Poe and the Quest for the Unknown

by Hannah Bennet

After almost two hundred years since their publication date, Edgar Allan Poe’s short tales still resonate with the experiences of modern readers. Intrigue, conflict, and hints at the supernatural allow the stories to retain their relevancy in today’s commercial market. A common thread connecting his stories involves the blurring of the line between the real and the supernatural, often manifesting in a pre-Freudian discussion of mental health. This sort of tale is termed supernatural not because of the subject matter itself, but the way the subject matter is handled. The stories are supernatural due to their inability to describe the psychological state in words to which the modern reader is accustomed. This is no fault of the text, however, as the words simply had not yet been created. Some stories, however, were not relegated to the genre of the supernatural because there was nowhere else to put them—some intentionally dealt with unknown realms. Poe’s short tale “Ligeia,” written in 1838, is an engaging example of the author’s ability to create an ambiguous blend of psychological intrigue and the supernatural. The introduction of drug use in the form of opium complicates the situation further, manifesting itself in a complex battle between realities experienced by the narrator. 

The tale is told by a widower recounting his first and second marriages—the first to the Lady Ligeia, who takes sick and passes, which is quickly followed by the sickness and death of his second wife, the Lady Rowena of Tremaine. The apparition in the form of the dead Ligeia at the close of the narrative hints at an otherworldly presence. The quality of the narrative is grounded to such an extent in the physical world of Lady Rowena’s sickroom that the supernatural resurrection of the dead Ligeia produces a palpable feeling of surprise in the reader. The ethereal qualities of Ligeia’s characterization, coupled with the extensive grounding of her description in references to ancient divinities, gives readers the indication that Poe may have intended for Ligeia to be a figure from a higher plane of existence. Despite clues to the contrary, there is ample evidence that Ligeia is the narrator’s connection to a different reality, and her resurrection at the end of the tale is symbolic of his ultimate and final unification with her realm.

Before beginning a discussion of that which is real and that which is not within the text, it may be helpful to set forward a working definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word reality as “the quality or state of being real.” This leads one to the word real, denoted as “having an objective existence; actually existing physically as a thing, substantial; not imaginary” (OED). The use of the word objective is significant; if a keystone of reality is objectivity, then it may be a fool’s errand to attempt to grasp the reality within a text entirely narrated by a character dependent on both drugs and an intoxicating cocktail of his own grief, loneliness, and misery. The reader’s only available lens through which to approach the world of the text is that of the narrator’s experience. The most reliable way, then, to read an entirely and inherently unreliable text (deemed as such by the narrator’s unstable grasp on the reality shared by this author and the reader), may be for the reader to surrender to the reality of the text. 

Throughout the story, Ligeia’s existence is never questioned. The method through which the narrator characterizes her, however, casts some doubt on the issue. It is useful when reading, in this instance, to remind oneself to submit to the reality of the text. When, for example, the narrator describes Ligeia in the context of his own reality, her characterization suggests images of visions in the night, fever dreams, and drug-fueled hallucinations. He says, of Ligeia, that “she came and departed like a shadow” (1163). Poe might be asking the reader to trust this indubitably unreliable narrator—and in return, the protagonist may be telling the truth of what he knew and saw. What makes the information so difficult to process – what makes the situation supernatural – is that Ligeia exists as a startlingly concrete figure within the story. If she is real to the narrator then what else can the reader do but believe that she exists—without any contradicting evidence to make one believe otherwise. But in addition, her existence is grounded in a completely different world from that of the narrator. She exists in his world, but she is of another. Poe may be attempting to posit that Ligeia is from another reality—a heightened plane of existence—unlocked by the narrator through his drug use.

The repeated drug use explains away some of the reasons one might believe Ligeia does not exist. Despite the extent to which he romanticizes and laments her loss, the narrator does not remember where he met his first wife. Poe writes in the very first lines “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia” (1162). Faulty memory is part of the human experience; when an event takes place, however, as lifechanging as meeting one’s true love, it is difficult to believe that the event could be forgotten in the fog of time. If the narrator happened to be exceedingly old, it would probably be noted in the text; his lack of memory of an event so important, therefore, is suspicious. But it makes sense that one’s days could blend together when one is so dependent on such a mind-altering substance. The narrator does not see fit to mention when he began taking opium, so it is reasonable to assume that the practice is habitual and longstanding, making it more reasonable that he does not remember how or where he met his first wife. 

Like a recurring dream, the character’s engagement with his wife has the distinct quality of always having been a presence—never beginning, never ending. There is no indication of when our hero’s affair with opiates began, and so the two relationships exist, intertwined, from the beginning. Ligeia’s characterizations are shadowed by the narrator’s drug use. Poe writes, of Ligeia’s face – “it was the radiance of an opium dream – an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos” (1163). He acknowledges the intoxicating beauty of the haze characteristic of “an opium dream,” and then goes on to make a reference to “the Aegean island where the Greek gods Apollo and Artemis were born and protected by maidens” (editorial footnote, 1163), creating an association in the mind of the reader with Ligeia and ancient Greek mythology. 

As a parting thought, the reader is asked to read, once again, the epigraph at the beginning of the tale—a long-winded quotation about the power of will credited to Joseph Glanvill. The quotation, however, was never said or written by the author (1162). In attributing a fictitious quotation to Joseph Glanvill, Poe offers to the reader a new way of seeing the text. The smattering of lines about the power of will function as a focal suggestion for readers. Even when confronted with the fact that there is no record of Glanvill ever saying or writing those words, the quotation does not lose its meaning or function. What was Poe’s intention when creating a false attribution? Was the ring of truth what he wanted, or did he use a well-known member of the English clergy as a way of grounding the text—the tale—in the reality of the reader? Poe may have been making a statement about the efficacy of the tale, and willpower, as a way of accessing a higher reality—and that it may not be what is real or true to all that helps one access a higher plane of existence. 

Works Cited –

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature; Volume 1: Beginnings to 1865. Ed. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2014. 1162-1172. Print.

“reality, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158934. Accessed 8 April 2018.

“real, adj.2, n.2, and adv.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/158926. Accessed 8 April 2018.