Although all writers have their obsessions and fixations, Edgar Allan Poe is known for being an author that both writes of obsession and is obsessive in his explorations of certain topics, one of his most famous being dead or dying women. Within both his poetry and prose are bereaved lovers of quasi-magical women. Focussing more on his tales though, the women of supernatural qualities of intellect and beauty die in some non-descript manner (usually epilepsy or something similar to consumption, except in the case of the pregnant “Morella”) and return in some way to haunt the narrator, either through an unnatural resurrection or because of a premature burial. The narrators within these tales also follow similar patterns: the narrator is often unreliable, having lapses in memory or being unable to differentiate dreams from reality[i]. There always seems to be a misreading or misunderstanding of the woman by the narrator, for example, the artist not noticing his bride is wasting away in “The Oval Portrait” or Egaeus not knowing Berenice is still alive. Poe remarks in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”[ii]; however, Poe does not consistently invoke these supernal women merely
for aesthetic purposes but to convey a specific allegorical meaning. By taking a comparative approach to his tales instead of
viewing them in isolation, we can see consistencies in the women’s appearance, personality, and within the plots that all speak to a specific underlying message. Poe’s works are, to use a term from Jodey Castricano, cryptomimetic. In her discussion mainly of Derrida’s work, Castricano says that the term “cryptomimesis…draws attention to a writing predicated upon encryption: the play of revelation and concealment lodged within parts of individual works”[iii]. Cryptomimesis functions to produce, in part “paraliterature”, which is a hybrid of literature and criticism, art and science. Poe’s tales are framing devices, producing an uncanny space or artificial unconscious[iv]. I argue that Poe invokes the longstanding Western trope of “woman as muse/creative inspiration” within “Berenice”, “Morella”, and “Ligeia” to elucidate the disturbing and disruptive qualities of the creative process, thus wedding fiction and criticism. I will be looking at the physical descriptions of the women, as well as examining the interactions of the women with the narrators.
Before delving into the specifics in these tales, I want to briefly address the question of sexism and misogyny within Poe’s works; this question arises frequently within recent Poe research. Apart from it being unrealistic and unhelpful to try to hold a figure from the past by contemporary standards, feminist or literalist readings of the text can sometimes miss out on general and Gothic-specific symbolism (a convention within which Poe was very much working in). Catherine Carter argues that the question of whether or not Poe can be said to be “feminist” is essentially misleading, drawing us into a “yes” or “no” dichotomy[v] instead of considering what work Poe is actually doing with his female figures in the text, or thinking of what traditions he is operating within. Not just within Poe but generally, a female character is often read as saying something specific about gender in a way a male character does not. Fixating on the gender of these characters is reductive: you miss a lot when your prime focus when looking into the women’s “true nature” is gender.
Poe uses within Gothic tropes and conventions in writing these tales but also takes inspiration from other literary conventions in Western literature. Within Gothic literature there is usually a “damsel in distress” within a decaying castle. “Berenice”, “Morella” and “Ligeia” all take place within castles and feature women in some form of dismay or trouble. Furthermore, and most importantly, Muses or creative inspiration has been represented as women long before Poe (think of the Muses from Greek mythology, or Dante’s Beatrice, or Petrarch’s Laura). If we look at the descriptions of the women in these tales, we will see that Poe was creating less of actual characters and more archetypes. There is also speculation, especially with “Ligeia” about whether she could be read completely metaphorically.
The descriptions and physical appearances of the women indicate that they are “more than” women or have allegorical significance beyond their literal characters. It can be difficult to divorce these female characters from their gender especially because they all carry many traits traditionally thought of as feminine in the literature of the time. None of the women are ugly or even average looking, but instead have a sort of preternatural beauty and are objects of desire, subject to the male narrator’s gaze[vi]. The women are pale, emphasising their ethereality and high foreheads, indicating a focus on the intellect and mind: Berenice is “very pale”[vii], Morella’s “blue veins upon [her] pale forehead became prominent”[viii], Ligeia’s forehead is “lofty and pale” and her hands are like “marble”[ix]. Considering the nineteenth century pseudoscience of phrenology, something Poe mentions within “Murders at the Rue Morgue”, a high forehead to a phrenologist would indicate increased intelligence, probably an upper-class background and discerning taste. All of the women have raven, or black hair, although Berenice’s “once jetty hair” becomes a “vivid yellow”[x] when she is declining. Lady Rowena in “Ligeia” noticeably has blonde hair and blue eyes, standing apart from Poe’s archetypal women. Rowena’s difference is significant because it indicates even more that the primary women in these tales occupy a certain space in Poe symbolism, Lady Rowena, not representing a Muse, or being an inadequate replacement, does not fit the physical type. Unlike the ethereal Ligeia, Rowena represents the earthly and mundane: the narrator knows her last name Trevanion, and knows where she comes from in Tremaine. Ligeia by contrast is much more mysterious, the narrator has “never known her paternal name”[xi]. Making all these women something that appears very similar to the “Dark Lady” stock character is purposeful; even in 1838 these descriptions were hardly original comparisons, constructing the women more as archetypes than actual characters. The otherworldly qualities of these women emphasis that these women represent a type of transcendent knowledge, something outside the realm of the everyday as Lady Rowena represents.
