Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In “Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe has written a love story with a bizarre twist. His unnamed narrator is married to a beautiful, dark-haired woman, with whom he is passionately in love. Poe spends pages describing how their two souls seemed almost like one.
However, after some years together Ligeia falls ill, and it becomes clear her illness is terminal. On her deathbed she confesses her love in so passionate a fashion that her husband is shaken: “For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry.” Although she realizes that she has very little time to live, she cannot resign herself to it, asking God “Are we not part and parcel in thee?” She refuses to believe that she can die, for that would separate her from her beloved, and nothing in heaven and earth could do that.
But she does die. Our narrator mourns her, deeply, but eventually in his loneliness he takes a new bride, Rowena. However, he clearly has not forgotten Ligeia, and shortly comes to loathe his new wife, simply because he still grieves for the old one.
When Rowena too falls ill, our narrator suspects that her sickness is not due to natural causes, but he does his duty by attending her bedside until her death. True, he really isn’t too broken up about it. But he has her wrapped in burial cloths and laid out on the bed, as was common in those days, and he dozes off in a chair in a drug-induced sleep. He is sharply awakened to see the supposedly dead body tottering toward him, still covered by the shroud. As parts of the cloth trail away, however, he discovers to his horror that the shrouded body is not Rowena at all, but Ligeia, who has returned to him as she promised.
Poe was fascinated with the theme of the doppleganger, or double, and in this story there are actually two sets of them. Ligeia, as the narrator’s soulmate, is also his doppelganger; but in death she subsumes the body and the identity of Rowena, actually erasing her as if she’d never existed at all. Her love is, indeed, more powerful than death, which was a central theme for Poe. Poe’s mother died when he was a small child; his best friend’s mother, whom he considered a second mother in his heart, died when Poe was in his teens; and Poe’s wife Virginia was always sickly and died young. Poe’s biographers contend that his obsession with the undead was grounded in the loss of so many people he’d loved. Poe seems to have derived a sort of macabre comfort from the sense that these people were still there, a vital part of his life, separated from him only by the veil of death, and we see this in “Ligeia.”
Death, Poe believed, didn’t really make a person go away; it could always be vanquished by the power of the human soul.
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