Suffused with a gloom reminiscent of that of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia” remains one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best-known stories. It achieves Poe’s goal of the “single effect” through the narrator’s focus on Ligeia, his deceased wife. In a tightly knit plot that relies on sensational incidents, the narrator’s sharp focus on Ligeia leads to the stunning and ambiguous denouement. In the tale Poe also makes use of the unreliable narrator whom the reader must constantly distrust.
This powerful tale about Ligeia, a strong-willed woman who wills herself back to life in the body of Rowena, the narrator’s second wife, may be read, as critic Gordon Weaver observes, as a story of either madness or the occult (Current-García 67). Clearly the narrator is obsessed with Ligeia. Having remarried, he treats his second wife abominably as he recalls for the readers the history of his relationship with Ligeia. We notice Poe’s careful references to the narrator’s opium habit and the overly rich, sensuous gloom in the castle apartment in which he and Rowena live, but feel mesmerized by the narrator’s description of Ligeia. The suspense builds incrementally, and only when we see that Ligeia has entered Rowena’s body do we realize the many questions the narrative raises.
Poe leaves many of the details of the story mysterious and unresolved. The narrator cannot remember Ligeia’s surname, for example, nor can he recall the name of the city where they met; these lapses seem distinctly odd in the narrative of an undying love. He may indeed be mad, he may indeed be suffering the extreme effects of opium, and most readers can accept the ghost of Ligeia and her reappearance in another’s body. With those interpretations, the story remains a masterpiece of suspense, of horror, of obsessive men. Yet another interpretation is possible, however, from a feminist viewpoint: If one understands the narrator’s tone in much the way one understands the tone of the Duke in Robert Browning’s later poem, “My Last Duchess,” Ligeia’s character becomes the reason for the narrator’s anger as well as madness. Her erudition, her brilliance, her voluptuousness, as well as her forceful personality may well have plagued her husband until he had no choice but to kill her. Moreover, many critics have pointed to the poem-within-the-story as performing a function similar to that same device in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Indeed, the “Conqueror Worm” of the husband’s poem in “Ligeia” has both phallic and murderous connotations. Having killed the strong wife so odious to him, the narrator may then have used Ligeia’s fortune to buy the castle and marry her foil. Viewed in this way, Ligeia, as does Madeline Usher, becomes the avenging woman who refuses to allow the narrator a peaceful moment, underscored with his hysterical, desperate calling of her name at the end of the story.
Whatever interpretation the reader chooses, Poe, once again, demonstrates his genius in continuing to puzzle, to terrify, above all to intrigue his readers even a century and a half removed from him. With Poe we always feel that he has more to tell us, could we but fathom the psychological depths of his artistry.
Current-García, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: Studies in the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” In Heath Anthology of American Literature, 3rd ed. Edited by Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1,450–1,461.