe describes the traits of his heroine, her beauty, wit and relationship with several other people. Ligeia’s beauty – especially her eyes, which have much emphasis on them – is depicted in paragraphs three and four. In the last paragraph, Poe recounts her wit and intelligence.
Poe’s unnamed narrator refers to his wife as a 'source of wisdom' which is a surprising declaration due to in that era women were not characters of interest typically, but rather part of the background. Johanyak (1995) declares that "the narrator chooses to view his wife in surreal terms, unable or unwilling to accept her education as a logical or even normal characteristic" which further supports that Ligeia’s well-learnedness was fortunately treated as something alien at worst, instead of with hostility.
In both Basler and Schroeter’s articles, Ligeia is depicted if not as outright benevolent, but at the least in possession of charm and beauty. However, Jack L. Davis and June H. Davis take another stance on this viewpoint. In their interpretation, they fleetingly mention another version of Ligeia’s return which is a "spiritual murder" represented by the action of taking Lady Rowena’s body (Davis, J. L., & Davis, J. H, 1970). While the idea itself is not discussed at length, it is certainly one of the most interesting ones. The two men introduce the concept of Ligeia being a fragment of the narrator’s imagination, an opium-induced fever-dream, so to speak. Ligeia’s unknown history and paternal name resurface again. This time, however, the authors of the article seek a logical explanation beyond what can be easily dismissed as "supernatural events". They write it down as "here the narrator more overtly betrays the nature of his hallucination when he remarks that Ligeia's face had the 'radiance of an opium dream'-this is indeed no ordinary dream figure" (Davis, J. L., & Davis, J. H., 1970, p. 172). Another example can be spotted when "the narrator has just finished describing Ligeia as having absolutely no imperfection - except perhaps the implied imperfection of being unreal” (Davis, J. L., & Davis, J. H., 1970, p. 172).
Joseph Andriano turned back to the supernatural interpretation in his article from 1986 at first. Ligea "is apparently a transcendentalist whose wisdom and learning the narrator had hitherto 'never known in woman'"(Andriano, 1986). The narrator considers his wife "his soul” which returns to him when Ligeia returns in Lady Rowena’s body. Andriano comments on this as Poe's first sentence relates Ligeia to "the narrator's own psyche" (Andriano, 1986). Andriano (1986) is bringing in the thought-provoking concept of Ligea reborn in Rowena’s body as a ploy to symbolize "the doll-bride animated by the man” or "the womanly mother whose stern guidance he submits to" without a middle ground in the "Ideal Feminine" (p. 30.) The reader could take notice of Ligeia's firmness when dealing with the narrator. In their marriage, Ligeia is the one whom her husband is dependent upon in an almost child-like way. After his second wedding, the narrator becomes more adamantine with Lady Rowena, presenting a more confident facade.
Johanyak continues to expand on the idea of Ligeia being a mother-figure for the narrator. Putting her into a maternal role reduces her knowledge and wisdom while the hero is embraced in "her nurturing domesticity" (1995). Her intelligence surpasses many men’s, yet "nineteenth-century Ligeia finds no legitimate place for her unfeminine achievements" such as immense knowledge of classical and modern European languages and metaphysical investigations (Johanyak, 1995).
Ligeia can also be regarded as the new form of a Muse, who can revive the creative flow of an artist. In the narrator’s eyes, Ligeia is larger than life. She is all-encompassing, eternal and glorious. These thoughts might come to the surface influenced by opium and fan the flames of obsession. Still, the unnamed hero cannot be free from her, nor does he want to since he always felt safe with her. Carter (2003) describes Ligeia in the article as someone whose "voice is music or song; her hand is marble, the material of sculpture; her presence is a vision" (p. 49). On one hand, these beautiful words can be understood as exaggerations of her charming features. On the other hand, what if her traits are really so perfect? This description could certainly fit a supernatural being who is without any flaw or fault. Ligeia gently guides the narrator and shares her studies and knowledge with him. Again, the fact that the author can not recall anything about Ligeia prior to their first encounter is suspicious. Another element that should not be disregarded is that Ligeia’s name is borrowed from a mythological creature, a siren. In line with that, the narrator is drawn toward madness through his love and obsession for Ligeia who beckons him with her beauty, gentleness and cleverness. Carter is more convinced about the heroine’s muse state by "the narrator's obsession with Ligeia's eyes - that is, with her vision" (2003).
Elisabete Lopes takes on a more feminist approach when analysing the short story. The titular character in her depiction is someone who "is haunting the narrative [...] , more of a ghost than a material presence" (Lopes, 2010, p. 41). Ligeia’s gentle, almost soundless footsteps, shadow-like mien and soft voice also give her an ephemeral quality. Similar to looking at someone through a veil, the wife of the narrator is also displaced from the text (Lopes, 2010). In this regard, Ligeia’s ghostly presence is broken one time: "the outwardly calm, the ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion" (Poe, 1938, para. 5).
In conclusion, in the years following the publication of Ligeia, the interpretations of Poe's short story greatly varied. Altough her name serves as the title of the work, she was actually deemed as a background character in the beginning of scholarly research. In fact, she was observed through the eyes of her husband if he did not outright replace her as the most important part of the story. In the later years, the focus was nevertheless shifted on her due to academics discovering the richness of her character on her own. An interesting metamorphosis can be observed in the analysis of her character by researching the works chronologically. When appraised as a mere part of her husband's story, Ligeia is deemed to be someone docile; a wife, a friend and a maternal figure to the narrator. When evaluated on her own in modern times, she is claimed to have a darker, more complex personality. Alas, in the end, the interpretation of her character is completely depending on the reader of the text.
Andriano, J. (1986). Archetypal projection in “Ligeia”: A Post-Jungian reading. Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, 19(2), 27–31.
Basler, R. P. (1944). The interpretation of “Ligeia.” College English, 5(7), 363–372.
Carter, C. (2003). “Not a woman”: The murdered muse in “Ligeia.” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, 36, 45–57.
Davis, J. L., & Davis, J. H. (1970). Poe’s ethereal Ligeia. The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, 24(4), 170–176.
Johanyak, D. (1995). Poesian Feminism: Triumph or tragedy. CLA Journal, 39(1), 62–70.
Lopes, E. (2010). Unburying the Wife: A Reflection upon the female uncanny in Poe’s “Ligeia.” The Edgar Allan Poe Review, 11(1), 40–50.
Schroeter, J. (1961). A Misreading of Poe’s “Ligeia.” PMLA, 76(4), 397–406.
Cover figure: Shaw, B. (1909). Ligeia. [Illustration]. Old Book Illustrations. Retrieved from: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/ligeia/
Figure 1: Anonymous. (n.d.). The paradox of Ligeia and Lady Rowena. Tumblr. Retrieved from: https://egl350poe.tumblr.com/post/25669574481/paradox-of-ligeia-and-lady-rowena
Figure 2: Clarke, H. (1919). "Ligeia" [Illustration]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ligeia#/media/File:Ligeia-Clarke.jpg
Figure 3: Rackham, A. (1935). "Ligeia." [Illustration from Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:35_rackham_poe_ligeia.jpg
Figure 4: Rackham, A. (1935). "Ligeia." [Illustration Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:34_rackham_poe_ligeia.jpg