The ways the narrators interact with the women also indicate their allegorical purpose beyond merely being objects of desire in Gothic tales. Although the narrators idealize the women and denies them any substantial voice in the tales, there does not seem to be primarily a sexual desire between the narrators and the women, but an intellectual fascination. Any indication of passion would detract from their representation of otherworldly knowledge. Within “Berenice”, Egaeus insists, “in the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings, with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind”[xii]. The narrator from “Morella” informs us “the fires [for Morella] were not of Eros”[xiii] that he is interested in her because she is learned. There are some critics who argue that the narrators are making excuses and essentially lying to the readers, that they are repressing sexual desire; there is a case that could be made for this viewpoint, especially because many narrators are unreliable, having lapses in memory. An example of this unreliability is Egaeus not remembering pulling Berenice’s teeth or when the main character in “Ligeia” cannot recall her paternal name or where he met her. That being said, even though the narrators are sometimes unreliable I do not think they would lie to the readers considering the insistence they have in telling tales in great detail, even ones “which should not be told”[xiv] as in “Berenice”, or in the meticulous description of Rowena’s fateful bridal chamber. The reason why the narrators have such an intellectual fascination with these women is because they are for the most part all very learned or possess some knowledge or secret the narrator wants. Morella’s “talents were of no common order—her powers of mind were gigantic. I felt this, and, in many matters, became her pupil”[xv]. Consider how the narrator is learning from Morella and in rather intellectual advanced subject matter: German literature and philosophy. The German literature that fascinates Morella “in process of time [the studies] became [the narrator’s] own”[xvi], showing that Morella is inspiring the narrator in ways he would not have been leaning before, one of the characteristics of a muse. Ligeia, too, is learned, perhaps even more so than Morella: the narrator comments that the learning of Ligiea was “immense” and that “Indeed upon any theme of the most admired, because simply the most abstruse of the boasted erudition of the academy, have I ever found Ligeia at fault?”[xvii]. The relationship between the narrators and the women, especially Ligeia and Morella is that of a teacher and student more than lovers. Carter observes that Ligeia guides the narrator in his studies and that she visits him in his study, not in the bedroom or outside—if Ligeia were the narrator’s anima or merely an object of desire she might visit him anywhere, but focusing on the study emphasises her role in his intellectual pursuits[xviii]. Also significant, Ligeia “came and departed as a shadow” (112), the same way that inspiration may appear and leave at random. “Berenice” differs slightly within the trinity because she is not a scholar, but nonetheless she possesses something the narrator fixates on and strives to understand more about: her teeth. The universe of “Berenice” is one obsessed with reading and study: Egaeus’s mother births him in the library and in the library, he spends most of his life. Some of the only times he leaves the study or even stands up within the tale is either hearing of Berenice’s death or leaving to extract her teeth. There have been many speculations about what the teeth mean symbolically: Brown believes the teeth represent the impossibility of death, partly because teeth are the part of a human face that remains after death[xix], Dayan argues that the pulling of Berenice’s teeth is the retrieval of identity[xx], and Freedman argues that Egaeus’s plight is being born into “world as text” and that the obsession with Berenice’s teeth is Poe’s ironic comment on any attempt to possess the symbol and so gain access to the realm of the ideal[xxi]. I think one of the strengths of Poe’s “Berenice” is precisely the ambiguity of the teeth symbolism. Regardless of what the teeth might specifically symbolise, either way Egaeus is attempting to extract or gain some knowledge from Berenice that he cannot possess without her, thus fitting her into the muse trifecta with Morella and Ligeia.
Something I have notably not mentioned for the sake of brevity is the wasting away of the women. Although this aspect of the tales warrants further analysis, I will say that the ultimate release of women from life allows the narrator to pursue the knowledge they hold unfettered by the risk of earthly passions, something that Poe believes has no place in poetry. Within “The Poetic Principle”, Poe remarks that “the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem…the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection”[xxii]. There is no better way within the tales to subdue passion than to take away temptation of the earthly flesh of the women/muses entirely. Although “Berenice”, “Morella”, and “Ligeia” are all tales that focus on female objects of desire, it is misleading to immediately think of them in gendered rather than allegorical terms. Poe is operating within a framework that depicts women as creative inspiration/muses and uses that archetype to explore the labours and suffering of artistic creation within his tales.
[i] Webb, Jenny. “Fantastic Desire: Poe, Calvino, and the Dying Woman.” The Comparatist, 35. (2011): 216.
[ii] Poe, Edgar Allan“The Poetic Principle.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 548.
[iii] Castricano, Jodey. Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing. Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s Press: 2001: 7.
[iv] Ibid: 82.
[v] Carter, Catherine. “‘Not a Woman’: The Murdered Muse in ‘Ligeia’. Poe Studies. 36.1. (2003): 45-57. Accessed 12 January 2014: 46.
[vi] Ibid: 48.
[vii] Poe, Edgar Allan. “Berenice.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006:102.
[viii] —.“Morella.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 106-107.
[ix]—.“Ligeia.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 112.
[x] “Berenice”: 102.
[xi] “Ligeia”: 111.
[xii] “Berenice”: 101.
[xiii] “Morella”: 105
[xiv] “Berenice: 102
[xv] “Morella”: 105
[xvii] “Ligeia”: 113.
[xviii] Carter, 50.
[xix] Brown, Arthur A. “Literature and the Impossibility of Death: Poe’s ‘Berenice.’” Nineteenth Century Literature. 50.4. (1996): 459.
[xx] Dayan, Joan. “The Identity of Berenice, Poe’s Idol of the Mind.” Studies in Romanticism. 23.4. (1984): 513.
[xxi] Freedman, William. “‘Berenice’ and the Art of Incorporative Exclusion.” Poe Studies. 36.1. (2003): 68.
[xxii] Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Poetic Principle.” The Portable Poe. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. New York: Penguin Group, 2006: 562.